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Accessibility, discrimination, and WCAG 2.0

From: Charles F. Munat <chas@munat.com>
Date: Sat, 21 Oct 2000 19:53:43 -0700
To: "WAI Interest Group \(E-mail\)" <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>
Message-ID: <002001c03bd3$4af1c230$b021e7d8@aries>
Over the past few weeks this list has seen much discussion about the meaning
of accessibility and the role that graphics and multimedia play in helping
people with cognitive disabilities. One of the points made in this
discussion is that text-only sites are unfair to people with cognitive
disabilities. I don't think that this is necessarily the case, and I'd like
to explain why. I realize that I will be vilified by some for expressing a
view that may seem at first rather politically incorrect.

Over the past fifty years great strides have been made in making our
societies fairer and more just. The civil rights movement, the feminist
movement, the gay rights movement, and the efforts to increase access for
people with disabilities have brought us much closer to a truly egalitarian
society. In the process, the word "discrimination" has become associated
with narrow-mindedness, bigotry, and injustice. The result is a sort of
knee-jerk reaction on the part of many whenever an action appears

I propose, however, that discrimination is not only positive, but also vital
to our survival as a species. We discriminate thousands of times a day, most
often without any conscious thought. When I choose what I want to eat, where
I want to go, what I want to say or do, I am discriminating. When we grade
our students, critique our art, reward the winners of contests, or present
awards and prizes for outstanding performance, we are engaging in
discrimination. Yet who would argue that these acts of discrimination are

In fact, our laws are discriminatory. That's their entire point. They
discriminate between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Should we do away
with laws because they discriminate?

Discrimination is only a problem when it is *unfair* discrimination, that is
when the basis for the discrimination is irrelevant to the situation at
hand. For example, if I charge a higher price to some clients because of
their sexual preferences (or their sex or their color, etc.), I am
discriminating unfairly. Sexual preference, sex, color, etc. is irrelevant
to the service I provide. Put another way, there is nothing unfair about
imprisoning a rapist, but there is something very unfair when an
African-American rapist gets life while a European-American rapist
committing the same crime gets five years. In both instances we are
discriminating, but in one we are discriminating very unfairly.

Viewed in Web terms, if I design a real estate site in a manner that makes
it inaccessible to the blind, I've discriminated unfairly. Vision or lack of
same is not relevant to the sale of real estate. On the other hand, if I'm
building a site to train city bus drivers, is it unfair to deny access to
the blind? It might be if there were information available not directly
related to driving a bus, but in the absence of such information, I contend
that it is not unfairly discriminatory. Blind people do not drive buses.

When we are dealing with issues such as vision, hearing, or physical
disabilities, it is not that difficult to decide when discrimination is
unfair. But when we get into the realm of cognitive disabilities, things get
tricky rather quickly.

To me, the key to deciding whether a site is discriminating unfairly or
fairly is audience. To whom is the site addressed? If a site is intended to
bring doctors up to date on the latest techniques for microsurgery, I don't
think it's reasonable to expect them to rewrite the text to make it
understandable by lay persons, let alone by a user with Down's Syndrome. But
that's an extreme example. Let's try one a little more complicated:

Should the IRS site be designed to accommodate those who cannot read?

I say: maybe. Or rather: partially.

I am a reasonably bright guy with a good grasp of English. Frankly, the
standard 1040 form is pretty close to Greek to me already. Yes, I'm all for
explaining the form simply (or better yet, simplifying the form itself), but
I must ask, if a person can't read or write, how is he to complete the form?
And if a person has a serious learning disorder, should he even attempt such
a task? Perhaps a better solution is to provide free filing assistance to
people with cognitive disabilities (or better yet, to everyone).

If there is a reasonable chance of making a part of the IRS site
understandable to a person with a learning disability, then by all means
make it understandable. But where do we draw the line? Some seem to think
that all such lines are evil, but I disagree. There is a point where such
efforts become an exercise in futility.

Another consideration is cost. In a perfect world, cost would be no object.
But then in a perfect world, there would be no disabilities. The reality is
that most web sites are cash strapped to begin with. Providing multiple
translations, commissioning graphics or multimedia, etc. is expensive. Most
of my clients can barely afford a site, let alone expensive graphics and

I'm not concerned about scaring away giant corporations with the WCAG
because a) frankly, they can afford it and b) no-one is going to scare them
away anyway. But I am concerned about pricing small businesses, non-profit
organizations, and individuals out of the Web. If you think that telling
people NOT to use graphics is off-putting, try telling them that they MUST
use graphics.

So what does this have to do with the WCAG? Well, take a look at the current
working draft of version 2.0:


Pay particular attention to Guideline 3: Design for ease of comprehension.
There are many items here that give me pause, but to keep this posting to an
only slightly outrageous length, consider 3.7: Supplement text with graphic
or auditory presentations where they will facilitate comprehension of the

Let's say that I wrote a novel and I decide to put the full text on-line for
people to download. Is my site inaccessible because I didn't supplement the
novel with pictures? But as published on paper it had no pictures. The
reason? The intended audience was readers. The on-line version is identical,
but suddenly it's inaccessible? Would my site be denied a AAA rating based
on this?

And if the WCAG should at some point become enforced by law (certainly
within the realm of possibility), would my site be illegal? And if so, would
my paperback novel be illegal also? Should all novels be forced into comic
book format from here out?

As you can see, this is not a simple issue and the answers are not, IMO,

I think that Wayne Myers was right on the money when he wrote about
accessibility vs. understandability. It is one thing to ensure that
documents are available to everyone regardless of disability. It is quite
another to try to make them understandable. The current draft of WCAG 2.0
blurs the line between these two concepts even further than WCAG 1.0 did. As
I see it, Guideline 3 is more "nice to do" than "need to do." Whether it's
suggestions apply depends on both the purpose of a site and it's intended
audience. A government site intended for the general public might need to
follow all of these guidelines (and the funds to make that possible should
be made available). But another site, such as my hypothetical on-line novel,
might not need to follow any of the suggestions in Guideline 3 to
satisfactorily serve it's intended audience.

Finally, consider this:

What if a person with a cognitive disability wants to put up a web site?
Should he or she be required to comply with the WCAG? (Not an easy
proposition since the guidelines are text-only and the language is certainly
not "the clearest and simplest language appropriate for a site's content.")
If a blind man builds a web site, does he have to include graphics? If a
deaf woman builds a site, must it include audio?

I don't know that I have the answers to these questions or even that there
are simple answers. As the current draft of WCAG 2.0 stands, I like section
3. I think the suggestions are good suggestions. But I also think that they
require good powers of, yes, discrimination. I worry about how they may be i
nterpreted in a world where most people seem to prefer black and white. I
also wonder how we are going to measure understandability. It is one thing
to say that site A doesn't work on screen reader B or that site C provides
visual information not accessible to blind users. How do we decide when a
site is understandable enough? WCAG 2.0 says "appropriate for a site's
content," but who decides this?

I wonder if anyone else on this list has had any thoughts on this matter...

Charles F. Munat
Seattle, Washington
Received on Saturday, 21 October 2000 22:48:46 UTC

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