Accessibility, The Law and Social Responsibility

17 Jun

In Andy Clarke’s recent post on why he believes that accessibility shouldn’t be enforceable by law he made reference to Foucault’s theories of social control and how such controls seek to obviate responsibility from individuals to protest what they feel to be injustices.

As it stands on the surface Andy’s argument is spot on. Foucalt says that (in essence) once a law governing an aspect of human behaviour is codified its akin to society saying ‘we don’t need to care about that anymore’ and that the resultant law can never be as well intentioned as the masses refusing to accept a certain behaviour. Again, its all true.

Unfortunately, its a bad argument to use to support the position that no laws are better than laws when it comes to accessibility. Why? Firstly because of the people this law seeks to make responsible. Unlike individuals, businesses are primarily concerned with profit. And thats as it should be. If we accept that we live in a capitalist society then the aim of generating profit is a good thing. However, as we all know, businesses take this aspect too far on occasion. For us to take Foucalt seriously in the context that Andy has used him we have to believe that business is responsible and concerned a large percentage of the time. Ask yourself if you believe that to be the case. We also have to believe that big business is capable of large scale acceptance of the needs of minority groups. Ask yourself if you believe that to be the case.

The truth is that big business will by and large voluntarily do nothing that might impinge on their profit margin (except in instances where a ‘loss leader’ is seen as a viable option). Do we believe that if enough people protested outside the London office of Nike about their appalling practice of exploitation that they would stop? Or do we believe that they would simply ignore it and/or relocate their offices or possibly make cursory gestures and trumpet them loudly in glossy ad campaigns?

The second reason its a bad argument is to do with the people that this affects. And lets make no mistake – this affects people. When we say we build accessible websites, I think that we sometimes forget that this phrase hides a whole section of society of people. I’ve grown increasingly worried about the amount of people who strive to get their site to validate with Bobby or Cynthia or even the WCAG but in the urge to make it pass, totally forget that its supposed to benefit people. In this sense accessibility is vastly more important than web standards. Whilst I totally accept that web standards are vital they don’t have the same day-to-day impact on people that the concept of accessibility does.

And when we do actually get around to talking about the people behind the phrase we talk mainly about people with a visual disability – a group that is numerically vastly less significant than all but 2 other groupings of disability in the UK. Why do we do this? Is it because its simply the easiest problem to address? Is it because thats the emphasis the WAI put on WCAG1.0? However, please consider the numbers below:

According to statistics provided by the DDA, the breakdown of people with a disability who would fall under the act is as follows (broken down by type of disability):

Type of Disability Number of People (millions)
Lifting and carrying 7m
Mobility 6m
Physical co-ordination 5.6m
Learning and understanding 3.9m
Seeing and hearing 2.5m
Manual dexterity 2.3m
Continence 1.6m
Total 29.6m

From these statistics I feel we can safely remove ‘lifting and carrying’ and ‘continence’; neither of which would add to the difficulties of using a website. Doing this leaves us with:

Type of Disability Number of People (millions)
Mobility 6m
Physical co-ordination 5.6m
Learning and understanding 3.9m
Seeing and hearing 2.5m
Manual dexterity 2.3m
Total 20.3m

As we can then see, there are two main groupings; physical and learning based disabilities. In our adjusted group, those with a learning disability equal 19.22% of the overall total of people in the UK who fall under the jurisdiction of the DDA and who we would also expect to be adversely affected by inaccessible websites. If a strong enough argument could be made for including the two sub-groups of people I removed from the equation then this percentage would be a little over 13%. Whichever way one looks at it, it’s a high percentage. A much higher percentage for example than say, people who use Mozilla or Opera and yet strenuous efforts are made by standards aware designers not to exclude these users. At the recent @media presentation why did attendees witness someone using a Screenreader? Why didn’t they witness a user with Downs Syndrome trying to use a website?

One of the features of some learning disabilities is that the resultant behaviour governed by the condition in question leads the person to not be in a position to advocate. I am not saying they are incapable due to a lack of intelligence, rather, what I am saying is that some people are not able to advocate in such a public way as might be required for businesses to take note. Or even, if we are honest, for society at large to take note. An example: for some autistics, their condition leads them to be very uncomfortable around people and they find social interaction distressing and actively painful. It simply unreasonable to expect someone in this situation to be able to commit to a prolonged media campaign of advocacy and awareness raising. In which case we should do it for them right? These are people with whom we share a common belief of accessibility for all – aside from putting compliance badges on our websites and saying how jolly nice it would be if everyone cared as much as we do, what have we actually done?

It is these people, this 19 or so percent, that legislation is vital for. I am not claiming that the law in the UK is any good as its not, its far too ambiguous. Neither am I saying that we should abandon our social responsibility to others and assume the law will take care of everything for us. What I am saying is that whilst the law is not very well implemented and needs to be much tighter and more specific that the underlying aim of this particular law is a good one and in the absence of businesses growing a social conscience or web designers joining disability rights marches it serves a purpose: to protect the rights and freedoms of a section of people who are most vulnerable.

9 Responses to “Accessibility, The Law and Social Responsibility”

  1. Prabhath Sirisena June 17, 2005 at 12:10 #

    We’ve relied on advocates for web standards and the progress is lamentable. Accessibility is a much more important issue, and if left for advocates to drill the idea in to the society, I just can’t see those big “corporate citizens” buying that idea.

    We also have to keep in mind that not all websites are from US or Europe. The rest of the world has always lagged behind when it comes to web technologies, and convincing someone in Sri Lanka, for example, without Section 508 or DDA would be impossible.

    If the advocates themselves do not find adhering to the law a problem, and if “scaring away” potential adopters is the reason against legislation, I would always vote for the law. The real world needs concrete solutions.

  2. Robert Wellock June 17, 2005 at 13:36 #

    I’d agree with point about learning difficulties being more prevalent than those with a visual disability. Most people forget that fact and yes the article which was written was flawed in the supporting evidence hence why I pointed-out that fact.

    The general theme that people should really think about the person rather than being bashed by the government wasn’t too bad however the article was misleading and didn’t really say that.

    The point – which I purposely left-out originally – was there has to be a good symbiosis and feedback between the government and the website author.

  3. Marcin Krawiec June 17, 2005 at 17:01 #

    I don’t have enough time to read all this entry carefully now, but I’ve noticed a mistake in your statistics tables.

    Taken from DDA site:
    “* Numbers add to more than 11.7m as people could report more than one condition.”

  4. Kev June 17, 2005 at 17:26 #

    I think its a matter of interpretation Marcin – I agree that my projected percentage may be off but I was going for a ‘best case’ scenario – if we assume the figures literally then the actual percentage of those with a learning difficulty is around 33%.

  5. Maxine Sherrin June 18, 2005 at 03:02 #

    Your comment above Kev (and others commenting on Andy’s original article) regarding the fact that a corporation’s sole responibility is to its shareholders I think sums up the wrongheadedness of the “legislation does more harm than good argument”.

    There may be large numbers of people with various disabilities, so on the one hand you might argue that the wonderfully intelligent market will recognise these people and, driven by their profit motive, cater to them. But anyone who works in this area knows what BS this is.

    The sad and terrible fact is that people with disabilities are marginalised both socially and financially, so it rare that they become attractive market segments.

    I see legislation here as being a necessary safety net. Yes, there are arguments that legislation will encourage a “box ticking” mentality, rather than genuine implementation of accessibililty for *people*. But this really is a matter of education on the part of accessibility advocates. Without the legislation you won’t even get to the box ticking stage.

    Nice blog BTW – glad I’ve found you!

  6. Kev June 18, 2005 at 04:12 #

    Thanks Maxine :o) glad to have your input.

    “Without the legislation you won’t even get to the box ticking stage.”

    Exactly right, sadly.

  7. goodwitch June 19, 2005 at 03:43 #

    I’ve been thinking long and hard about this topic…and trying to be open minded to Andy’s viewpoint. But my mind and my heart agree, web accessibility laws are useful (even if they aren’t perfect). I remember the days before the 508 standard in the US. It was damn hard to get people’s attention. Once 508 passed, it was a cinch.

    My training method never changed. I’ve always taught that an accessible web page is a web page that can be used as effectively and for the same purpose by a person with a disability as by a person without a disability. The true test is “Can people with a disabilities use your site?”

    I care about accessibility all the way down to my toes. And while my comment on 456 Berea indicated that I consider laws as guidelines…that is because I recognize laws and checklists for the imperfect things that they are. So…rather than stick my nose to the fine print…I take a step back and look for the spirit in which the law was intended. Then I ask myself…am I doing the right thing?

    So, I agree that web accessibility laws are necessary. And last time I checked my conscious, I didn’t find that the existence of a law made me socially irresponsible!

  8. Andy Budd June 20, 2005 at 00:59 #

    “My thoughts exactly”:


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