Pandu Supriyono

Design for accessibility is not design for everyone

The curb cut effect

As accessibility professionals we often feel that we have to get (corporate) buy-in by saying that "accessibility is not only for disabled people, but for everyone", sometimes referring to the curb cut effect. With this argument, we hope to make a business case by removing the emphasis on disabled people and instead put the focus on a vague broader population (a.k.a. the abled). I am 100% guilty of having made this argument in the past, but now I see some downsides of this type of thinking.

I like to think the definition of "inclusion" being the explicit state in which people who, in historical and/or socio-economic context, are disadvantaged. Perhaps due to their gender identity, sexuality or (dis)ability. I emphasize "explicit" because in order to be inclusive following this definition, you have to consider the needs and rights of these groups. Nowadays I will be careful when we start talking about accessibility being "for everyone", since I worry what the consequences will be for the disadvantaged once we stop explicitly thinking about their needs.

Closed captions

In recent years we have seen more videos on the internet having closed captions. Historically this has been most useful to the deaf and hard of hearing, since viewers are no longer dependant on sound alone to watch a video. It is almost as if abled people have recently "discovered" the convenience of captons. Videos can be consumed in places where we don't want to play audio (such as waiting rooms), we can hide what we're watching on our phones from people in the same room and we can continue eating our crisps even during movie scenes with lots of dialogue. As a result, we see advancements in technologies such as audio recognition and translation, which unlocks our (cross-border) media consumption.

However, in this push for widespread caption use, we started making kinetic (animated) captions that add flashiness to a clip in expense of those who need the subtitles to appear in a predictable place on the screen without it disappearing too fast. Captions are appropriated in this way so that movie trailers can be advertised to us while we're waiting at the dentist's office. Captions aside, why do native language speakers get to enjoy clips captioned in their language much more than native sign language speakers?

How this can translate into web development

To take another example from web development: we often associate JavaScript with inaccessible websites. They often move away from HTML semantics in favour of custom and visually-biased implementations, are slow to load and do not guarantee resillience in the same way HTML and CSS do. We come across well-intentioned discussions and tutorials online on how we can make JavaScript-less components, such as CSS-only dropdown or hamburger menus so that our websites become more performant and better "for everyone". However, in doing so, we stop caring about how assistive technologies need to know the semantic relationship between toggle buttons and the elements they disclose, their ARIA state, their focus order and so on. If we cared about the needs of disabled people, we would realize that JavaScript is not necessarily the enemy here. In fact, until we get more modern HTML standards, we often need JavaScript. This is especially the case when we move away from making HTML components and towards components that act like (native) UI elements. In many cases, when you use ARIA, you become responsible to add the appropriate JavaScript to make sure that the component works in predictable ways.

Do we avoid the focus on the disadvantaged because of stigma? Is it uncomfortable to talk about? This reminds me of the person first versus identity first debate and how we like to pretend very obvious issues do not exist.

Is it internalized ableism that leads abled people to only care about issues if it affects them? This reminds me of pretty much everything else we encounter in life.

Or that we think that there is less money to be made off of the disabled?

The cause is probably a bit of all of these, as well as many others that I am not clever enough to think of.

In any case, I hope we can work towards a professional work environment in which we don't feel the need to appeal to abled people to do the specialist work that we offer. Let's just say accessibility is for disabled people. And that that's absolutely okay.