When Techies Argue About Accessibility Features, What Is the Argument For?

Results of Questionnaire ISSUE-32: how to provide a summary of a table, e.g. for unsighted navigation? – Straw Poll for Objections – Web-Based Straw-poll and Balloting System

Shelley Powers provides important context on what turn into odd debates among the leaders of the HTML5 effort

I’ve been following smatterings of the HTML5 debates on what is in, what is out, and who appointed who God.

Shelley Powers shines a light on much of this from a refreshing observation point that tends to ask the bigger questions that should be informing the minutiae debates that appear to consume the undertaking.  (I need to keep her in mind when I engage in my own particular minutiae crusades.)

I take particular note of matters related to accessibility and provisions in document formats, such as HTML5, that are proposed to facilitate accessibility with the intention of promoting universal access.

Something strikes me as particularly discordant when I inspect the W3C poll results on provisions for a summary attribute (@summary in W3C-speak).  It is difficult to know the full context, but there is still much to be noticed:

  1. The summary attribute already exists in HTML 4.01, it is not deprecated, and it is summarized as expressing “purpose/structure for speech output.”  According to the specification, “This attribute provides a summary of the table’s purpose and structure for user agents rendering to non-visual media such as speech and Braille.”  The attribute is also singled out in the actions that user agents (i.e., browsers) may carry out when rendering a table and what authors should do to provide for that eventuality: “[User agents may] make the table summary available to the user.  Authors should provide a summary of of a table’s content and structure so that people using non-visual user agents may better understand it.”
  2. “What’s wrong with that?,” you might ask.  Me too.
  3. Confessing that I never knew anything about this attribute before this moment, I also note that there is a move to obsolete this attribute in HTML5, along with the apparently-ill-fated longdesc attribute.   Now, it is sometimes good to deprecate features that are under-used, contradictory, cumbersome, not generally supported, and perhaps supplanted by superior alternatives.  Simplification can be important improvement.   Considering how we can’t know the diversity with which HTML 4.0 is applied around the world, it is not clear how we can do without this and have the result it is intended for. 
  4. There are some very strange objections with regard to the questionnaire (which is still running).   Some have to do with it being unnecessary on some tables, some only considering tables that are systematic enumerations of some sort of data, some having to do with the desirability of the summary generally, some assuming that @summary information is excluded from availability to sighted users, etc.  There seem to be too many false contrasts.
  5. There are also weird variations in the question that may not reflect what the proposal actually is.  I note, in the first comment by Laura Carlson that the proposal is to restore @summary from HTML5 +obsolete status to being a first-class optional attribute of <table> elements.
  6. I could go into the minutiae and express my own preferences, but that is not where I want to go with this. 
  7. I do note that groups with specific concerns about accessibility have requested retention of @summary and it is passing strange that anyone else considers themselves an authority in how misguided they are in these requests.
  8. It can be (and is) argued that tearing out things that are not considered harmful and are already established in earlier HTML versions may be a waste of energy when there are more pressing matters to address.

I think we should be careful.  I see value in considering that there may be creative applications of accessibility provisions that will serve a broad community and be less brittle about what is associated with disabilities and what is not.  It is also valuable to have more fluidity and dynamic choice in who relies on what provision when.   (I can imagine wanting to hear a summary on my mobile phone before attempting to access the details of a table, for one instant-design example.) 

But What Are We Doing Here?

Most of all, I am struck by the degree to which accessibility is presented as something provided on behalf of consumers of web content.  I’ve found no consideration of how persons with disabilities might choose to author web content on behalf of themselves and others, with or without comparable disabilities, with or without assistive appliances of one sort or another. 

Shouldn’t we be drawing on the expertise of such individuals?  Shouldn’t we be getting out of the way of their full expression and the full variety of approaches that might be desired in accessing web content?

Or is some sort of technocratic noblesse oblige arrogance at play here?

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One Response to When Techies Argue About Accessibility Features, What Is the Argument For?

  1. Pingback: Microsoft Accessibility Resources | Orcmid's Live HideOut

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