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Designing, laws, and attitudes.

Earlier this year, I asked a question on Twitter:

I often hear from stakeholders who worry that “accessible” means “ugly.” Web friends: do you know of a gallery or resource highlighting websites that are accessible and visually beautiful?

Overall, the responses were great. The short answer is, no: there’s no such gallery, not as such:

  1. As usual, Marcy Sutton is all over this problem, if from a slightly different angle than the one I’d taken. Her Accessibility Wins project is an excellent resource showcasing accessible sites, design patterns, and tools.
  2. As Matt May noted on Twitter, there are some notable challenges facing anyone who’d like to create such a gallery—not least that any site listed might become less accessible over time, creating a potential liability for site owners. (And of course, just because it’s accessible doesn’t mean it’s usable.)

It’s been a few months since I asked the question. But since then, I’ve been returning to Ida Aalen’s response more than a few times. And it’s worth reading Ida’s essay in full, if you have a minute. She wasn’t moved to write an entire danged blog entry because I’d asked after a gallery. Rather, she realized ever since Norway made it illegal for any website, private or public, to be inaccessible, it’s been some time since she’d heard that “an accessible site’s an ugly site.” It’s a rather heartening anecdote, about how a change in policy resulted in a change in attitudes. In Ida’s experience, accessibility’s no longer an afterthought—now, since the law changed, it’s understood to just be how web design’s done.

You can read Norway’s guidelines, if you’re interested. (Here’s the English translation.) Sadly, web accessibility in the United States hasn’t advanced nearly as far as it has in Norway. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires federal agencies to ensure their digital services are accessible to people with disabilities. But while there are many laws that address different aspects of digital accessibility, there’s no American law that requires all websites to be accessible.

And while I read Ida’s piece, I found myself wondering: what if there was a law that governed web performance?

…okay, yeah, sorry: I realize I just thinkpieced all over the place. But I have been wondering if the way we advocate for web performance has hit certain practical limits. A business operating on today’s web frequently has to choose between creating a fast website and creating a viable and profitable website. By way of example, both Dave Rupert and Trent Walton have written about the performance costs of third-party scripts, and how that dark, swampy morass of code can obliterate any prior performance gains made on your website. But for better and for worse, those advertising and tracking scripts keep the lights on. So no matter how much we talk about web performance, significant structural issues prevent us from making the web faster.

What if those structural issues were removed, though? What if a law ensured performance wasn’t optional? What if it was a requirement? Let’s say a law required every website to be usable within X seconds over a 2G connection, or perhaps that it couldn’t exceed a certain file size, or a certain number of requests? (Or, hey: all three!) How would that change the way we talk about web design, how we practice web design? The benefits of a legally-mandated performance budget could extend beyond the sites themselves, and possibly change the way digital advertisements and analytics are designed and built.

I realize this is all a fair bit of legal fanfiction, especially given the current regulatory climate in the United States. (Americans: please vote, if you can.) And I’m not suggesting we stop advocating for faster websites. But as with accessibility, as with net neutrality, as with the election: when it comes to making the web faster, it’s helpful for me to think in terms of levers. What are the things I can influence—the levers I can pull—to change a given situation? Educating practitioners and businesses is certainly one lever, and a good one. But it’s worth thinking about what a legal, more regulatory lever might look like, too.

Of course, we don’t have a legal mandate for web accessibility in the United States, much less one for web performance. Hopefully someday we’ll be able to change that, with enough work, activism, and advocacy.


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