The web we broke.
Any sufficiently advanced neglect is indistinguishable from malice.Deb Chachra, reappropriating Clarke’s third law
I read something last Monday, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
If you’re not familiar, WebAIM is a non-profit that’s worked for years to make the web more accessible. They’ve written software and disability simulators, shared in-depth surveys of users with disabilities, and generally published more articles and resources than you can shake a stick at—all to help us do our job a bit better, and to help more people access the web.
At the end of February, WebAIM published an accessibility analysis of the top one million home pages. The results are, in a word, abysmal. Eric Bailey covered this last week, far better than I will, but here were a few highlights for me:
- An overwhelming majority of home pages had images without alternative text. (Listen to what an image sounds like without
alttext. Now assume about nine out of every ten home pages across the entire web have images like that.)
- ARIA, the language created to help make interfaces more accessible, was found on more than sixty percent of the home pages surveyed. Unfortunately, those home pages were more likely to have detectable accessibility errors.
- About one out of every ten home pages had a “skip link,” to help users jump directly to a page’s content. Unfortunately, about one out of every ten of those links were broken.
- According to the “Fun Facts” section of the report, “2,099,665 layout tables were detected compared to only 113,737 data tables.” According to my calendar, it’s 2019.
- Here’s the real kicker for me: “automatically detectable errors constitute a small portion of all possible WCAG failures.” In other words, these are just the errors that could be detected programmatically: the real picture is even worse than the numbers suggest.
Those are just a few items that stuck with me. Actually, “haunted” might be a better word: this is one of the more depressing things I’ve read in some time. Organizations like WebAIM have, alongside countless other non-profits and accessibility advocates, been showing us how we could make the web live up to its promise as a truly universal medium, one that could be accessed by anyone, anywhere, regardless of ability or need. And we failed.
I say we quite deliberately. This is on us: on you, and on me. And, look, I realize it may sting to read that. Hell, my work is constantly done under deadline, the way I work seems to change every
year month, and it can feel hard to find the time to learn more about accessibility. And maybe you feel the same way. But the fact remains that we’ve created a web that’s actively excluding people, and at a vast, terrible scale. We need to meditate on that.
I suppose the lesson I’m taking from this is, well, we need to much, much more than meditating. I agree with Marcy Sutton: accessibility is a civil right, full stop. Improving the state of accessibility on the web is work we have to support. The alternative isn’t an option. Leaving the web in it’s current state isn’t fair. It isn’t just.
That said, I don’t know where we go from here. Right now, I’m trying to focus on this one question:
What’s one thing I wish I understood better about accessibility?
The only way this work gets done is if we start small, and if we work together. Instead of focusing on “accessibility” writ large, maybe subscribe to an accessibility newsletter. (I can recommend David A. Kennedy’s excellent A11yWeekly newsletter, if you’re searching.) Or if that’s not your thing, read through a section of The A11y Project that seems especially interesting to you. Or follow a disability advocate online, and listen quietly as they share their experiences. Basically, aim to do one thing this week to broaden your understanding of how people use the web, and adapt your design or development practice to incorporate what you’ve learned.
Or at least, that’s what I’m going to do. Maybe you’d like to join me.