A headshot of Gavin Henderson

Gavin Henderson

Do Accessibility Guidelines Work?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

March 2, 2019

As you can probably tell from my latests posts I have jumped straight into accessibility in tech. Surprisingly, I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about web accessibility or software accessibility in general. To me its a can of worms that I have really wanted to open but I know once I open it I won't be able to close it again. I might be totally wrong but I have a feeling that this might be the mentality of lots of web developers.

There are just so many accessibility rules that I wont ever get it right for everyone so why try? - Generic Developer

Recently when I have been in disabled toilets it sometimes occurs to me that strange design choices have been made. Design choices that lead to a really odd experience or a less accessible one. One example of this is everything mounted on the wall is much lower, which makes sense so people in wheelchairs can reach them. However, you often see them dotted around the perimeter of the room. For me its not too bad having to turn around in circles to get between the toilet, sink, hand towels or hand dryer but if you're in a wheelchair it would be such a pain. If any movement is needed between the sink and towels then you end up needing to use your wet hands to move your chair about. This is just one example of something I have noticed in toilets and obviously goes against the entire point of disabled toilets.

I got to thinking about why this is, I concluded that it was down to building guidelines. I have absolutely no experience about building guidelines but I can imagine a lot of people only create disabled toilets in their buildings because they are required to by law. As they are required to by law they just create the toilet up to the guidelines written up for disabled toilets. This probably leads to a toilet that meets the standards perfectly but was built without ever thinking about the people who will in the end use them.

Following this thought on I started to see if this ever happened with web accessibility. There are an awful lot of really well made and well meaning guidelines for making sure your website can be accessed by anyone. However, none of them are as good as simply understanding the individuals who require extra support to access a computer.

Using accessibility guidelines aligns quite closely with the medical model of disability which says that people are disabled by their impairments or differences. The medical model would see a disability such as blindness and write rules that are suppose to make sure your website is screen reader friendly. However, no set of rules can be all encompassing of every possible situation. Following the rules may lead someone into a false sense of thinking they have an easily accessible website but as we have seen from the disabled toilet, following the rules doesn't automatically make it accessible. I actually think the more we push accessibility rules and guidelines the further we push people into the medical model way of thinking.

If the software industry takes on the social model of disability which says that disability is caused by the way society is organised rather than their impairments then we wouldn't even need guidelines. Well we would but they would feel less prescriptive! Designers and developers would create amazing services and platforms that could be used be everyone by design and not by adaptation. In conclusion, I think the best way to create a more accessible web is to push the social model not rules and guidelines.