Web accessibility myths as negotiated industrial lore

There aren’t many places to access formal education or training in accessibility, and so many professional web developers and others in related fields depend on informal learning from books, websites, and social media, which gives these sources an outsized influence on practice. One favored mode of communicating accessibility information is the “myth list”, which is traditionally a numbered list of three to ten myths and then a short passage debunking the myth. The author reviewed over 40 such pieces published between 1997 and 2012, and discusses the effect they’ve had.

As a bonus, she has a wry sense of humor that comes out in her writing — very much appreciated!

Ellcessor, E. (2014) ‘<ALT=”Textbooks”>: Web Accessibility Myths as Negotiated Industrial Lore’, Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 31, no. 5, pp. 448-463 [Online]. DOI: 10.1080/15295036.2014.919660

Outline

  1. Cultural industries, technology, and disability
  2. “Web accessibility myths” as a genre of accepted industry lore
    1. The aesthetic myth and constructing accessibility professionals through history
    2. Myths of expense and difficulty, and the professionalization of accessibility
    3. Myths of audience and values of inclusion
  3. “Web accessibility myths” as disciplinary power and hegemonic negotiation
  4. Conclusion

Notes

How do you learn about web accessibility? There aren’t many degrees in it, nor are there many accreditation schemes to help ascertain expertise. Web developers and other similar professionals try to teach themselves, relying on books, websites, blogs, and social media for information. One very common mode of delivering these nuggets of information is the “myth list”, which addresses multiple needs and has multiple purposes.

Myth lists are a type of industry lore, which are stories meant to be shared within a community. Possibly, they came about as a favored mode for accessibility topics because accessibility standards were first published almost a decade after web development truly got started as a profession. This made accessibility topics and efforts seem as an “add-on” to a larger and existing field, and these lists look to dispel that belief. (Here it should be noted: topics for “accessibility” appeared late, but texts before then focused on alt-text and other techniques as being appropriate for browsers that could not display images, tool tips, search engines, and so on. The focus was on tools and functionality, not accessibility. That focus changed with WCAG 1.0 and Section 508 enforcement.)

Three types of accessibility myth lists

  1. Accessible websites are ugly, boring, or not creative.

At the heart of this myth is the idea that web designers want to create new, trendy, creative designs, which was evident early on in web development history. When accessibility validation software and checklists came about, they were useful but their ’emphasis on function contradicted the creativity that had become central to many web professionals’ sense of themselves and their industry’ (Ellcessor, 2014, p. 453). It’s an issue of identity within the community of practice.

The lists try to dispel this belief, but by restating it in the many lists they are perpetuating the idea that there are two very divided groups: the accessibility advocates on one side, and the web developers on the other.

  1. Accessibility is hard and expensive.

This is interesting because the debunking usually takes a two-pronged approach, arguing that it is not expensive, but that it probably requires a professional (likely, the person writing the myth list). This myth debunking is a way of positioning web accessibility work as a legitimate field separate from web design, requiring expertise. It usually provides a business case: accessibility measures are not too expensive compared to the potential increase in profits, greater reach to customers, or gains in efficiency.

  1. Accessibility is the right thing to do for people with disabilities.

This argument asserts accessibility as following a core value of the community of web developers. It often cites statistics to show the number of people affected by inaccessible websites, and then makes a call for individuals to do what’s morally right. However, in ’emphasizing a social model of disability and offering a feel-good altruism…. [t]hey do not… call for structural or institutional change in the form of laws, standards, or corporate practices’ (Ellcessor, 2014, p. 456).

A question of power and positioning

The myth lists position accessibility as a professional field, define members of a community, and promote activism. But they also serve to define themselves (accessibility experts) as people who stand in opposition of web developers. In doing so, they may be fighting a battle that occurred in history but is not ongoing today.

Myth lists also become a way to be less inclusive — positioning arguments as between the “experts” versus the general population, including those with disabilities. Accessibility itself is positioned as something done for people with disabilities instead of with them, which is not quite accurate since many web developers and accessibility advocates have disabilities themselves. This is a troubling move toward the charity model of disability, because accessibility is seen as ‘an individual plight, to be addressed through the efforts of non-disabled people out of pity, obligation or good intentions’ (Ellcessor, 2014, p. 457).

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