The '100% accessible website' joke—do web accessibility professionals have a sense of humour?

One of the challenges of working in the web accessibility space is trying to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of technologies that affect web accessibility and the standards, policies and legislative frameworks that follow to support them.

However, a recent joke posted on a popular source for finding out such information, the Web Accessibility Initiative Interest Group (WAI-IG) mailing list, has caused a storm of criticism recently which has led me to consider two important questions: in this rapidly changing web accessibility landscape, is it even possible to create a 100 per cent accessible website? And perhaps the even bigger question, can web accessibility professionals allow themselves to have a sense of humour over such a passionate and hard-fought topic?

The e-mail post

For those not familiar with the WAI-IG, it’s a W3C free mailing list that allows anyone to post information and questions relating to web accessibility. If you’re not signed up to it I’d strongly recommend doing so as it’s a great way to keep up with the discussion taking place in the web accessibility community.

While the list is generally matter-of-fact and practical in its approach, On 15 August there was a post from Bryan Garaventa containing the lengthy subject heading,  “For you: A webpage that is 100% accessible to all people around the world, regardless of nationality or disability or Assistive Technology”. 

Needless to say, such a claim got a lot of attention and opening the e-mail it indeed appeared that Bryan had cracked some sort of magical code the likes of which I hadn’t seen since I studied the Object-Z modelling specification in my computer science degree. The e-mail read:

Recently, somebody asked me to show them a website that was 100% accessible, so I figured it would make a good experiment. Sort of a thought experiment I guess...

So I built a webpage that is 100% accessible to all people in the world equally, regardless of nationality, disability type, or Assistive Technology used.

Enjoy! It's available at

http://whatsock.com/test/100_percent_accessible.htm

Happy testing.

What followed was a lengthy explanation as to how this was possible, here’s a sample:

Browser-AT

1: No AT

0.98: Internet Explorer + JAWS

0.93: Internet Explorer + NVDA

0.95: Firefox + JAWS

0.98: Firefox + NVDA

0.95: Safari + VoiceOver

0.6: Chrome + JAWS

0.7: Chrome + NVDA

0.95: Internet Explorer or Firefox or Chrome + Dragon

0.98: Internet Explorer or Firefox or Chrome + ZoomText

0.9: Internet Explorer or Firefox or Chrome or Safari + Braille Display

Could it be that there was finally a solution buried in this pseudocode-specification-type-thing that unlocks the secret to resolving all those cross-platform-browser-AT issues for web accessibility professionals everywhere? Was it really possible that this website link held the long-awaited web accessibility silver bullet?

In short: no.

A quick visit to the URL provided takes you to what appears to be a blank page.  Viewing the source code reveals the following:

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd">

<html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en" lang="en">

<head>

<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=UTF-8" />

<title> &nbsp; </title>

<meta name="Author" content="Bryan Garaventa" />

</head><body><!--

TADA!

--></body></html>

“Oh yes, very funny” I thought to myself at the time, both relieved that my hunch that it was a fake proved to be true, but also a little embarrassed that I’d gone all the way to checking the source code to confirm my suspicions. 

So yes, it was a joke e-mail on the WAI-IG mailing list, and presumably everyone else would get the joke too. How bad could it be?

The storm

What followed this post was one of the longest and most heated threads I’ve seen for a while. Initially, there were a few posts from people who immediately got the joke and even offered their own ‘enhancements’ to the specification that was outlined. 

However, there were a number of assistive technology users, such as a user trying to view the page using Voiceover on an iOS device which was concerned that nothing was coming up on the web browser, and on the mobile device the source code couldn’t be viewed to find out the problem. This led to a number of posts from people who got the joke and people who thought it was serious, then posts from people trying to politely point out that the e-mail was fake, initial embarrassment from those who felt tricked, and finally anger over the WAI-IG list being used in such a way. Scores of e-mails, including many sent to me directly after reading the thread, were sent over a three day period and unfortunately it was ultimately to the detriment of the global web accessibility community.

How many web accessibility professionals does it take to change a light bulb?

Whether or not you agree with the idea of web accessibility humour may be based on your general reaction to this:  

Question: How many web accessibility professionals does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: Twelve. One to check if the light bulb has alternative text, one to check it has captions…

You get the idea.

For me I don’t mind sharing a bit of humour among web accessibility professionals. I was at one of our community breakfast meet-ups last year when someone made the comment that you can rank how bad the accessibility of an intranet website based on a scale of ‘one to SharePoint’, which I must admit I thought was hilarious at the time, and a good example of where a bit of well-placed humour can be really helpful in providing some therapy for the daily frustrations of dealing with accessibility issues.

I don’t personally think the latest version of SharePoint is that bad when it comes to accessibility, but there’s enough frustrations that a bit of humour shared with people that understand can really help lighten the accessibility burden for all, and I think that’s what Bryan was trying to achieve with his post.

There is, however, a bigger issue than just the joke in itself and that the fact that it was disguised as factual information and this, in my view, was a bit tasteless as it wasn’t presented in a way which everyone could share.

I’ll confess that I really dislike practical jokes, I cringe at TV shows that create situations to trick people just doing their everyday things and I can’t listen to radio station ‘crazy calls’ that pretend something bad has happened just to humiliate them on air, so it’s fair to say I also didn’t like this one and thought in the context of the WAI-IG list which is designed to be both an introduction to web accessibility and an information resource, it was inappropriately structured for the audience.

As a legally blind person there are enough circumstances every day where I end up in embarrassing situations—not realising someone wants to shake my hand, difficulties in identifying who is talking to me and walking into things to name a few—so I really felt sorry for people on the list who, due to their disability, did not get the joke and were embarrassed in front of their peers.

I have no issue with the telling of jokes, or even sharing them online, but if it’s at the expense of the dignity of people with disabilities I think that’s the place where we need to draw the line. I’m sure it was not Bryan’s intent to embarrass WAI-IG subscribers and that’s an important thing to consider, but it does highlight that in a community where the entire focus is on supporting the needs of people with disabilities, nurturing and supporting people needs to come first.

Can 100 per cent accessibility be achieved?

Putting aside the joke itself, the reason why it got so much traction was because it was based on the premise that someone had achieved a 100 per cent accessible website.

While sceptical, there’s still enough hope out there that perhaps it is actually possible. While the question as to what defines an accessible website is one which could be a topic for several monthly columns so I won’t go into a lot of detail here, it is fair to say that while there’s no silver bullet for accessibility, there’s a lot that can be done.

It’s also important to remember that there is a lot of help out there too from of W3C standards and techniques such as WCAG 2.0, the online web accessibility community in WAI-IG, meet-up groups, conferences and courses and websites such as this one just to name a few.

Perhaps a better question than, ‘can a website be `100 per cent accessible?’, is ‘can I make a difference to support the independence of people with disabilities by addressing web accessibility issues?’ to which I’d answer a definite ‘yes’. So putting all jokes aside, it may be hard to get to 100 per cent accessibility but the difference we can all make on the journey is 100 per cent worth it for people with disabilities.