We no longer think it is acceptable to discriminate against people on grounds of gender or race and, as a community, we expect provision to be made for people with disabilities in public transport and building design. However, when it comes to making sure web content is accessible to all users of the web, including people with disabilities, some designers, developers and clients just ‘don’t get it’, to borrow a phrase popular with the geekerati.
We like to rejoice in the notion that all ‘men are created equal with inalienable rights’, or ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’, to take a more Marxist approach, however this hasn’t always been the case.
Let us not forget, Australian women only won the right to vote at the beginning of the twentieth century. And for the next 65 years, when it came to employment, there was no such thing as equal pay for equal work for women and those who worked for the Public Service had to resign when they got married. Before the 1967 referendum, Aboriginal men and women had almost no rights, they weren’t included in the census and didn’t have the freedom to move around the country or live where they wished.
In these examples, sections of the Australian community were either excluded from full participation in society or their participation depended on the beneficence of those in power, who for most part were white men of property.
Of course, the situation in Australia is a lot better today. We no longer have a “white Australia” policy and there are various anti-discrimination laws. This is not to suggest that there is no racism in Australia or women have full equality in employment, for the introduction of laws alone is not enough; community attitudes also have to change.
During the last decade or so, social policies relating to people with disabilities in many countries have changed significantly. There has been a shift from what could be basically described as a charity model, where government and non-government organisations ‘helped’ those identified as in need, towards the notion of social inclusion.
What do I mean by social inclusion?
In short, it is about having a society where all people feel valued. Their differences are respected, and their basic needs are met so they can live in dignity.
It’s the opposite of exclusion, where people are excluded from participating fully in the social, economic and cultural life of a community as a result of their difference, be it in their income, race, gender or abilities.
As we know, in the past, society didn’t fully embrace the idea that people of a different gender or colour should have equal rights, and this same attitude of exclusion also bore down on those in the community who looked or behaved differently. For a child with cerebral palsy or an adult who was blind, access to education, information, transport – the everyday things of life – was not an inalienable right, but depended to a large extent on the charity of others. This colonialist model saw us; the able bodied with enlightenment and of course self-declared physical and mental abilities, bestowing gifts and privileges on them; the disabled.
When it comes to disabilities, progress towards more socially inclusive societies around the world has, in my opinion, been slow. One small example, the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but the UN Convention on The Rights of Persons with Disabilities didn’t appear until 2006. Australia ratified the Convention in 2008 and while the US signed the convention last year it is still to be ratified by Congress.
In the real world, it is no longer the norm in many countries to segregate school children solely on the basis of a disability; rather everything is done to try to accommodate those with different needs within the general school environment. In Australia at least, schools for children who are deaf or blind are by and large a thing of the past. A few specialist schools do remain, and most of them primarily cater for children with multiple and sometimes profound disabilities.
Also, there is increasing awareness of the abilities of those who were often stigmatised as disabled in the past. There is a growing recognition of the distinct cultural and linguistic identity of the Deaf community, and a far greater appreciation of the special talents of many people with cognitive disabilities.
Changing attitudes can be a slow process, and the introduction of new technologies can sometimes become barriers or excuses that have to be overcome. If I might return to the classroom for a moment to help illustrate this point: When sighted impaired children were first integrated into the standard classroom environment it required a change in attitude on behalf of teachers as well as other children in the class. Some teachers found this particularly challenging, and if there was too much chalk and not enough talk the child who was unable to see the board was often left behind.
Today, we have many more visual teaching aids, such as PowerPoint, video, electronic whiteboards and of course the web. For some teachers these have become another excuse, or way of discounting, the importance of ensuring that those who are unable to see have equal access to education. Rather than changing teaching practices or providing accessible supplementary materials, it is easier for these teachers to fall back on the simplistic, utilitarian excuse of satisfying the needs of the greatest number of people. Thankfully, excuses like this should not, and are not, considered legally acceptable.
In the real world, one of the hallmarks of a civilised and inclusive society is a willingness to accept the differences in people and not discriminate against those with disabilities. When it comes to the web however, I am concerned that many still view accessibility through the lens of charity and not rights. Too often the needs of people with disabilities who use the web are dismissed and web site accessibility is considered an add-on, something to be done only when time and money permit.
For the last 10 years we have had rules and guidelines promoting web content accessibility and contrary to what some people say, it is not difficult to make an attractive, modern site that complies with these guidelines. However as we all know, there are many inaccessible websites out there. What I believe we fundamentally need are changes in attitude, particularly on the part of site developers and their clients, as well as those in governments and industry with responsibility for regulating web content accessibility.
In a future post, I will be looking at the accessibility implications of the Australian Gov 2.0 draft report. From my reading, it seems to me that the authors of the report also ‘don’t get it’ when it comes to social inclusion. The report is available at http://gov2.net.au/blog/2009/12/07/draftreport/
Note: Social Inclusion and the role guidelines and rules play in promoting website accessibility are among the issues I will be discussing in my CSUN presentation.