Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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What About User Responsibility?

I am an advocate for people with disabilities’ right to a barrier-free environment. We have a right to be able to access content on websites. But with rights come responsibilities. We have a responsibility to know how to use the tools at our disposal. Web developers and site designers must ensure that web pages are written in such a way that the content can be accessed. But it is not their responsibility to hold the hand of their site’s visitors.

For example, many sites offer font size resizing features. This is nice. But is it really necessary? Consider that if a page is styled properly, even the most obtuse browser (Internet Explorer anyone?), will allow users to resize a site’s font. In Firefox or IE7, using the key combination "CTRL and +" will increase the font-size. That feature is also available through menus. Other browsers offer similar ways for users to increase the fonts’ size. These methods are simple to use, and relatively easy to "discover". Why do we, in the name of accessibility, feel the need to re-invent the wheel?

Many sites also feel the need to explain to users how to trigger access keys. Is this really necessary? Let’s forget for a moment that access keys are a good idea in principle but not really practical in the real world. It is obviously a good idea to tell visitors which key combination will trigger the relevant shortcut. But for the user who does use access keys, why should we not assume that they know how to use their technology (be it browser, or screenreading software, or other application)?

I am of the opinion that in most cases, it is not necessary. While we have the responsibility to code our pages properly, so visitors can use the tools at their disposal, users have the reciprocal responsibility to use those tools!

Of course, in some cases, it might be appropriate to use a font resizing feature on the site. Thinking of a website that target elderly citizens. Age is likely to have impacted their ability to see. They are likely new to computers, and to the internet. Making it easy on them to increase the font size is a good idea.

So, we can’t really say "it’s your responsibility to know your tools" in all cases. We have to look at each situation and make a judgement call. But, let’s not bloat our pages with accessibility features that are unecessary.