Inaccessibility: An Education Challenge

February 18, 2019

Website development was the first kind of programming I'd ever tried - I think I was 13 or 14. With a year or two of unintentionally spamming internet communities under my belt, I had been given an administrative position on a forum, where I realised the website's team had control over its CSS.

I "researched" what cascading style sheets were. Then what HTML was. Then what other forum software was available. Then what the difference between shared hosting and a virtual private server was.

Most people I've spoken to who are largely self-taught have a similar story of learning more and more things as they went along. One ugly point that stuck out to me were ARIA attributes - they looked ugly and felt unnecessary, and made my handwritten HTML take even longer to finish.

I've previously written about it, but I found out I'm Dyslexic during my Leaving Certificate year, and by that point I had become much better informed about software accessibility on a surface level.

It was only when I started my computer science degree that I was really exposed to the full scope of software accessibility, and a video I randomly came across ended up changing my perspective completely. It was a talk by a developer called Seren Davies who is also Dyslexic about the fact that over-reliance on icon fonts completely broke websites for her.

I had always considered accessibility an important part of my general knowledge, but after comprehending the fact it applied to me I started to think of it more as a moral imperative - if a relatively benign issue as web fonts could impact someone so heavily, how much more worse could badly designed technology be for those with more restrictive disabilities?

Like security, I realised the obstacle to overcome is the fact that accessibility tends to be framed as a separate concern to learn instead of an implicit part of overall design. You could reduce it to "Being mindful of who is using your software, how they are interacting with it, and designing for them".

Which could apply to designing anything at all - the caveat being recognising that some of your users will have disabilities, which is where universal design comes into play. I have had the opportunity to talk to a handful of team leads with design or development backgrounds, and have heard that many larger companies do prioritise accessibility, but the story is usually the same.

People had at most a cursory education on accessibility (If at all), and needed to learn it later as part of their job's responsibilies. It required a deliberate, secondary effort for them to learn how to make accessible software outside of their academic experience in order to implement it at their workplace.

During November 2018 I volunteered at PyCon Ireland and was shocked to discover there were less than 10 people with a computer science degree that were also uniquely qualified to teach Primary or Secondary level education, and saw the working draft for the Leaving Certificate computer science curriculum. It included basic website design and accessibility.

This was greatly reassuring, because I'm certain the longer you take to try to teach someone a core concept, the less likely they will have the bandwidth to implement it as part of their paradigm. In the dance community, I've seen some instances where "Musicality" is taught as an intermediate level skill, but from class one everyone is dancing to the same music.

There's an analogy in almost all skilled creative work where this collision between culture and educational concerns takes place. But I think we could be doing more - trying to read the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines is a herculean feat which requires you to break down all of the jargon contained within before figuring out exactly where it applies and how to do so.

If you want people to learn something, make it as easy as possible for them to take agency over educating themselves and begin applying the concepts quickly. Otherwise, it's another barrier to entry which will have a knock-on effect further down the line for all of the people they are responsible for.