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Surprised by Web Accessibility Complaints?

Dec 31, 2020

For many organizations and individuals, the concepts of accessibility are still relatively unknown — and this is absolutely not a condemnation of people who don't have it as sharply on their radar yet or of the learning process as people improve their knowledge on the subject. Every expert was once a beginner and vilifying people as they work to understand the benefits and practices of accessibility probably isn't helpful.

So, the question here isn't whether websites and apps should be accessible — they should be, we know that. The question is whether — when inaccessibility leads to bad experiences, complaints, or even lawsuits — people should be surprised.

Sometimes when the dots aren't connected in practical ways, some of the "rules" of accessibility might seem arbitrary and the effects probably aren't fully realized.

By way of one example, this might lead to somebody getting surprised when a person who is blind makes a complaint because they know there is an image on a page but they don't know what the image shows because it doesn't have appropriate alt text. But, would that person also be surprised by a complaint from a sighted person who says the image on a page isn't showing? Maybe the broken image isn't so important and maybe it's entirely decorative, and not seeing or experiencing it doesn't really take away anything. So, the person who knows what the image is or is supposed to be could argue that this isn't an issue because nothing is lost by not getting that image. Well, in this example, how would the person who isn't receiving the image possibly know that? And more likely, that image is important and it is included on the page for a reason — there is something the content creator wants the user to learn or feel from that image. So again, should someone be surprised to learn of a complaint that an image isn't available to everyone? Probably not.

Should someone be surprised by a complaint that the form fields in a checkout process don't have accessible labels? Well, would someone be surprised by a complaint from anyone that they are required to enter information but there are no instructions or labels identifying what information to put in what fields? Probably not.

Should someone be surprised by a complaint that keyboard users have completed a contact form for their important questions but can't select the "Submit" button because it can't be reached with a keyboard? Would that person be surprised by a complaint from a mouse user who completes a form but can't click the "Submit" button because it doesn't activate or respond no matter how many times they try to select it? Probably not.

Should someone be surprised by a complaint that a website that is supposedly optimized for mobile isn't working properly with standard mobile screen readers, like VoiceOver on iOS and TalkBack on Android? Would that person be surprised when their smartphone-using customers complain that parts of the mobile-friendly website aren't loading or are hidden visually or are displaying in an order that doesn't make any sense? Probably not.

These examples are hypothetical but the scenarios they represent are not. They happen constantly on the majority of websites that are not built or fixed to be accessible. They are happening right now. And sometimes, this means people will complain, formally or informally, about their poor experiences.

Often it is the case that when people are surprised by accessibility complaints, it's not because they don't take accessibility seriously, but the real impacts of inaccessible experiences haven't been fully realized. So, should people be surprised by accessibility complaints? If they've interpreted the best practices in terms of real user impact, probably not.

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