UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Aversive Disablism, Web Accessibility and the Web Developer

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 1 May 2012

Today is the seventh annual Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD). A described in a post on the Diary of a Goldfish blogThis is the day where all around the world, disabled and non-disabled people blog about their experiences, observations and thoughts about disability discrimination. In this way, we hope to raise awareness of inequality, promote equality and celebrate the progress we’ve made“. My contribution will be to explore the question: “are web developers and web authors who have embraced WCAG guidelines unknowingly creating barriers for people with disabilities?


Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2012Sarah Lewthwaite introduced me to the term “adversive disablism” a couple of years ago when we had a brief discussion on Twitter and I was motived to follow the link to her (old) blog. Following a subsequent discussion Sarah drew my attention to a post she had written on Web Development and Aversive Disablism.

I quickly realised that Sarah’s expertise in disability theory added a new dimension to the Web accessibility research papers which David Sloan and myself, together with several other disability researchers and practitioners had published since my first paper, on Developing A Holistic Approach For E-Learning Accessibility, was published in 2004.

Sarah, David and myself subsequently wrote a paper on Developing Countries; Developing Experiences: Approaches to Accessibility for the Real World which was accepted at the W4A 2010 conference. In the paper (which is available in PDF, MS Word and HTML formats) we describe how:

Blatant forms of discrimination and prejudice towards disabled people appear to be declining in the UK and elsewhere. As such, it is not always clear how or why inequality persists, particularly online where disability could become a matter of relevance, rather than definition.

To understand this phenomenon, it is useful to consider Mark Deal’s concept of Aversive Disablism: ‘Aversive disablists recognise disablism is bad but do not recognize that they themselves are prejudiced‘ [6]. Where aversive racists are not anti-black, but pro-white [7], aversive disablists may not be anti-disabled, but rather pro-non-disabled. This disablism, is often unintentional.

The paper goes on to add:

In terms of Web development, significant inroads are being made through legislation, education and advocacy, but aversive disablism can and does persist at many levels. Importantly, since Web 2.0 thrives upon user-generated content and social interactions which are propagated and remixed across media, there are a multitude of levels and opportunities for aversive disablism to become integrated within systems.

But what does this mean in the context of Web development, especially for those who feel their approaches do not discriminate against users with disabilities but may, in reality, inadvertently do so? Four examples come to mind in which decisions taken by Web developers, managers and policy makers may provide unintentional barriers to users with disabilities:

  1. I won’t use JavaScript on my Web site.
  2. I insist that Web pages must validate.
  3. We don’t make videos available unless they are fully-captioned.
  4. We will only use HTML as a document format on our web site.

These views have, I suspect, been held by people with long-standing involvement in Web accessibility and would appear to be based on agreed best practices. But consider some alternative views to each of these points:

  1. JavaScript can assist the usability of Web sites, including the usability by people with disabilities. And although some assistive technologies may not have supported JavaScript nowadays many tools will provide such support.
  2. The vast majority of Web pages do not validate with formal HTML standards, but this is not necessarily a barrier to accessibility, especially for trivial HTML errors such as unescaped & characters.
  3. Videos may be valuable for users with disabilities and to deprive such users of access to these videos due to a lack of resources to fund captioning may be a barrier to these users.
  4. Institutional repositories currently host primarily PDFs of peer-reviewed papers. Insisting that an accessible HTML equivalent of such resources must be published will be a severe barrier to the implementation of open access policies.

We might then conclude that such disablist approaches may have been taken by people who regard guidelines such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as a set of inflexible rules which must be applied at all times or who may interpret legislation as mandating conformance with such guidelines and are unwilling to take a risk that such an interpretation is mistaken.

But in addition such disablist approaches may also be taken by those so immersed in the Web environment, that they fail to appreciate the benefits for people with disabilities of blended approaches, as illustrated in a post on Videoing Talks As A Means Of Providing Equivalent Experiences.

As we described in our most recent paper, the challenge for policy makers and developers involved in Web activities is to ensure that they put people and processes first. I would hope that such user-focussed approaches are the norm. However a post which asks Is PDF accessible in Australia? argues that “it is time the Australian Government Information Management Office and the Human Rights Commission fully embrace both the spirit and the recommendations of WCAG 2.0” which can only be met by use of the following technologies: XHTML1, HTML 4, HTML5. Implementation of such a policy would seem likely to result in significant new barriers to researchers including, ironically, barriers to researchers with disabilities.

To revisit the question I posed at the beginning of this post: “are web developers and web authors who have embraced WCAG guidelines unknowingly creating barriers for people with disabilities?” Might not those with understandable motives in developing a more elegant, robust and open Web environment hinder access to resources for people with disabilities who are living in today’s environment of flawed tools, complex business models and, perhaps, over-ambitious accessibility guidelines?

And if your response is that adopting WCAG has been better than doing nothing, that may have been the case when our understanding of web accessibility was limited. But now we have a better understanding of how WCAG can be applied in a pragmatic way – and in the UK we have BS 8878 which we can – should – be using as a standard.


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One Response to “Aversive Disablism, Web Accessibility and the Web Developer”

  1. [...] the eGovernment Resource Service for the Victoria Government, Australia and related to a post on Aversive Disablism, Web Accessibility and the Web Developer which I posted on 1 May 2012, the Global Accessibility Awareness Day. It then occurred to me that [...]

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