True Tales of Accessibility Ignorance

I was just recalling a recent firsthand experience with web accessibility ignorance, and thought I’d share, to kick off 2010.

Not long ago, I was involved in a conversation about incorporating security measures to a registration process on an e-commerce website. One solution that emerged was using CAPTCHA.

For those of you not familiar with the term, CAPTCHA is a process used to protect web sites from automated agents (bots, scripts, etcetera). This is most often done through adding a step in which a user must decipher distorted or obscured characters, or solve a puzzle.

The traditional implementation of CAPTCHA has met with significant outcry from the accessibility minded. Quite simply, how can a blind or visually-impaired user be expected to discern garbled characters on the screen? In such cases, the visually disabled are simply unable to do whatever it is that the CAPTCHA stands in front of, such as registering on a site before purchasing and accessing information.

Alternatives have emerged such as providing an audio equivalent, like reCAPTCHA does.
screenshot of reCAPTCHA

Anyway, when CAPTCHA came up in my scenario, I quickly pointed out that, whatever solution we seek, we must ensure we’re using a security method that doesn’t render the site inoperable by the visually disabled.

One person responded by pantomiming being blind, finding himself to be hysterical in the process. Another person said — and to get the full effect, be sure to insert dripping sarcasm — “Yeah, because blind people use the Web”.

Even as I typed that, it sounded ridiculous and made up. Needless to say, I was floored by such over-the-top ignorance. I don’t expect everybody to suddenly embrace accessibility because I have, but still hoped that my insight would be taken somewhat seriously, not met with jokes and quips.

I’d like to think that such reactions are rare and will only decrease in the web industry, as accessibility becomes more and more a hot button issue. Some businesses and web services are better than others.

My response, by the way, was something to the effect of, “I imagine there were people at who made light of accessibility before the multi-million dollar lawsuit.”

8 thoughts on “True Tales of Accessibility Ignorance

  1. Robert B. Yonaitis

    Well Said. I had a similiar issue at Genuity back in the day. Half of my engineers were out and another director came over. The director made fun of them for being lazy and one of his team joined in. We stepped aside and went into a empty cubicle where I explained to him it was a jewish holiday. He left feeling – well a bit shamed in his behavior. With his Help AND management support we developed an internal culture diversity site.

    I cannot imagine a manager today that does not have diversity training. Ten years ago it did not exist in many companies. We will get there as related to A11y, it will take education, outreach and many people being pulled into empty cubes.

    Perhaps you just saw a dark spot before the dawn!

  2. David

    Pity that lawsuits and such are necessary, it should be pretty obvious to people why making their e-business accessible of benefit to everyone. Oh well.

  3. Steve Post author

    Thanks for the comments, Robert and David.

    I’d really like to think what I experienced speaks more to the individuals than the larger picture.

    Regardless, still a long road to go before accessibility is truly mainstream. You’re right, David, it shouldn’t require lawsuits, but threats to the wallet probably resonate more with many businesses than moral obligation.

  4. Shelley

    I’ve seen some of this same attitude in the Ajax development community. Not necessarily joking, but irritation at having to put the brakes on because of the “blind minority”.

    “Why should we make this change for a minority of users?”

    Demonstrates a real lack of empathy.

  5. Ian Lloyd

    If someone said that while I was demonstrating such issues, I’d wander on over and poke them in the eyes and then say “Right, now you see how you like it.”

    I wouldn’t really, but I’d flaming well want to!

  6. Gary

    Sad to say, but it’s now two years later as I read this article (March 2012) and the use of inaccessible CAPTCHA is still prevalent. Perhaps less than when this article was written, but not gone by any means. I have seen one CAPTCHA image which was static and inserted the letters and numbers from the image into the Alt-Text, something to the effect of: Type XXXXX into the text field!

  7. Steve Post author

    I recently encountered some unfortunate CAPTCHA as well, and had much the same reaction that you did. It’s out there, alive and well.

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