Let’s say you pass a blind person walking down a busy sidewalk, tapping a cane in front of her. Now let’s say that someone sneaks up on her and sticks out a leg to trip her up, putting it between the cane and her legs so that it will not be detected before the unfortunate victim has fallen face-first onto a concrete sidewalk. Let’s say that you ask the assailant why the hell she indulged in such a senseless act of cruelty, and her baffled reply is,
Jesus! I was just playing a practical joke. I didn’t realize that people walking down the sidewalk might not be able to see!
Unfortunately, this is not very different from how many Web designers treat the blind on a regular basis. Sites are frequently designed without any thought at all for how people who don’t have normal sight might be able to access them. I’m not saying this to be preachy; bad, inaccessible web design is a sin I’ve certainly been guilty of in the past, and one that I have to make a conscious effort to overcome. It’s not easy just to sit down and produce a website that will be accessible to people with radically different ways of browsing the web. But even when the right thing to do is hard, it’s still the right thing to do, and accessibility is something that we should all seriously think about, and act on, starting right now.
Most of the sins against accessibility on the web, though, are sins of omission; people fail to make use of web design features (such as proper semantic markup or
alt text for
<img> tags) that make things easier on the blind. There are, however, those who do worse than that: who indulge in sins of commission by breaking standard web features and actively making their sites unpleasant, or simply impossible to use, for people who don’t have normal sight. Sometimes they do this by implementing important sections of their website with
glitzy and completely inaccessible technologies like
Flash. And sometimes they do it because they think they have legitimate business reasons for trodding all over basic Web standards.
As much as I love Google, it looks like they have decided to put themselves in that latter camp with their proposed free e-mail service. Google, apparently, is worried that people might reverse-engineer their webmail interface and use it in unauthorized ways; in order to get around this they have apparently decided to override basic web conventions (such as, you know, using
<a href="..."> for links) and implement the interface through scripting hacks. Mark Pilgrim discusses the astonishing number of usability landmines in his demolition-review of the Gmail interface:
Furthermore, the most innovative feature of Gmail—the global keyboard shortcuts—appears to have been designed by vi users (j moves down, k moves up, and we are expected to memorize multi-key sequences for navigation). Yet by using fake links everywhere, Gmail throws away the most basic web feature, breaks useful browser-level innovations like Mozilla’s “Find as you type”, and breaks third-party products like JAWS and WindowEyes. So the target market for Gmail appears to be vi users who use Internet Explorer, and have a working pair of eyes.
In short, the only way to use Gmail is the way that the Gmail designers use Gmail. The only way Gmail could be less accessible is if the entire site were built in Flash.
Lots of people have raised privacy concerns about Gmail (see, for example, CultureCat’s remarks on Gmail and the recent Slashdot thread); I think these concerns are understandable, and worth raising, but more than a little overblown. I’ll have more to say on that in coming days, but for now I want to say that this ought to be considered a complete show-stopper. There is no excuse for interfaces that discriminate against the blind like Gmail’s planned interface does. No-one with a conscience could allow their company to go forward with a
service like this. I can only hope that Sergey Brin and his compatriots will prove that they have one–by thoroughly rethinking what they are doing, and fixing their interface so that it does not needlessly make life harder for the visually disabled.
For further reading:
- Rad Geek People’s Daily accessibility statement
- An excellent resource on accessible design is Mark Pilgrim‘s web book, Dive Into Accessibility: 30 days to a more accessible website.