Kilian Valkhof

Building tools that make developers awesome.

Accessibility is not like drowning

Accessibility, 21 May 2020, 3 minute read

Accessibility is not like drowning. I mean it obviously isn’t, but let me explain why I’m comparing the two. Today is Global Accessibility Awareness Day, and there’s something I want to talk about.

In stoic philosophy there is a metaphor of the drowning man to explain that no one is perfect, and that virtue is all or nothing. The philosopher Cato described it in this way:

“For just as a drowning man is no more able to breathe if he be not far from the surface of the water, so that he might at any moment emerge, than if he were actually at the bottom already … similarly a man that has made some progress towards the state of virtue is none the less in misery than he that has made no progress at all.” (De Finibus, IV.48)

In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re just below the surface or at the bottom of a lake, you’ll drown just as fast in both places even if just below the surface feels so much closer to safety.

And just the same, the metaphor goes, it doesn’t matter if you are a little unvirtuous or a lot. Either you’re virtuous or not.

I find that a lot of people think the same when it comes to accessibility. Either you make things perfectly accessible (defined most of the time as “as accessible as I make things”) or you have failed and none of your work matters.

This is, mildly put, extremely unhelpful.

Because accessibility is not like drowning. What we called accessibility is a broad range of techniques meant to improve your website for a broad range of people, all with different capabilities.

Small improvements matter

Making improvements, however little, will make your site easier to use for a group of people (even if that’s not all people). So if you make sure all your colors have sufficient contrast you made your site better for the group of people that have bad eyesight. You did a good job and thanks to your efforts that group of people can now use your site more comfortably.

Now, I think accessibility is never done. So next time make sure you also check that your site is keyboard accessible. Then after that make sure your heading structure makes sense. Then check that you’re not using “read more” links, that all your images and videos have alternate content, that you provide ways for visitors to skip over large lists of links. Then …the list goes on. But that’s okay, no one was born making perfectly accessible websites. Just make sure you improve.

Accessibility is your thing.

Those efforts matter. And it sucks seeing people punching down those that make an effort, even if the effort is imperfect. It discourages people and makes them decide that “accessibility is not their thing” and that’s literally never true.

Accessibility is not like drowning. Every improvement is a meaningful one, every improvement helps someone. And you can also always do a little better.

After the paragraph I quoted above, Cato goes on to explain how, even if you’re equally unvirtuous, you can still progress towards virtue.

But, he argues, the fact that you’re closer to virtue compared to someone else doesn’t mean you’re better than them.

So maybe accessibility is a little bit like drowning after all.

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