On Accessibility and the Lack of Proper HTML

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When Ethan Marcotte first wrote about responsive web design back in , the development world cheered, embraced what he said, and went forth and built sites responsively. This, of course, was a good thing, as making websites available to more people, regardless of their screen size is fundamental in making the web accessible to all. But wait. There’s that word; accessibility.

That one word can make web developers scream and run for cover or turn a deaf ear and a blind eye (no puns intended) in its general direction. Making sites accessible is also very important, but no matter how many people, regardless of who they are, talk about the importance of making websites more accessible, they are largely ignored. No-one cheers, no-one embraces what is said, and many don’t bother to build their sites with accessibility in mind.

But why is this? Why do developers ignore those who would benefit from their websites being more accessible? Are they not people too? Do they really want to actively shun these people from accessing their website’s content and use it the way that they need? Is this a conscious decision made by web developers? Is it laziness? Ignorance? Fear? Or do developers simply decide that the number of people who would benefit from such accessibility are, like IE8 users, simply not worth the hassle?

It’s hard to know exactly, but I feel that fear and ignorance play a large part in this, with many developers thinking that making their sites more accessible is a huge chore, and they’d rather spend their time building their websites in the latest (probably inaccessible) JavaScript framework instead. But it’s not as difficult as it seems, and starting at the fundamentals can go a long way.

As web developers, we should care about the markup we write. Ignoring, for the moment, things like WAI-ARIA, using the correct HTML tags and attributes to present content can vastly improve the accessibility of a website. It is surprising to see how many web developers are not even aware of all the valid HTML tags that are available for them to use, nor are they aware of how and when they should be used. This should be one of the fundamental things that a web developer learns, and yet it is often severely lacking.

By properly learning and understanding HTML, this foundation of web development, developers can help ensure that their content is provided in such a way that it can be correctly interpreted by tools that can then communicate the information to their users in whatever form they require. Each individual using such tools may use this information in different ways, but they can choose, in the same way as those of us who use the information as displayed in the browser can. It’s all about choice and all web users, regardless of how they access the information are entitled to it.

Browsers also provide a lot of default accessibility “out of the box” when content is contained within semantic HTML. When, for example, you use a <button> tag for a button rather than a <div> or a <span>, the browser automatically makes this focusable and clickable by the keyboard, without the need for anything extra. It just works. How can this be a bad thing? Why isn’t this also being embraced? Is it too boring? Is it not cool enough? Again it’s difficult to know the real reasons behind developer apathy when it comes to accessibility. But it does need to change.

There are plenty of people out there who advocate accessibility, and who have been doing so for many years, yet, so far there has been no break through article such as Ethan’s responsive web design one mentioned above that has captured the web developer’s imagination in the same way.

I hope this changes soon as the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages, and those who rely on us as web developers to make web content more accessible are depending on us. I emplore you not to let them down.