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Accessibility – history and philosophy

Tina Holmboe, Greytower Technologies, August 2004.


This article aims to explain accessibility by taking a brief look at the history of information management, problems and solutions, and the philosophy of access for all.


Some time during the autumn of 1993 my then boss tossed me the task of turning automatically collected network information into documents for this new—fangled www thing. Thus began my web – and incidentally my Perl – career.

Two features quickly became apparent, and important, to me:

  1. I no longer needed to memorise IP addresses of FTP sites in order to get my hands on information and software, and
  2. it really didn't matter which of the – even then – different clients available I used, nor what type of system was on the other end.

I made my debut as an "accessibility advocate" on the Usenet group comp.infosystems.www.authoring.html in October 1996, and was invited into the Web Design Group in December of the same year. Since then I have done my little bit to make the web a little less exclusive, a little more inclusive, and perhaps just a little bit more humane.

From the very beginning – May 1996 – the WDG had a clear purpose:

The WDG's sole interest is in promoting the creation of Non—browser Specific, Non—resolution Specific, Creative and Informative sites that are Accessible to ALL users worldwide.

In terms of web accessibility we've been around the block a time or two. Over the next eight years the topic of accessibility went from something only "purists" who wanted "plain text and grey backgrounds" concerned themselves with, to the hottest and coolest thing since sliced bread.

A highly unscientific examination of the Google Usenet archives show that in 1996 the phrase "web accessibility" was mentioned 21 times between the 1st of January and the 31st of December. The same number for 2004 was 592 – a 28,000 per cent increase if you believe in statistics 1.

Even so, today there are still those who ask what accessibility is really all about.

Accessibility? What's that?

When attempting to explain an abstract idea, I often find it useful to employ, as a starting point, a dictionary. Whilst the method does not always yield a good introduction, it is immensely helpful in this case. The Pocket Oxford Dictionary tells us that "accessibility" in English means, among other things:

1. able to be reached or used.

This makes sense to us. Making a physical library accessible to a person in need of a wheelchair means to make sure he can actually get himself inside the building under his own steam the same as every other visitor there.

Making the same building accessible to a non-disabled person means exactly the same – only the method of locomotion differs.

To me, and to many others who used computers for information storage since before the web, accessibility might perhaps best be illustrated by this quote from Ben Segal:

In the beginning was – chaos. In the same way that the theory of high energy physics interactions was itself in a chaotic state up until the early 1970's, so was the socalled area of "Data Communications" at CERN. The variety of different techniques, media and protocols used was staggering; open warfare existed between many manufacturers' proprietary systems, various home—made systems (including CERN's own "FOCUS" and "CERNET"), and the then rudimentary efforts at defining open or international standards. …

… This was to decide if TCP/IP could indeed solve the problem of heterogeneous connectivity between the newer open systems and the established proprietary ones.

Once upon a time retrieving information from the computer it was physically stored in was occasionally enough to make grown men weep. Using the same computer to get hold of information somewhere else was utopia and rarely achieved without incantations, calls of "We're not worthy!" 2, and the passing of pumpkins 3..

Let us for a moment go back in history. In July 1945, an American scientist by the name of Vannevar Bush put his finger firmly on a collection of sore, and growing steadily more so, spots in the article As We May Think:

There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers – conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

He followed this by remarking that

A record, if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted. Today we make the record conventionally by writing and photography, followed by printing; but we also record on film, on wax disks, and on magnetic wires. Even if utterly new recording procedures do not appear, these present ones are certainly in the process of modification and extension.

It is clear to me that Dr. Bush knew, and understood, what would happen when human knowledge was extended by enormous amounts of information, in various formats and in innumerable locations and archives.

Whilst he said little directly on the nature of formats, the proposal he made – the creation of the Memex – leaves little doubt in my mind that an operational such system would be impossible without an agreed upon format in which to store information, as well as an equally agreed scheme of addressing.

The questions raised by Dr. Bush now bounced around for a while, taking on different shapes.

In effect, by the early 1990's, Tim Berners–Lee had made a reality out of the Memex as proposed by Vannevar Bush in 1945, and by so doing begun to solve the problems described by Ben Segal. A new form of associated—thought archive, where pieces of information was linked in various, often user—defined but always platform—independent, ways had come to be.


Let us return to the dictionary definition of "accessible":

1. able to be reached or used.

What Dr. Bush understood in 1945, what Mr. Tunnicliffe wrote about in 1967, what Charles Goldfarb devised in 1969, and what Sir Timothy made a reality of in 1990, was the ability of humanity to store and process vast amounts of information, regardless of physical location or format.

Accessibility in a web context is, to me, the science of ability: the philosophy of making information available in such a form that regardless of individual ability a person can reach it and perceive it.

Compare this to the physical library. In the context of a building, accessibility means that no matter who you are, and no matter what your means of locomotion may be, you can reach the inside. You might not be able to understand the content, but you can always get to it.

Myths! Vade retro me, Satana! 5

In 1997, Liam Quinn of the Web Design Group wrote an article called Accessibility Myths in which he listed eight common misconceptions regarding accessible websites, all sprung from a failure to understand the underlying philosophy.

Seven years later these myths still flourish, but have been joined by a new generation of misconceptions. Yet again the difficulty lay in understanding the philosophical base of information accessibility.

Present Day, Present Time 6

Remember the WDG charter ?

The WDG's sole interest is in promoting the creation of Non—browser Specific, Non—resolution Specific, Creative and Informative sites that are Accessible to ALL users worldwide.

In 1996, our focus was the promotion of non—browser specific, non—resolution specific, creative, information websites that were accessible to all users. Today, eight years later, that charter still applies – but the world has changed.

Accessibility work today is more often than not focused on disability, a development leading to the philosophy of creating special solutions for special groups 7 all over again – and as before the groups are randomly defined and often ill advised.

The abstract idea that the World Wide Web can store information which anyone could access, regardless of abilities, has grown more – not less – alien to experts, lawgivers, and users alike.

In 1996 I saw organisations, experts, and users who held firm beliefs on what the web was, and how it should be used. The focus then was on how to produce visually appealing sites for a subset of users.

In 2004 I see different organisations, different experts, and different users with equally firm beliefs in what the web is. The focus today is on creating sites that are not only visually appealing, but also accessible … to a subset of users.

Once again we are grouping people based on single traits. Where, in 1996 it was "Users of browser X", it is in 2004 "The blind". Now, as then, we assume that this grouping tell us all that we need to know in order to cater for individual users. Now, as then, we adapt to some, but not to all.

These last eight years have seen little in the way of real understanding being developed in the field of accessibility. We have come a long way as technicians, but we have a bit left to go as philosophers before accessibility for all becomes a natural part of web development.


Contact Details

Tina Holmboe


Without these people and their kind assistance, this article would probably never have been written, and certainly never been finished. My sincere thanks.


1 You do remember what it is claimed that Mark Twain said about statistics ? Back to note no. 1

2 Wayne's World Back to note no. 2

3 It's a Perl thing. Back to note no. 3

4 It has been claimed that the name "GML" was formed from the initials of the creators Goldfarb, Mosher and Lorie. Since Charles Goldfarb himself doesn't say anything regarding it in his article The Roots of SGML -- A Personal Recollection I think we can safely discard that idea. Back to note no. 4

5 Mark 8:33 Back to note no. 5

6 Serial Experiments Lain Back to note no. 6

7 "This site best viewed with Netscape" anyone ? Back to note no. 7

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