There were two times in my career where I’ve been publicly shamed over accessibility. The first was at one of the first conferences I ever attended and the keynote speaker shit-talked my open source project on the main stage. Oof. The second was when I worked on a high profile website, a well-known accessibility company wrote a big “Do Better”-style post and outlined a myriad of accessibility errors which found its way to the legal department which came back around to me. Bigger oof. These were frustrating experiences, particularly the latter, because we had tried to do a good job and despite all those good intentions failed.
Could those critics have been nicer? Sure, that would have bruised my ego less. But disabled people and accessibility advocates don’t owe it to me or to anyone to be nice. If you couldn’t use 7 out of the top 15 e-commerce sites, you’d lose patience too. While tech often deflects on issues of ethics, accessibility faces that responsibility head on. To put it another way, accessibility is design and development with a built-in moral compass. So if an accessibility expert comes across as an asshole, I now assume it’s saltiness built up from years of exhaustion answering the same bullshit questions over and over like “Do blind people really matter?”… Ugh.
If you’ve been publicly shamed for anything, what matters most is how you respond next. You can double-down on defensiveness and self-preservation (the wrong answer) or you can approach it with a growth mindset and funnel that energy in a positive direction. I attempted to do the latter with my shame and frustration. I made the A11Y Project because of my own ignorance and difficulty finding up-to-date, easy-to-understand, and forgiving accessibility knowledge. If there’s one thing I believe it’s that most web developers aren’t going to be accessibility experts, but all developers need a working knowledge of accessibility. And the data shows, we’re all making mistakes.
Speaking of mistakes, it wasn’t long until I was publicly shamed a third time. In the days after the launch of the A11Y Project our credibility got questioned because we had posted an article on how to use
accesskey in HTML, which is a bad technique because it swallows a lot of screen reader shortcuts. It wasn’t obvious a feature of HTML would have such a drawback. The sardonic comments lobbied to discredit our fledgling project hoping to raise developer awareness were disheartening. Rather than retreat and become some Joker-style Batman villain, we pulled down the post and issued a correction. Thankfully, this experience fit within our ethos of keeping accessibility information up-to-date. I had expected corrections, just not so soon.
Recently, a popular company released a new product that uses AI to rapidly generate “production grade” front-end UI code. There were –as any human familiar with the basics of accessibility could have predicted– glaring and obvious accessibility errors in the code produced by the AI1. While the company was receptive to the feedback, there was a gross sideshow of ableist backlash from that product’s community; a toxicity that I hope gets publicly addressed. I don’t support AI-assisted ableism, but I understand this company’s predicament. You make something cool, want to share it with the world (and stakeholders), but it exposed a lack of internal culture for prioritizing accessible experiences.
“Why can’t I just make cool shit?” is certainly a vibe and if you’re making it for you and your friends… sure? But when you have influence in an ecosystem, Spider-man style “great responsibility” starts coming into play. As cool as any technology may be, we need to be sure we’re not rapidly generating inequality at scale.
I hope I’ve leveled up over the years to never experience another accessibility-shaming… but I’m certain it will happen again. Despite what I know, I still find creating end-to-end accessible experiences difficult. It’s difficult to hold the galaxies of nuance inside my distracted 30-watt brain. My intuition on the subject dissipates as I float between responsibilities. After nearly thirty years of making websites –despite being someone who cares deeply– I’m more confident in my ability to produce an inaccessible experience than an accessible one. It’s why I will advocate until the grave that making good accessible websites needs to be easier.
The title of this post is a riff on (one of my favorite authors) Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed which is absolutely worth a read if you haven’t read it.
Finding samples of AI output and saying “this is inaccessible” or “this is racist” is probably always going to be low-hanging fruit to dunk on. Those features are encoded in the models. Models will (hopefully) get better, but if you work with LLMs and didn’t painstakingly try to fine tune out all those inaccuracies, you must be honest about the risks. Conversely, to those crying out at this very real wolf, I worry we’ll dull its own truth and techno-perverts will either 1) begin ignore it or 2) go full red pill over it. ↩