I’ve been following the development of HTML5 under the auspices of an ostensibly benevolent dictator, Hixie, with Maciej as court jester. When it comes to accessibility, the entire WHAT (“TF”) WG seems to selectively exercise one of its design principles, paving the cowpaths. We have to keep font because shitty content-management systems still use it, but we can get rid of useful accessibility elements and attributes because equally shitty adaptive technologies do not use them.

For a few elements and attributes, chiefly pertaining to tables, WHAT WG has grandly allowed that it might change its mind if and only if presented with overwhelming evidence. This is disingenuous, of course; they’re wasting our time and they’ll plow right ahead and remove from the spec whatever they never wanted there in the first place. But what is even worse is expecting the people who actually care about accessibility to do all the research work, up to and including writing proofs that will convince the politburo (and in the absence of a documented level of proof that actually will convince them).

This is a proxy for expecting disabled people to prove why they deserve their own rights. WHAT WG is forcing the few people who know what they’re talking about, and who care about accessibility, to hack the system in the hopes that what they already clearly need won’t be taken away from them. It’s a kind of cruelty we associate with the most disturbing picture in the history of Hollywoood, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (There is the related issue of dismissing our expertise because we can’t prove it! to the satisfaction of nonexperts. But that’s mostly happening with microformats and is another Tantekism.)

Now, has this happened before? Have the representatives of people with disabilities been forced to hack a system just to make it barely usable for their needs? Yes, and the evidence for it takes the pleasingly indisputable form of an official tribunal ruling.

In 2004, the Thibodeau family filed a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency over the treatment of their disabled daughter during a series of airline flights. (Excerpts; emphasis added.)

Tonya Thibodeau is 13 years old, has spinal muscular atrophy, and uses an electric wheelchair. Because she has steel rods in her back, she has to be transferred to and from her wheelchair with a sling and pole. She cannot be manually lifted without this equipment. She is completely dependent on her parents and they perform all of her transfers.

Upon arrival of the flight in Toronto from Vancouver, Mr. and Mrs. Thibodeau wanted to get their daughter’s wheelchair from the baggage retrieval area… However, they were advised by an employee driving an airport electric cart that this was not possible as electric wheelchairs are not permitted in the airport terminal building. This employee then left without offering further assistance.

Ms. Thibodeau and one of her parents were directed to seats in the bulkhead row. The bulkhead seat assigned to Ms. Thibodeau was not appropriate due to her stature, resulting in Ms. Thibodeau experiencing pain and requiring one of her parents to physically hold her up during the flight.

The pole used for Ms. Thibodeau’s transfers, which was stored in the overhead bin, accidentally fell from the overhead bin when someone opened it.

While in Orlando, the Thibodeaus communicated with the Wish Foundation concerning the improper seating assignments. The Wish Foundation took immediate action[, hacked the system,] and upgraded Ms. Thibodeau and her attendant’s seating accommodations, assigning them seats in the executive-class section for all flight segments of their return trip.

Upon arrival in Victoria, the Thibodeaus discovered that Ms. Thibodeau’s wheelchair was missing. An employee informed them that he received a message from Toronto stating that the Thibodeaus did not pick up the wheelchair at Customs, so it was not cleared and loaded in the aircraft to Vancouver. The wheelchair finally arrived in Victoria on an Air Canada flight at approximately 11:00 p.m.

The Agency notes that this was a new travel experience for the family and that Mr. and Mrs. Thibodeau submitted that even the thought of taking a trip across North America with their daughter was quite frightening to them. Because of the number of disappointments they had, their travel experience was not a happy one. The non-selection of appropriate seating at booking and the resulting confusion and stress of having seats reassigned on board the aircraft, at check-in, and while in Orlando; the lift pole which fell out of the overhead bin; the non-availability of Ms. Thibodeau’s personal wheelchair for her use in the Toronto airport terminal building; the lack of assistance to the Thibodeaus with their carry-on luggage at the Toronto airport; and the delayed delivery of Ms. Thibodeau’s wheelchair on her return to Victoria all contributed to their disappointments.

The Agency finds that the great deal of stress and anxiety experienced by the Thibodeaus was the result of missed opportunities in the planning and reservation process of what was intended to be a truly memorable trip for Tonya Thibodeau and her family. The Agency also notes that this was the first time Ms. Thibodeau and her family travelled by air and the Agency is of the opinion that the family was not completely informed by those responsible for the travel arrangements of what to expect, especially in terms of the seating accommodations on the aircraft, the boarding chair and the aisle widths, and of the fact that, at the origin point, a passenger can request that a personal wheelchair be properly tagged and brought to the door of the aircraft.

In essence, the WHAT WG is making us rebook our own seats (choosing from a range of options that, by all appearances, comprises precisely two choices) instead of taking it upon itself to create an accessible experience. Disability-discrimination laws unanimously state that it is an affirmative duty of an organization to initiate action, and indeed go out of its way, to achieve accessibility up to the point of undue hardship.

I am quite sure that, irrespective of their protestations to the contrary (or off-topic complaints about Jaws), the WG politburo, especially Hixie and Maciej, have made up their minds about accessibility features of HTML5. Even if outside experts somehow manage to satisfy their inordinate requirements to justify existing features, new requirements will suddenly appear. Then one day the standard will have been ratified and they’ll have what they feel is a perfect cover story: You didn’t do a good enough job of convincing us.

Research and development are their job, not ours, and could easily be handled by the W3C and the billion-dollar conglomerates who employ leading politburo members.

On the plus side, pace Zeldman, HTML 4 and XHTML 1.0 will continue to work just fine into the foreseeable future. On the minus side, paying even this much attention to HTML5 is a waste of time. It’s one of the many changes I’ll be making for ’08.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.12.23 16:06. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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