(This is a direct copy+paste from my twitter thread. This blog post is intended as a placeholder first post until I get the chance to add more. I may or may not edit the contents below, but I recommend just reading the twitter thread instead!)
Hi. I’m here to be annoying (hyper-pessimistic).
Announcing a new visualization, fresh for you: “Facing the Scale of Digital Inaccessibility”
(incoming mega-thread on just how bad the state of accessibility work is!)
Please at least just spend some time with this graphic:
My opening point: 97% of the top 1m sites auto-fail accessibility tests.
Does that seem bad? It is!
Can we be hopeful about the fact that 97% used to be 98%?
Automated tests have limits. And guess what? So does WCAG.
The whole picture of what it takes to actually do access work means we not only need to move beyond automated tools but also trust real people with disabilities and their perspectives.
The scope of our knowledge is mostly empty and the possibility is that it doesn’t look good.
I made this graphic mostly for myself: I’m exploring the potential scale of how much access work is still to be done.
I figured I’d share this and also unpack some of my longer-form thoughts here too. So bear with me!
The important thing to note in my graphic is that the grey, empty units (most of the graphic) represent a space that we can speculate isn’t looking good, even for the 3 “good” units at the top.
I am not making a claim of statistical probability but of possibility.
When we say we are angry or burnt out in accessibility work, it is partly due to the existential, crushing scale of it all.
In any case, my whole motivation for doing research is that we have a massive firehose of new content we put out into digital spaces.
The scale of our digital world grows far faster than our physical ones (buildings, cities).
So the scale of access needs also has grown.
Estimates say that as many as 175 websites are created every minute. That is a quarter of a million new sites every day.
And we can safely assume these are largely inaccessible.
To me, inaccessibility is a problem. But the SCALE of inaccessibility is the problem I’ve chosen to focus on specifically.
I talk about the scale as “The cone of infinite (inaccessible) evil” - the rate at which it scales into infinity is a serious problem.
The space we occupy digitally is only growing. In my field especially (data visualization), it is growing immensely.
The things we have already created are not my focus: but the rate we are creating more is only increasing, which is a problem.
And in order to interrogate this space of making-at-scale, the first question is to examine where in the process of making we could intervene.
Do we intervene on the makers and creators?
Do we teach and advocate?
Do we create design guides, standards, and laws?
Chartability is an example where I am essentially asking, “if we can teach creators how to evaluate inaccessibility, will this help solve the growing scale of problems we face in the future?” https://twitter.com/FrankElavsky/status/1382498883712868355?s=20&t=H4-fpO4PzUalPCZsIXr8PA
The next area we could intervene on is on the “created things.” I’d argue most work lies in this space (since access is often an afterthought).
The scale is already bad for things are already made… so can we augment or fix their accessibility somehow?
While most accessibility auditing works in this space (on stuff already made), I argue that things like overlays are the logical extension of a system that leaves accessibility to the end and to the hands of a few experts (machine or human experts).
Overlays attempt to solve access at scale because there is a business opportunity there for many. This is heavily recognized as bad, and in fact likely making that cone of inaccessibility WORSE!
So we even have systems contributing to how bad already-created things are!
I want to be careful to argue that not all work trying to fix things now is bad. This is actually necessary work that we need to do!
But how we try to fix the things that already exist is key to ask and business-minded opportunists may try to make money off of this carelessly.
And no offense to researchers, but a lot of research also tries to use machine learning to solve access issues (like describing images), which at best are only band-aiding things and at worst are causing bias and equity issues that make people with disabilities reliant on tech.
So what am I doing now? My mission is to try to find where people are already making and intervene on the tools and building materials that they use.
Can we have better tools and better building blocks that help us construct a more accessible world?
As an example of intervening on tools and materials:
On the web, semantic HTML is amazing. But visualizations are often built in SVG! And in our work at Visa we found that ARIA paled in comparison to HTML elements.
So our work with Visa Chart Components uses a semantic layer!
Our work on Visa Chart Components is open source!
Our goal wasn’t just to build design system components (which are intended to help devs build consistent design experiences at scale) but also to improve the raw materials they build with!
So to wrap up: what do we do about the scale problem?
My real answer is that everyone needs to start caring about accessibility and recognizing just how bad things are. We need way more than just standards and tools! We need more than advocates and experts!
We need YOU.
We will never move beyond the first half of my original graphic if we stick to standards. We need to involve PWD as real co-designers.
This is an employment and compensation justice issue! The fight to change technical systems is a social one.