One Foot In the Past…

Published 20 years, 9 months past

Anyone who’s been reading this site for more than a year might remember my rantings last year when the Section 508 Web site went online and proclaimed it worked best in IE5+ for Windows.  The other day, I got e-mail from another developer working for the U.S. House of Representatives, who had some disheartening information to share, and I think it’s worth talking about.  I’m going to quote my source in some detail, but as you might expect, this will be an “unnamed government source.”  I’m going to use the pronoun “he” because it’s technically gender-neutral English, and I don’t feel like saying “he or she” every time I need to use a pronoun.

The e-mail was prompted by this person finding and reading last year’s rants.  Thus, after a short introduction, he said:

…as far as the 508 guidelines go, we use them, but nobody seems to actually be concerned with accessibility. It’s just making sure the InFocus software approves you according to the guidelines, and plod onwards. Nobody cares about the usefulness or lack thereof of the features they’re putting in, nothing is planned out, and the barest minimum to meet the guidelines is all that you’ll get from most developers.

This, of course, is a problem of management: it would seem nobody in this particular shop has made forward thinking a priority.  Rather than plan for the future, they’re stuck in the past.  (Some would say this is unsurprising in a government institution, but never mind that now.)  You might think a quick intravenous application of Designing With Web Standards might be just what the doctor ordered.  However, it turns out there’s a reason the project managers don’t care:

Of course, this is infinitely more preferable to the attitude from the actual Congressmen; I’ve actually had aides ask me if the site has to include accessibility features.

And there’s the problem.  The clients are not only aware of accessibility, but borderline hostile to it.  How do you overcome that kind of hurdle?  We can say, “It’s your job to educate the client,” but at a certain point you have to stop singing to the pigs.

I seem to recall that, some time back, AOL was sued for being inaccessible, and lost.  Will it take a similar suit to bring government sites into the 21st century?  I sincerely hope not; if there’s one thing I think America could do with less of, it’s lawsuits.  (No offense intended to the legally inclined folks I know.)

In such a situation, the best approach to improvement would likely be a back-stage effort by the coders themselves.  They can just do the right thing and not bother their clients with the details of how things get done, right?  Maybe not:

…just about everybody is still coding with FONT soup. This is especially frustrating when people ask me for help to do something which would be trivial if they knew a modicum of CSS, but which is onerous at best given whatever HTML hack they’re using. I’ve broached using more CSS with people, and they all just mutter something about Netscape 4 and stick their heads back in the sand.

At this stage, I’m not sure what can be done for Our Hero, except maybe expressing some compassion and pity.

This is the kind of situation that I think is more common than many of us realize, and it’s a serious impediment to the forward motion of the Web.  The enormous amount of wasted bandwidth and time such coding practices incur would, if translated into dollars, very likely cover a significant chunk of the U.S. national debt.  There are too many Web authors stuck in 1999, and not enough who are looking forward to 2005 and beyond.  What words, what memes would penetrate their shells and point them in the right direction?

This is a deep and serious challenge for groups like the W3C and the WSP, not to mention people like me, who just want things to be better than they’ve been in the past.  Last night I met a guy who expressed incredulity that Netscape had hired me, back in May of 2001, to tell people that standards were a good thing.  “What was your title, Manager In Charge of Repeating the Painfully Obvious?” he asked, laughing.  If only that had been so; in an ideal world, there would have been no need for Netscape to hire me in the first place.  What seems so obvious to so many of us seems to be utterly unknown to so many more—or, perhaps worse, known but disregarded.

What will it take to turn things around?  More corporate XHTML+CSS designs?  A pronouncement from one of those consulting firms who get quoted by the media all the time, but nobody really knows what else they do besides issue semi-useless browser demographic data and charge huge consulting fees?  Another grass-roots campaign like the original WaSP?  Blackmail?

I wish I knew.  This is yet another uphill battle against overwhelming odds, but a battle so much worth fighting that I can’t walk away from it.  I think this is my third such battle in the Web space alone.  Sometimes I wonder how many battles I have in me.  I also wonder why I keep finding new battles to fight.

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