19 February, 2007

Luca Passani is wrong in my opinion – discrimination isn’t good for business

I’m surprised by the lack of awareness of Luca Passani from Openwave and co-accessablity icon founder of WURFL , about people who have special needs/preferences when browsing the Web. To put this into context, I’ll give you some background before I telling you why.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is responsible for creating and harmonizing standards such as HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) and HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol).

mwi logo

In 2005, The W3C started an initiative called the Mobile Web Initiative (MWI). The MWI Best Practices was one of the first documents created by the group. The document is basically a list of guidelines to help developers, who are not necessarily familiar with mobile technology, develop Web sites that will work better on mobile devices such as PDAs and Web enabled phones.

In the interest of taking advantage of existing expertise within the W3C, the group reviewed guidelines that already existed and started with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These guidelines help developers build sites that are accessible to as many people as possible. In short, Web accessibility is about making sure all visitors [users/people] on your Web site can access the content regardless of ability.

We took this route because Web sites that are built using accessibility guidelines for people are also very useful for making sites more accessible on different device types, such as desktop computers, laptops and mobile phones.

We went through the accessibility guidelines and discussed each one in great detail via conference calls and email. We discarded the guidelines that weren’t appropriate for mobile devices and modified, where appropriate, the remaining guidelines. We then added additional best practices that didn’t exist in WCAG. So in summary, we only used what was appropriate.

During an MWI email conversation, Luca made a passing comment about disabled people’s needs and how they should be met. In my opinion, he made too many assumptions about how to be fair and equal to disabled people.

Rather than clog up the W3C’s inbox with opinions about making the Web accessible to all, I thought it might be a good idea to write this post and solicit readers’ opinions.

So, Luca was responding to the following comment

… help developers ensure that they build Web sites which are accessible to as many users as possible, including people with disabilities.

Luca’s response was

People with disabilities should get software or reformatting proxies built to enable them to hit the regular web. Are hotel rooms built for people with disabilities? no, but they usually have 3 or 4 rooms built for that purposes.

Do metro stations have enough lifts to carry thousands of people going in and out? no. They have one lift or two for people with disabilities and ladies pushing a pram.

Same goes for anything else. We can’t disable the web because of people with disabilities, we need to enable it for them. Same goes for the mobile web of course. In fact, it’s already hard enough to enable the mobile web for people without disabilities…

Leaving the difficulties of developing Web sites that will work on mobile devices aside; I would like to focus on Luca’s comment regarding people with disabilities.

First of all, his last comment about not disabling the Web for people with disabilities is obvious. However, I think the rest of his comment demonstrates ignorance and lack of awareness for people who have different needs.

I think he’s talking about disabled people, as if they deserve second best. They’re perhaps even second class citizens who deserve only to stay in specific rooms in hotels and leave by the back door because it’s wide enough for delivery services.

Not only is Web accessibility a moral and corporate social responsibility, it’s actually a legal requirement in countries such as the UK, United States and Australia. Furthermore, it makes good business sense given all the financial and search optimisation benefits which we’ll cover in another post.

There are circumstances where it’s not possible to provide equal access to everyone all of the time.

‘Accessibility’, we should try our best not to discriminate against other people, by making sure everyone in society has equal access and is treated fairly – but should this come at the expense of making redundancies or closing down a business?

Below are three examples that demonstrate how society just doesn’t get it, or perhaps, doesn’t care?
  1. My first example below demonstrates that providing the same access to everyone isn’t possible all of the time, yet people are still treated equally.
  2. The second example demonstrates a situation where it is possible to provide equal access, but a local authority has decided to prohibit ‘access to everyone’, in favour of the sentimental value of a building.
  3. My final example draws the parallel between the first two accessibility issues that are recognised by everyone, irrespective of the industry they’re involved in and the online world.

Every example is based on my personal experience.

Example 1

My next door neighbour is a solicitor with an office located on the forth floor of a very narrow, listed building . It’s technically impossible to install a lift. The cost of adding an extension in order to install a lift is significantly disproportionate to the benefits of making it accessible to wheelchair users. In short, he would go out of business if forced to install a lift.

So, to ensure he is being inclusive and fairly accommodating all clients, he makes customers and potential customers aware that he’s very happy to meet with them in the café across the road.

Do you think he should try to install a lift no matter what the cost? Or do you think it’s ok to meet people in the café?

Example 2

Retail outlet Gap is located in the scenic high-street of Guildford . Gap also happens to be located in a listed building. They applied for planning permission to have a lift installed during a complete refurbishment project, perhaps for dads like me with two small children in a double pushchair (gremlins at the best of time when your back is turned) (note, I include myself and my double pushchair in the classification “disabled” here, I am not restricting the term to the traditional sense of the word).

Gap’s planning permission to install a lift was denied by Guildford Council as it is a listed building. Today, Gap has a beautifully furnished retail outlet but it doesn’t permit access to the men’s department for a great number of potential customers, including dads with double pushchairs and wheelchair users.

Is this ok? If you were the planning authority for Guildford and you had to choose between two pieces of legislation, would you choose a building over people? Could Gap still be taken to court? Personally I think there’s a case to take against Guildford Council.

Could Guildford Council be taken to court? Remember the airport was also found 50% liable when Ryanair lost their court case for charging a passenger for the use of a wheelchair.

Example 3

River Island (you’ve probably read about this in the media last year) built river island web site screen shota Web site that didn’t provide equal access to everyone. In fact, it’s one of the most inaccessible Web sites I’ve every come across. It’s horrible.

Since they’ve been slated in the press and reaping the benefit of free PR (it is arguable at the same time that they used great marketing tactics). River Island has stated that it will build a HTML alternative so that disabled users can have access.

Nearly a year later and River Island still hasn’t built an accessible site. Do they really think that a placeholder page is a ‘get out of jail free card’?

So, not only will River Island have to spend more time and money buildingriver island web site with message to disabled users a new site, they will have to spend ongoing time and money in maintaining the site because both must provide the same products and services at the same time. Otherwise they’re back to square one and could end up in court.

Some users may feel discriminated against if they’re asked to use another Web site ‘just because’.


So, if it’s not technically possible, or the cost is significantly disproportionate to the benefit of making a Web site accessible, then provide an alternative.

Does River Island fit into this category? Last year I would have said maybe, but because they haven’t bothered their arse to do anything I’d say they should be sued for purposely excluding people. I have time for organisations that aren’t aware, but I have no time for those that have been told in black and white what they’re doing is wrong.

Should people write to Guildford Council to find out why they think it’s more important to maintain the look ‘n feel of the inside of a building than it is to provide equal access to everyone and to treat everyone fair?

I’m very interested to hear your opinion because often we entertain extreme views in society. We have people who think disabled users get too many parking spaces in shopping centres, while others go on the war path if they see a driver in a disabled spot 5 mins before Tesco is about to close on a Sunday afternoon and it’s unlikely that 50 disabled drivers are about to enter the car park and require that same spot.

If we find it difficult to get it right on the high-street, how on earth are we supposed to get it right online? If we can’t get it right online after 16 years, what hope do we have when making the Web mobile?


68 Responses to “Luca Passani is wrong in my opinion – discrimination isn’t good for business”

  1. Marten van Wezel 22 February 2007 at 11:14 am #

    Hey Chaals,

    I’ve read a lot of stuff, and dug into the MWI too, however it is quite likely I have missed some things, it’s quite a lot of info (and I do agree with a lot the thought processes that show in its wording, don’t get me wrong). Am I a ‘passani disciple’? For brevity I’ll just say ‘yes’ although I do think my focal point is different from Luca’s.

    About BP, well I don’t think we structurally disagree here – one of my points was the misnomer: BP is actually not a BP, it is the ‘EWO’ ;) – it is a system with which you can quickly whip up a site that just works. Fair enough, but I don’t think that is the stated purpose of the document(s) in question, since professionals would take one look at the results, blush and go the adaptation route. It’s not Best Practice, it is a placeholder until you have time to make a -proper- mobile site. yes, BP/MWI do say ‘use adaptation if possible’ here and there, but a BP document, in my opinion, should not direct away from itself.

    Also you’re right on the braille thing, in so far as that I’ve never actually worked with one. What I did work with (involuntarily, hah) was the Microsoft Windows screen reader, that started dictating my entire screen out of the blue. I must’ve hit control-alt-shift-F6! ack! What struck me was that it started reading window titles, started giving me context descriptions etc, long before it actually started reading out the main text of the window in focus. Limited experience to be sure, but given that little anecdote I still think my intentions here were not totally unfounded ;)

    My wording in my previous post was wrong though – where I said ‘no formatting at all’ I was thinking of things like tables, css etc, while I should’ve put it differently. Obviously, a braille reader needs some cues to know where to ‘skip to’ if the user tells the device he isn’t interested in the story currently being read. Leaving in things like and would of course make a lot of sense.

    MobileOK last call in one week.. wow, I better hurry over there (Im sure the people there will be giddy with anticipation of my arrival :) )

  2. [...] I wrote a post which now has 50 comments and a staggering word count of 11,759 words. The comments include mine, but the word count doesn’t. Comments have come from very qualified people in companies such as Opera and Google , so this competition is a by-product, rather than something I thought of before writing the post. [...]

  3. Viral blog game…

    I learned today that Segala’s Firefox extension will be backed by the W3C Semantic Web Education and Outreach (SWEO) special interest group. More soon.
    I’m now heading to the European launch of the Family Online Safety Institute in the Hou…

  4. Paul Walsh 22 February 2007 at 1:57 pm #

    sorry about last pingback – wrong post! I’ll exclude it from my fun word count game.

  5. David Rooks 22 February 2007 at 6:10 pm #

    Well, this post appears to have finally run out of steam. You sure do know how to fuel a debate Paul!

    Its disheartening to read that some people can not seem to grasp the concept of ‘one web’. The MWI is about making web pages as accessible as possible on mobile devices. It is not concerned with WAP (though it can be argued that WAP is part of the web). If mobile content developers want to continue making WAP sites then by all means please do. We all know that the MWI inititive is not going to provide THE solution to making the web work on all devices. If they want to try apply the MWI GUIDELINES (yes, thats right, for about the thousandth time, GUIDELINES) then even better :)

    Perhaps it is due to this WAP vs WEB confusion that some people’s reactions to accessibility have been so out of line. Or, rather, i hope thats the case as some of the opinions have been nothing but ignorant and arrogant. I can fully appreciate how the WCAG impose too many hurdles on WAP developers but that’s no reason to dismiss them. Aiding the disabled should be everyones concern, (with respect to the web) not just the web developers, not just the software developers and not just the hardware developers. Palming off your responsiblilties as a decent citizen to someone else is nothing but a cop out. If we all did our bit the web would open up and enrich the lives of so many millions more.

    My final thoughts go out to Mr kenneth gf brown who has gone worryingly quiet. Lets hope he’s back on his meds (or off them as the case may be) and did not suffer a rage induced heart attack.

  6. Paul Littlebury 22 February 2007 at 6:27 pm #

    Chaal makes very good overall point, which is about generalisation. Maybe that is a generalisation in itself :) Making assumptions about the usability requirements, without first analysing the potential scenarios, is pure supposition past certain point. If a website or mobile site is designed and coded to standards, it means that it will be easier for other hardware/software to deal with. The site will be “machine-friendly”. And coding and desgining to baseline standards will help future-proof a website. Last years debacle over Flash/ActiveX licencing, highlighted the danger on relying too much on browser functionality and additional software in web application development. A development shortcut can seem attractive, but can come and bite you on the behind at later date. A website should be independant of browser or device. i.e. a website shouldnt be affected adversely from whatever device it is viewed from. That is ideal-world stuff, but it should at least be aspird to.

    This is a useful debate – after first being a little shocked at the amount of negative reaction, I now see it is just a subject that is having a long-overdue debate. Web accessibility will change things on a wider scale than just catering for disabilities (a commendable effort by itself), it will improve the overall quality of web applications. With the drive to get sites mediuh-ed up the last few years, quality has taken a back seat. Admittedly this has been partly down to the pressures to get stuff out there, and business drivers. But that is short term thinking, better to think long-term, rather than following the same methodology councils use in road planning – wait til the roads clog up, then make the roads bigger, then wait til the roads clog up … etc.etc.

    The MWI best practices are common sense, and many of basic principles can be found in the oldest software development books. We are dealing with logic in technology, and it is logical to have baseline standards. I havent used any of things mentioned (screen readers, braille readers), but I am guessing they are made, assuming certain standards. But reliance on the competence of accessibility hardware/software, or browser components/plugins, that is processing and displaying your data is never advisable!

    Great debate – I have learnt much, just from this discussion thread.

  7. Sam Falaki 23 February 2007 at 2:15 am #

    Well David Rooks, hopefully your “comittees” will be able to come up with stuff that’s practical and feasible, as opposed to 90% of the useless standards that are out there. Hopefully whatever it is you “recommend” won’t require that we buy Microsoft Windows or a J2EE server and java “beans”. Explain to me this, how is it that these comittes come up with all these fancy new acronyms and standards, and couldn’t come up with anything better than POST and GET for webserver2webserver communications after all these years? Could it be because the schemes (J2EE etc) were to complex? You might also want to consider that many people including myself look for equivalent WAP sites when navigating with PDAs because they have a much nicer leaner layout. As to the guidelines, I’ll have to see them before commenting, but if it’s “take it or leave it”, from what I’m seeing on this forum, I’ll probably leave it… and create adaptive sites for my client’s viewing pleasure. Good luck to all you grand “visionaries” out there; I’ll keep my fingers crossed and hope the major players in the industry don’t somehow force your guidelines upon us through their market dominance. Accessibility… what kind of drugs are the committee members taking? I want some! Are these “accessibility” guidelines for the whole world, or just for Guildford?
    Speaking of “citizen responsibilities”, your “one web” religion may include a couple of handicapped people, but it will exclude a very large portion of the world that doesn’t have the latest iphone. To think that the same web page should be equally “viewable” on a one inch screen or a 19 inch screen is ridiculous. Possible? Yes. Good? No. The only way I see a one-web possible is to completely separate content from markup. In a way, we already do the “one web” (one mobile web) with Luca Pasani’s WALL/Wurfl, which BY THE WAY runs on $3/month linux webhosting. And for the record, I’m not a “good citizen” and don’t plan on being one.

    Sam Falaki

  8. Paul Walsh 25 February 2007 at 3:32 pm #

    Sam – you’re waffling on about standards that are even been discussed here. I don’t see the point in reiterating my view yet again as I’ve already repeated it at least 3 or 4 times. WAP is cool and will stay with us for a while longer. However, it’s based on yesterday’s technology and restricts users by offering limited choices from mobiles

  9. Sean Owen 25 February 2007 at 6:40 pm #

    Waffling? Dunno, I think my view is pretty consistent here. Do you mean off-topic? You’re posting about WAP when you started another thread on that topic, is that the issue?

    Well to further confuse the issue: I agree with you. WAP is here for now. WAP is totally fine. In fact I think it’s already evolved about as far as is meaningful as a mechanism for delivering content to limited devices like phones.

    My argument if anything is this is never really going to be “the future of the web.” A device small enough to be a phone just can’t have the input methods or screen real estate to make it anything like a desktop computer’s experience. I do think people will access the web on the go, but, through devices that are essentially low-end PCs rather than high-end phones.

    In my primitive home continent of North America, WAP is still barely catching on, for a variety of reasons. Some people view this as an ironic effect of the fact that land-line phone networks caught on more quickly here than in Europe, and later, Europe merely went straight to more advanced stuff like mobile phones.

    My view is that in North America, mobile browsing is going to leap straight to access from more capable devices like big, bad PDAs and things like the Nokia Communicator or iPhone.

    But… that’s a ways away. WAP is still here and quite a legitimate source of focus and discussion.

  10. Paul Walsh 25 February 2007 at 9:43 pm #

    Sean – take another look at my comment, it’s addressed to Sam :)

    I’ve never thought you waffled, quite the opposite.

  11. Sean Owen 26 February 2007 at 4:50 pm #

    Oh man sorry, I read that too fast and swore it was to me for some reason.

  12. Paul Walsh 26 February 2007 at 6:17 pm #

    :) you’re turning into me

  13. [...] The idea was to see which blog post could attract the highest word count from commentators. It was in fact one of my previous posts about mobile web that inspired me to start the game. The post has amassed more than 17,000 in word count in comments. [...]

  14. [...] The last time I wrote about the Mobile Web vs the Mobile Internet (cough; premium WAP stuff) I received a stunning word count of more than 17,000 words in comments alone. That’s a small book. To add to this, they were from very qualified people I trust at organisations such as Google, MobileAware, .mobi, WURFL and Opera. As a founding member of the W3C Mobile Web Initiative Steering Council, this is a subject close to my heart. It’s an area which attracts a lot of much needed debate too, which I quite like. [...]

  15. [...] Another batch of ideas from a post by Paul Walsh on Segala’s blog. This time in response to his opinion over Luca Passaini’s comments regarding disabled users and the web. Sean Owen On one end, you can build a customized fully-accessible web site separate from your main site. Expensive and not very one-web is it. On the other end you can try to author your site correctly so that, for example, users can enlarge the font while not destroying the site’s layout. You can use meaningful structural markup to aid transcoders and screen readers. I think the latter is the most realistic, lowest-cost, fastest way to make the web accessible. I think Luca agrees. Rather than berate site owners for not building an accessible site, turn them on to the benefits of proper web authoring. Indeed, the solution will be in good tools on the user’s end. I think we need to first focus on user-side tools, while simultaneously reasonably exhorting sites to be friendly to these tools. Presto: no disabling of the web. [...]

  16. [...] spent last night joining in discussion on the segala blog, reference web accessibility. I was suprised at the level of resistance, and indeed the emotional arguments put forward against [...]

  17. Jervis 3 December 2008 at 8:16 pm #

    Eskimos not understanding our language? All the Eskimos in Alaska are Americans, and all the Eskimos in Canada are Canadian. So they probably understand us just fine.

    Reminds me of when I was in college (in the US, for those keeping track), and someone asked the guy who was from Hawaii, “What currency do you use over there?” He said, “Seashells.” With an implied “Duh.”

  18. Gareth O' Neill 1 December 2009 at 11:36 am #

    It is hard to be able to provide the same things for people with disabilities but where possible we should try our best. Google Voice would be one thing that could help but Apple ended up rejecting it. There are virtual voices which help on some sites. If they were used on important information sites that could help

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