Working together for standards The Web Standards Project

In the wake of the @media 2005 Conference and the WCAG Working Group face-to-face in Brussels, accessibility has been getting a lot of attention. Lots of people have been asking good questions. Fewer have been providing good answers, but at least we’re getting healthy, broad-based discussion of the issues.

Case in point: the WCAG Working Group recently moved the validity guideline in WCAG 2 from Level 1 to Level 2 and added a ‘get out’ clause. Gez Lemon has weighed in with a thoughtful post criticizing the decision as a step backwards, effectively giving license to perpetuate the sloppy-markup sins of the past. On the other side, Matt May has argued that the decision is a practical necessity in a world of authoring tools and CMSes that resolutely churn out invalid markup.

Truth to tell, I can see both sides of this one. On the one hand, the value of a solid foundation upon which to build is undeniable. As Eric Meyer has argued, being too accepting of deviance from published standards creates its own set of problems, including security holes and a lack of testability. If we can’t even agree upon basic technical requirements, how on earth are we to achieve — let alone evaluate compliance with — any sort of consensus on the really hard stuff?

On the other hand, it’s absolutely true that as things stand today, validity can be more an ideal than a practical reality. I struggle with this daily while working for a company that has invested heavily in Microsoft’s ASP.NET 1.1. As it stands, making ASP.NET churn out valid markup requires unending vigilance. 2.0 promises to change that, but it’s not out of beta yet and I’ve got sites to get up now. As well, changing W3C recommendations has become a slow, tedious process. The current crop lag well behind advances in scripting techniques, our understanding of web site accessibility and so on. Taking a pragmatic approach to validity seems a virtual necessity for both present-day realities and future innovation.

There is, however, a red herring in this debate: Matt argues that because the WCAG are often used as the basis of accessibility legislation, requiring validity would make criminals of anyone who happened to forget a </p> or left a stray topmargin on some legacy document. This is an error of the third kind: identifying the wrong problem. Matt is arguing against legislation that doesn’t take practical reality into account. That’s an issue to be dealt with in the legislatures passing the laws, not in the WCAG. Legal systems the world over have ways of moderating poorly-written legislation, whether it be the famous ‘one time exceptions’ made by German Beamten or the discretion of U.S. judges. Rendering the WCAG toothless out of fear of some hypothetical authoritarian regulation is as unnecessary as it is futile. These are guidelines, not laws. The WCAG WG is not a representative legislature, its members not legislators and the WCAG themselves not legsislation. They need not — indeed should not — be written as though they were.

Moreover, the argument echoes WaSP Andy Clarke’s discussion of the wisdom of legislating accessibility. That’s a different debate. Andy cites Michel Focault’s argument that a society with too much regulation results in an ill-behaving populace. Perhaps, but I see his Focault and raise him a Joseph de Maistre: behind every stable and peaceful social order stands the shadow of the executioner. As much as we might like to believe otherwise, some significant portion of society will always act in an anti-social way unless they’ve got a figurative gun pointed at their heads. cf. spam, spyware and viruses.

In the end, it’s about balancing flexibility and freedom with order and control. I don’t yet know where the right balance lies with respect to validity and accessibility, but I do know I’m glad we’re having this debate.

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