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Is terminology making accessibility inaccessible?


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I recently was involved in a discussion among professionals preparing for a web accessibility training for the state of Alaska. I replied that we need to avoid speaking of only disabilities and also point out that we are speaking of people's habits and preferences as well as their needs.


So the person in charge rewrote a question meant to gage their knowledge before and then after the training. What was in fact notable in this discussion was not that a change was made at my request, but the choice of words used in the rewrite. Specifically, they used the term barriers and barrier free.


Talk about a "Eureka" moment. You see, we all easily forget our beginning days in this, how the terminology we throw around today was not so clear back then. Any web person, web designer or programmer knows what navigation means and it is perfectly clear and we expect users to understand as well as it is simply that clear. But studies show that navigation is not clear to beginners and average users and that menu is a better term.


Now it seems that we in the accessibility movement have possibly forgotten our roots, that we have adopted this "Professional language" and become so use to it that we forget what others may think.


What is an accessible web site? What does the term really suggest? To me off the top and ignoring what I know is meant? it means someone is able to get to the web site. The most inaccessible site is usually accessible to the user, maybe they cannot use it but they can get to it. So I wonder if our troubles convincing people to make their sites accessible may not stem from the very terminology we choose? My web site works so it is accessible to them, so leave me alone.


Germany however used the term "Barrier free" and so that was the term I started with. Once I discovered that the "correct term" is accessibility that is what I adopted and forgot about "barriers" until it popped up again in this discussion.


Is Barriers and barrier free not more understandable?


Again, accessible is a simple true or false answer. Is your site accessible? Yes, they can get to it, next question.


But barriers, barriers demand further info.


Is your site barrier free? Hugh? Barrier free? Barrier suggests itself as a roadblock, something to be overcome. What do you mean by a road block in my site? What is there to be overcome?


Barrier free lends itself not to further movement past the subject, but to a slamming of the breaks and further investigation as to what is meant, it demands further questions and details. Suddenly we have the person's attention.


They want visitors, usually visitors who spend money. It is easy to skip over a suggestion when you know your site is accessible? it is not so easy to skip over the idea that your web site has barriers that by it's very term suggests something is stopping the user for fulfilling their quest and hopefully putting money I the owners pocket. Now the ears are wide open and the question is looming in the shadows, "what is stopping the user from buying my product"?


No one wants to think that they are stopping potential sales and making users overcome something. No one builds an obstacle course with mines and tank barricades between the front door and the show room & the showroom and the cash register. But that is what many web sites do and now they are open to having that pointed out. Now they want to improve their site.


So this is just a thought, but maybe we accessibility advocates have made accessibility inaccessible by a poor choice of terminology while preaching to the masses that they should use simple English as not to create problems for users. We have created problems for ourselves that make it hard for us to sell our movement.


Maybe terminology is a barrier for us as well and it is time we open ourselves to simpler and better terminology so we can have a barrier free movement.

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