[Photo: House of Representatives]

April 23, 2010

A Letter to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary

[Photo: House of Representatives]

John Conyers, Jr.
U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary
Washington, DC

Dear Mr. Conyers,

You don’t know me. However, I feel that at the very least you should know that I’ve dedicated the last decade of my life working towards making the Internet accessible to everyone. To you, your family and friends, your colleagues and associates – the people you work with every day, and most importantly to people (not just Americans) with various disabilities, from vision impairments to mobility impairments, auditory impairments and cognitive disabilities. It can be done. This we know with certainty. Often, it’s actually quite simple: we’ve learned a lot in the past decade on how to achieve this goal, and we’ve managed to raise awareness of this topic across great swaths of our society.

I, like many of my peers who work in the same field, were understandably excited to hear that, by your direction, a hearing was convened by the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties to investigate Achieving the Promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the Digital Age – Current Issues, Challenges, and Opportunities. For while great strides have been made, we still have a long way to go. Ensuring that the fundamental right to access of information and services using the most significant advance in communication that has emerged in the last 15 years – the Internet – using the legislative and legal imperative to do so, would be a huge boost to both raising the profile of this subject even higher, but also for creating an even greater need for our society to take this subject seriously, through legal penalty, should this basic human right be blatantly ignored.

On April 22, 2010, a hearing was convened where high profile representatives came to Washington to make their case. To present precedent and examples of where and how we still need to work hard, and to try and convince you, and your fellow legislators, that we need your assistance towards achieving the goal of access on the web today. First the Hon. Samuel R. Bagenstos, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General U.S. Department of Justice spoke eloquently on Disability Rights and Developing Technologies, on the Technological Barriers to Accessibility, and The Department of Justice Positions Regarding Website Accessibility.

He was subsequently followed by Mark D. Richert, Esq. (American Foundation for the Blind), Judy Brewer (W3C – Web Accessibility Initiative), Daniel F. Goldstein, Esq. (Partner, Brown, Goldstein & Levy, LLP) and Steven I. Jacobs (President, IDEAL Group, Inc.) who all, in their own way, sought to explain the issues and challenges, as well as the vision and possibilities of ensuring the web would be accessible to all.

So this should be all good, right? I mean, here, we have the ear of influential politicians interested in making our goal a reality. In the vernacular, we’re getting face-time, and it’s a good thing. So why am I writing this today?

Dropping the ball…

[Illustration - A can of dog food]

Mr. Conyers, in the tech industry (as well as others, I’m sure) we have an expression: Eating our own Dog Food. Legend has it that the expression first originated at Microsoft, but regardless of it’s origin it is in common usage today. In short, it translates to ‘don’t just tell others to do something, do it yourself’ – stand by your claims, your product, your raison-d’etre. And unfortunately today, sir, I am writing to say that this expression doesn’t yet seem to have reached the offices of your Committee, at least not as far as this topic is concerned.

At the end of the hearings of April 22nd, the transcripts of the invited experts were posted on the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary website at: http://judiciary.house.gov/hearings/hear_100422_1.html. Sadly sir, these very documents – the presentations that sought to influence your committee members to improve accessibility on the web today – range from bad to impossible to process by many members of the disabled communities (and significantly the blind community); the very communities most interested and affected by the deliberations and recommendations of that Committee.

Those transcripts were posted in the PDF file format. As a professional web accessibility specialist I can confirm to you beyond a doubt that in 2010, we have the means and skills to make PDF files accessible. Sometimes the results are not optimum, but they can be used effectively by people who also rely on Adaptive Technologies to consume digital information if they are created correctly. However, even the most basic techniques required to make these files accessible were foregone: in one instance the PDF file posted is the equivalent of a giant picture, making it impossible for any blind person to independently understand a single point of that document.

I’m sure that you can appreciate the cruel irony of this turn of events. I hope that you can also appreciate the frustration and dismay of myself and others that given such an important platform and stage to advance our goals, we end up failing so dismally. Now, I’m not really sure who’s to blame, and I’ve long learned that pointing fingers is less than productive. So I won’t bother engaging in that exercise here – I’m sure that if you are as shocked and frustrated as I am that you will conduct an investigation at your end.

Myself however, I chose to do something constructive. Hopefully it will illustrate to you that many of us do want to eat that dog food, that the claim I made at the beginning of this note that the goal of accessible content on the web is not only possible, it’s pretty easy to do – especially here, where all we have is text documents. I took some time today (about 2.5 hours in all, between answering the phone, responding to emails, and generally keeping my day-job moving forward) and I took those PDF documents that are inaccessible to so many, and I converted them to actual HTML (web) documents – documents that blind users can access using the special software they have on their computers for this purpose. However, as HTML documents, they can also be used by many others, on many different systems including the plethora of hand-held devices we see today. The text can be easily enlarged, it can ‘re-flow’ for different display screens, it requires nothing more than a web browser to ‘view’ and it is a better format for indexing by search engines such as Google. Those accessible versions can be found here:

I freely acknowledge that I took some liberties here, and it might come back to haunt me – that’s OK, as my blog title suggests, I am Unrepentant, I make no apologies and I take my licks when required. However I took my personal frustration of this situation and channeled it towards what I considered was a good thing, and I hope that you appreciate and understand that. I would further hope that your IT department at the Committee on the Judiciary would copy those files and either replace the inaccessible PDF’s, or offer them as alternatives from your website, because frankly sir, your website will likely see significantly more traffic than my humble little spot on the web.

And hopefully Mr. Conyers my personal passion and determination towards achieving the goal that those documents expressed will further convince you and your colleagues that this is a worthy goal, and one that we have the power to achieve. We need your help, but as Mr. Obama said not so long ago, “Yes We Can!”

Respectfully yours.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 A Letter to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary by John Foliot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Posted by John

I am a 16 year veteran of Web Accessibility, living and working in Austin, Texas. Currently Principal Accessibility Strategist at Deque Systems Inc., I have previously held accessibility related positions at JPMorgan Chase and Stanford University. I am also actively involved with the W3C - the international internet standards body - where I attempt to stir the pot, fight hard for accessibility on the web, and am currently co-chairing a subcommittee on the accessibility of media elements in HTML5.

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