[Photo: talismans]

August 4, 2009

Talismans, Active Listening, and a half-time show

[Photo: talismans]


First of all, I would like to suggest that today the @summary debate has digressed to something of a fight over a Talisman. Maybe that is in part my fault, and if so I will take the blame. I used that Talisman to force a dialog that has needed to happen for a very long time. Some people might find my tactics offensive, or childish, and others will remain trapped in arguing about what the data and research does or doesn’t say, does or doesn’t do, proves, disproves or concludes. You all need to just stop for a minute and take a deep breath.

What really needs to happen, what I think is now starting to happen, is that two very different camps, with two very different points of view, are actually starting to ACTIVELY LISTEN to what the others are trying to say. After more emails than I care to admit writing over the past few days, some members of the “scientist” camp, notably Maciej, began to understand that my concern was not over what the data said or didn’t say, but instead my issue was what we were telling content authors when the <foobar> came along, and the process by which the Draft Spec came to make those commentaries. I chose @summary, but it could have been anything really, @summary was handy and at hand so I grabbed that.

Now @summary is still contentious, and both sides of the debate have legitimate points to make. History should not be the sole judge of the future, but we must also learn from the mistakes of the past or we are doomed to repeat them – yes, I know, platitudes both, but here I believe germane. But let’s put that aside for just a minute please.

The Clock is Ticking

Right now, I have before the chairs, an alternative draft for consideration to be the next Working Draft. Specific decisions need to be made on that topic which have a time-sensitivity attached to it.

The sole difference between what I have submitted and what Ian has submitted (excluding any last minute commits he has made since Saturday) is that his document:

  1. makes @summary conformant but obsolete (actually, obsolete but conformant – is there really a difference?), which by HTML5 convention automatically triggers a ‘warning’
  2. has language that contradicts the current WAI best practices by telling authors to NOT use @summary

My document on the other hand:

  1. makes @summary fully conformant (so as not to trigger a ‘warning’, and specifically “the” warning that says to not use @summary)
  2. removes the contradicting language surrounding the usage of @summary, so as to harmonize with WAI guidance

Both documents signal that the @summary ‘discussion’ (street brawl?) is currently on-going, using advisory warnings in the draft (a.k.a class=”XXX”).

Those are the choices. If you really stop and look at them, they are actually fairly close together. However, for me, still, the showstopper is the contradictory language between HTML 5 and WAI. It is, IMHO, harmful to the ’cause’.


Maciej finally heard that, I think Ian is beginning to understand that, Sam got it a long time ago, and now you gentle reader must stop and get it too. We need to be working in harmony, and not sound like the symphony orchestra warming up 20 minutes before curtain time. It’s giving everybody a headache.

Maciej has come back with a proposal that addresses ‘how’ we should be conveying authoring guidance to authors surrounding @summary, as well as some (to me) neutral, complimentary (to WCAG) text that offers alternatives to achieving WCAG Success Criteria. He now “gets” that offering constructive alternatives, as opposed to negative instructions, not only helps both the cause of accessibility and supports the WAI efforts, but is actually very useful to the content creators – it gives them the tools to make reasonable and hopefully good decisions, and we need to also provide clear examples so that they have a ‘pattern’ to look at as well. HTML5 is actually pretty good at this most of the time, but not always, as the current @summary contradiction indicates.

Equally important, Maciej is trying to work within the W3C process and attempting to build consensus, and I think that this is an extremely important point to underscore. He has come to the mailing list (where everyone has an equal voice) with some draft text and is seeking to find common ground. No-one is likely to get everything they want, and it’s important to understand that this is the nature of compromise. It doesn’t mean settling for second best, but it means being willing to give up some smaller details for the bigger win.

[Photo: Yoda - Photo - Yoda saying Table I see you writing are. Assistance you will be needing?To my thinking, any data table that does not include summary or caption or details or any summarization of any kind, using any of the available methods should generate a ‘heads up’ – call it a warning, a reminder or a dancing paper clip (oh, wait, no…) – thing is, it is an opportunity to help the content creator understand that there may be a need for this summarized information, and that the summarized information can take many different forms. Let’s not get bogged down in how it is delivered, lets offer a number of potential solutions and use-case scenarios and let the author decide which best fits his current situation. See this as a positive, “teachable moment”.

Let’s think about what we really want, and less on how we get that. @summmary has strengths and weaknesses and we need to recognize that too.

Returning to the dueling drafts:

If we can agree that TODAY @summary is neither ‘conformant’ nor ‘conformant but obsolete’ (deliberately turned around for this discussion – I know that it is obsolete but conformant), but the discussion is ongoing (something both drafts acknowledge), there remains one other issue: the author instruction language.

I think that Maciej’s return with some proposed language, as well as his overall approach, meets the bigger picture of ‘working together’. While I want to see @summary resolved as well, the proposed ‘solution’ for authoring instruction text meets with my goal, and I am inclined to say “Cool – if Hixie can live with it we are close enough”.

So friends, ACTIVELY LISTEN to what he has come with, as it represents significant movement for him (and he still needs to sell it to others in the “scientist” camp). It doesn’t solve the @summary problem completely, but it DOES address my other concern, and I for one am hearing that – can you?

I want to de-link the ongoing discussion about @summary from the fact that there are currently 2 drafts before the chairs. And I want to ask one simple question: has Maciej heard me, and have you and I heard Maciej? If the answer to that is yes, and if Ian agrees as well and makes the very minor modification to his draft that is suggested in Maciej’s compromise, then I can withdraw my draft from consideration.

And I’ll up the stakes one more: if Ian cannot see his way to agreeing to Maciej’s proposal, I will ask Maciej to help me integrate his proposal into my Draft for re-submission before Sam’s Poll deadline – because while Maciej and I might not see entirely eye-to-eye on @summary, I believe that we will have worked together – in harmony (cue the Coca-Cola singers) to produce a COMPROMISE offering. And if it comes to that, I would urge you to support that Draft, because it is the one that will have emerged in the spirit of compromise and consensus.


Returning to @summary for just one final thought. Perhaps what we need is a bit of a time-out – a half-time show to distract us for just a minute or two and allow passions to settle down. I propose that Lachlan Hunt re-visit his Spice Girls routine for the half-time entertainment, and that everybody take a health break, grab a cool refreshment and then settle back in refreshed, reasonable, and ready to work together.

Can we try that?

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Talismans, Active Listening, and a half-time show 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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