Do We Really Care?

19 comments | Posted: 8 December 05 in General, by Nathan Smith

Update: We have now started an Accessibility Concers section of the forum, and edited this article to make it more generalized, removing specific names.

Repent! This image is from a 2003 article entitled: Why Tables for Layout is Stupid. It reads, “Repent! The road to hell is paved with spacer GIF’s and nested tables!” While this is of course going a bit overboard, I think it reflects my feelings on web accessibility as it pertains to the Church in general. Jesus commanded us to reach out to those who need to hear the good news. Designing sites with nested tables, spacer GIF‘s, and Flash / JavaScript only navigation shows a lack of concern for the full body of Christ.

Recently, over on Church Marketing Sucks, a few of us got into a debate in the comments about a website that was submitted to their Peer Review. I’ll be the first to say, I was a little too sarcastic. However, I think the topic and hand is worth revisiting here, that of Christian consideration for the disabled.

The point that the web standards advocates were trying to make was that the site in question is totally inaccessible to blind people, with a Flash movie being the only point of entry. As far as screen-readers are concerned, a technology that reads web pages aloud to blind users, this point of entry is just a movie, and so there are no links presented to the user to get past the front page.

A few of us mentioned these drawbacks, only to be met by what I will call Defenders of the Status Quo. These people cited that the site looked cool, and was reaching their target demographic, namely people with good vision and that have the Flash Player installed. I even pointed out that Google would never index their site, because it cannot discern whether there are embedded links in Flash. Basically, if a site isn’t blind-friendly, it’s not Google friendly either.

In case you’re curious, approximately 1.5 million visually impaired people in America use computers, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. These statistics are from 1999 and a bit dated, so I’m guessing this number has gone up even more, as computer use is becoming more and more prevalent.

Granted, the majority of Internet users have no trouble with their vision, but is excluding visually impaired people justified because they’re in the minority? Below is an excerpt from one of my comments on the website Peer Review…

Of course the statistics on blind usage of the web would be low. Now, ask yourself, is that because they don’t want to use the web? If so, we shouldn’t bother developing sites that cater to them. Rather, and highly more likely, they do not use the web as much, because people ignorantly leave them out in the cold when developing sites.

All I’m saying is: The days of compromise on accessibility in favor of presentation for non-disabled people have come to a close. It’s now possible to do both, and we as a the Body of Christ should be leading the way, showing consideration for more than just the average person.

We take up special collections to help those who are mobility impaired, because the law requires ramps for those in wheel-chairs. Yet, we do mediocre websites and completely disregard other types of disabilities. Why? Because we as human beings are lazy, and won’t change unless we have to. There will come a day when accessibility will universally be required by law. It’s already happening in Australia.

Jesus didn’t discriminate against against the blind, he healed them, as he also healed those who could not walk. My question is, will we as Christians be riding the crest of the wave, ensuring accessibility, or will we be dragged along in the under-current of progress? Throughout the past century, Christian usage of technology has been a step behind the rest of the world.

I say that we have a unique opportunity to make the gospel accessible to everyone, an opportunity with implications comparable to the advent of the printing press. We have the ability to present the good news in today’s vernacular to everyone. Will the Church today realize that, or continue to defend the status quo? We need to decide.

One thing is for sure. You can no longer feign ignorance to the problem. There is simply a choice to be made. Do you care about blind people, and implicity value them as equal to yourself in God’s eyes: Yes or No? Let your actions reflect that answer.

Discuss This Topic

  1. 1 Jeremy Flint

    The argument about accessibility doesn’t end at blind people…or the handicapped/disabled in general. There are more devices accessing the web now than ever before. Besides computers, you can access the web on your cell phone, your PDA, your Blackberry, as well as some new devices coming out (PSP, NintendoDS, etc.).

     
  2. 2 David Merwin

    Amen.

    Section 508 makes compliance mandatory for all federal agencies in the US.

    From the site:
    “The standards cover the full range of electronic and information technologies in the Federal sector, including those used for communication, duplication, computing, storage, presentation, control, transport and production. This includes computers, software, networks, peripherals and other types of electronic office equipment. The standards define electronic and information technology, in part, as “any equipment or interconnected system or subsystem of equipment, that is used in the creation, conversion, or duplication of data or information.””

    And, just FYI, Section 508, the law regarding accessibility of electronic information, can be found here: http://www.section508.gov/index.cfm?FuseAction=Content&ID=11

    From the summary: Technical Standards (Subpart B)
    “The criteria for web-based technology and information are based on access guidelines developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium. Many of these provisions ensure access for people with vision impairments who rely on various assistive products to access computer-based information, such as screen readers, which translate what’s on a computer screen into automated audible output, and refreshable Braille displays.”

    Nathan, I completely agree. We have the technology, we can address this issues and as designers and developers we should be concerned with the best solutions possible. At best we are problem solvers, not problem creators.

     
  3. 3 Boyink

    FWIW – I didn’t read Jakes comment as flippant, but as the natural first question that (in my admittedly limited experience) always comes up.

    Granted, I usually deal with this issue on the commercial side of things, where sometimes you do have to decide whether any additional costs of developing for small target groups (be they users of Opera, IE2.0, or vision-impaired) are worthwhile.

    I blogged about this issue almost a year ago, and re-reading it it’s still pretty much true…

     
  4. 4 Robert

    I am beginning the think the issue is about Web Designers not wanting to have to learn something new. They are used to what they are doing and don’t want to change. Regardless of the fact that Designers and Developers stand to gain greatly if they abide by Web Standards.

    Maybe it is also a lack of concern for other people. I see this everywhere today, especially on the road driving. Everyone is in a hurry and no one cares about the other person driving. It is: ‘get out of my way, because I am more important than you!’

    I think this type of thinking transcends the roadways into our personal relationships with each other. Sadly, I see Christians exhibiting this persona as well.

    To me, this is one of the problems in Christianity today. Lack of concern for our fellow man and the idea that if we believe Jesus is the Son of God we are saved and we don’t need to do anything about it. Well, Satan believes Jesus is the Son of God and died for all mankind and raised from the dead. You won’t see him in heaven.

    It is time for the Christian community to stand up and say, ‘hey we do care about you and we are going to show you.’ For those who are web professionals, it is through providing access for all people, no matter if it is just 1 person who is blind.

    As a Church, it is saying we do care about you and we will design with you in mind, even if you are only 1. If the Church doesn’t care, who will?

     
  5. 5 Dan

    Wow Nathan,

    That was a great article. I all too often don’t think of the disabled myself. I mainly think that friends or family visit my site and not many other people. But my step-father is completely deaf. Him and my mother are consistently in an environment that brings the deaf and blind together. So, this issue is becoming even more real to me.

    I think, right now, I want the accountability to make my website more accessible. I say that because I can want, want, want but never make any changes. Though, if I had the accountability I think I could make those changes.

    Maybe this is where some of us should focus some of our time and effort when concerning web design/development?! Even from a business standpoint reaching as many people in your target group as possible is ideal. I definitely agree… we MUST care enough to make this important and make the necessary adjustments.

     
  6. 6 Joshua Davis

    This is correct, at our company we are striving for full 508 compliance, and accessibility for blind and disabled people. If you were blind you would want the web to usable to you.

     
  7. 7 Nathan Logan

    Interesting, interesting thoughts. To be honest, I’ve never thought about the issue at this level. And I think you have a really good point, Nathan.

    Throughout the old and new testaments, God clearly demonstrates his heart for the needy, not only in commands, but in punishment. Israel was continually chastized for her neglect of those in need, as were the Pharisees. God’s heart for needy people is that those of us who are able to do so should help them with the resources we have (which are God-given in the first place).

    Now is this a cut-and-dried argument that condemns any who would dare use Flash navigation or who have not yet stepped out of the mid-90s table layouts? I don’t think so. It seems a bit unlikely that a Web developer standing before the throne of God will have to answer the question, “Why did you commit the sin of unmeaningful alt text?” That’s not to say, however, that some on both sides of the accessiblity issue won’t be asked, “Why was your heart calloused towards those in need?”

    God cares about the heart, and I think that those who are able to produce code that reaches out to the needy and lost, and who volitionally decide not to do so, should definitely be in tune with their motives.

    Perhaps more importantly, and back in line with this article, we have the ability to use this medium to reach the lost – let’s do it to the utmost of our ability!

     
  8. 8 Nathan Smith

    Nate L: Good point. By that funny cartoon, I didn’t mean to imply that any are in spiritual sin for not making accessible websites. I did think it was a good point to bring up though, ensuring we continue to care about the “least and lost.”

     
  9. 9 nate klaiber

    well said, we should strive to meet the standards.

    I think there are so many tools out there, and people get so overwhelmed and excited about the possibilities without fully thinking through things. Flash is a tool, javascript is a tool, etc. They have their places – but we must think about the overall implications versus just what we see on our platform/OS.

    Thats the difference between the print design and web. Once the print is out, its done and always looks the same. They have control of their medium (paper, colors, etc). As web developers we dont always have the full control (browsers, platforms, OS, etc). We need to build our sites so they have a good balance of form/function – yet are accessible to all.

    Good read.

    Peace,
    Nate

     
  10. 10 Peter Crackenberg

    What I found most interesting, was that the comments didn’t even gravitate towards SEO which is a huge reason that accessable content appeals to me. (See High Accessibility Is Effective Search Engine Optimization)

    Google or other spiders read the web just like blind people do, and it’s just plain silly, when so much of our society disseminates information from search engines, to ignore that when building church websites.

     
  11. 11 Nathan Smith

    Peter very good point, and thanks for the link! That’s something I touched on briefly in this article but could have fleshed out a bit more. I just thought I would emphasize the Biblical mandate implications at stake here. Using web standards is a win-win situation, for those with disabilities, and for the people who own the site, because more people find them. This means more money for businesses, and more visitors – online and in person, for churches.

     
  12. 12 Frank Johnson

    So, Nathan (and others!) – what specifically needs to be done? (Feel free to point me to links rather than rehash what I am sure has been addressed elsewhere).

    As one who would love to make a move toward accessibility in the sites I develop, but as one who is still struggling with these sorts of things, I’m assuming there is more to it than XHTML and CSS (although I also assume that represent a good start). What else needs to be done?

    Thanks!
    Frank

     
  13. 13 Jacob

    Just for the record I’m not the Jake who is the original poster.

    I agree with Nathan’s assessment and wish more people looked at the web through a standard’s lens, but I think this is just the symptom of a much bigger issue.

    I think we are still experiencing print hangover. Almost every client we have and designer we have comes from a print background and is applying those principles to the web. They see a website as a brochure, annual report or magazine not as a dynamic set of interlinked pages.

    We are still moving towards the point where we truly understand and use the web as a different medium that requires us to put away our print analogies. Discussions like this are helpful because they force us to reunderstand the web as a new medium not just a new way to do old things.

     
  14. 14 Dan

    Well, I figure you all are web savvy enough to find this, but after reading this article and the comments everyone has posted, I wanted to know more about accessibility.

    You can find all your W3C related Accessibility information at http://www.w3.org/WAI/

    and what i find helpful is a checklist you can use on your site(s) at http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG10/full-checklist.html

    There is so much more on the WAI site than I can link to, but hopefully this will help everyone.

     
  15. 15 Nathan Smith

    Frank, et. al. – I’ve started an Accessibility section of the forum, at the suggestion of Dan VanMilligan. All accessibility related questions and suggestions can now be channeled to this venue: Accessibility Concerns.

     
  16. 16 Ben

    You make some good points, but to me it seems as if your missing a major point.

    I understand what you’re saying, and yes I do think that churches need to be mindful of who they are excluding, but I think one of the problems is this: Churches exclude far more people by their use of technology than their poor use of it. What do I mean?

    Simply this, churches invest tons of money and time into things such as powerpoints, websites, sound design, etc. While they neglect being the people of God. The church tends to get so wrapped up in ministering in the fantastic technical world that we neglect the very thing that makes us the church – incarnation.

    The best point I think you made was that Jesus did not discriminate against blind people. You are 100% correct, he did, in fact heal them. And I say that until the church starts becoming a vessel for emotional, spiritual, and yes indeed physical healing then who cares much about what website does what.

    We are alienating people by our over emphasis on technology and lack of emphasis on people than we even will by our poor use of technology.

    Just some thoughts.

     
  17. 17 Robert

    Ben, I am in agreeance with you to a point. This discussion is directed towards web designers who are hired to design for the Church just as much as it is towards the Church.

    I don’t think we are alienating people because of technology. Technology isn’t at fault, the people in the Church who are doing the alienating are. You cannot blame web designers and developers for Pastoral decisions that are made about outreach programs that aren’t being done outside the internet.

    The problem I see in America is the Church is complacent. In its complacency, some have drifted from True Doctrine. In its complacency, some have forgotton the great commission.

    We have each been called by God to do different things. One may be the foot, one may be the hand. Here, at Godbit, we are focused on outreach through the internet. That doesn’t mean we are against any other outreach program. It does mean that we feel God has given us this gift to use for Him in this area of life. Others have their gifts in other areas that don’t have to do with technology.

    It is wrong to place the blame on those who are using their gifts to extend the Kingdom of God because others are not. But, if you want to blame us, then I will share the blame for I know I can do better and have failed many times.

    I believe this can be used as an example for others to see that we here are using our gifts to help Churches spread the Word of God in the age of technology. We aren’t doing this for profit or for fame. We are doing this because we truly care about helping.

    Maybe this example of what we are doing will be an example for people who have talents outside of the internet to use them for God more than they have. Maybe not. But don’t convict people here because they want to help spread the message of God online.

    You have seen what the printing press has done to spread God’s message, the internet just might not be any different and be a great way to reach people. Say people in China where it is against the law to have a Bible, but almost all of China is connect to the internet.

    You have great points, but don’t convict others here who want to spread the Word of God using their talents of technology.

     
  18. 18 Nathan Smith

    Ben: Well spoken, I agree completely. We are providing some technical emphasis, with the assumption that churches have the other aspects of their lives in order. That, unfortunately is difficult to address via the ‘Net.

    I want to emphasize that our focus is to teach churches how to use the web better, and use it the right way. We are not looking to be a replacement for a local church, or take responsibility for anyone’s spiritual formation. There are already plenty of sites out there offering advice regarding these topics, and we’re not looking to re-invent the wheel.

     
  19. 19 Matt Heerema

    Interesting, I guess I hadn’t thought so much about the spiritual aspect of pursuing accessibility in Web design as much as I had about the professional aspects of it.

    Creating an accessible Web site is simply best practices. It is the professional way of creating a Web site. Those that don’t, really aren’t all that professional about their work.

    As far as “where to start” with accessibility… well, why not at the source.

    The Web Accessibility Initiative: http://www.w3.org/WAI/

    RE: Section 508 compliance. DON’T STOP THERE!! Sure Section 508 is all that is legally mandated for state institutions, but it isn’t enough. Often one can meet section 508, and be COMPLETELY INACCESSIBLE to many many users. Followig the WAI guidelines is the better way.

     

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