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Written rules and unwritten expectations

4 minutes read

I enjoy Christmas markets. When I used to live in Germany, I used to go to the local market every year. The people were all cheerful, singing in the streets. Sometimes there were attractions and rides and you could definitely find street performers doing all sorts of tricks.

But I'll admit I was going there for the mulled wine with my friends. You stand in line, ask for a cup of mulled wine and on top of the price of the wine, you pay for the cup. The idea is that if you want another cup of wine, you can reuse that cup and you only pay for the wine. When you're done, you can just return the cup and get your money back.

We all understood the social conventions and the unwritten rules at the Christmas market when buying wine. Paying extra for the cup doesn't seem out of the ordinary. But if someone from a different culture joined us, we would have to explain these rules to them.

Some rules are legal, written down, codified and enforced. Like don't drive after you've had mulled wine. Some rules are informal. You are expected to behave a certain way in a certain situation. These rules are governed by expectations and conventions, not the law. They also might differ from culture to culture, situation to situation and country to country.

With accessibility, this has been the case worldwide since 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established the fundamental human rights. Since then, the rules, laws and conventions that govern accessibility have evolved in different ways in different places.

You have written-down enforceable laws. The United States has the ADA and Section 508, but these laws only apply in the U.S. Various countries in Europe have their own accessibility laws and they apply only in those countries, under specific circumstances. So if you're doing business in France and want to expand to Italy, the laws that apply to your website's accessibility will be somewhat different and it's your responsibility to figure out what you need to do to comply. Heck, you might not even have to comply because they don't apply to a business of your size or operating in your market sector.

And you have informal rules that are defined and enforced by social expectations. It's expected that your website shouldn't exclude people on purpose.

We hear that accessibility is the right thing to do. This is a partly an expectation, a way to appeal to the human empathetic side of each of us. But it's also partly the law, in quite a lot of countries worldwide. Some laws apply to all businesses in the private sector. Others apply only to government entities.

So how can you reconcile written rules with unwritten expectations? I believe this is where the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines come into play. And this is because, at their core, all the written laws will rely in one way or another on the guidelines. But the guidelines themselves are not law.

And this is a good thing! Because laws that are written-down need to be enforced, which requires someone to enforce them, which requires someone else to judge whether they've been enforced correctly. That's a lot of someones that need to do their jobs. All the while, those who should benefit from accessible websites would still be waiting to use the product they wanted to use in the first place.

The solution is for us to play by the socially expected and accepted behaviour. And it's easy to figure out what that is.

Stand in line, buy the mulled wine, pay for the cup, bring the cup back when you're done, get your money back, take a taxi home.

Or, for accessibility, understand the guidelines and standards, implement best practices, test and validate, and monitor and maintain accessibility as an ongoing process.

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