This week, a product launched and claimed to generate “production ready” code. But it also generates code with accessibility problems, which contradicts “production ready”. When someone called this out publicly, a community showed itself from its worst side. What can we learn?
I'll state again, I wrote this to share learnings around community respondes to a concern about accessibility issues. Because these kinds of replies are common and it's useful to have context. I don't want to add fuel to the issue, which is why I left out links to individual tweets and people.
I do want to call out Vercel, a business with a large voice in the developer community, which I do at the end of the post.
The “production ready” claim
I’ll start by elaborating on my first point. “Has accessibility issues” contradicts “production ready”, for three reasons:
- equal access to information is a human right
- most organisations have legal requirements to make accessible products
- it can cost companies money if people can’t use their products (you wouldn’t stop every fifth customer from entering your shop).
I will note it was an “alpha” launch, but the words “production ready” were used and not nuanced (not in marketing and not in the actual tool; a warning banner could go a long way). Fair enough, maybe they want to look at accessibility later (a personal pet peeve though: I recommend shifting left instead, doing accessibility earlier is easier).
The company could have made different choices. If it is known that accessibility is problematic, maybe the product could have come with a checklist that helps people avoid some of the most common issues? Or some kind of warning or banner that explains nuances the “production ready” line? These are choices to be made, to balance between what makes the product look less good and what harms end users.
Many of the responses were ableist: they discriminate or contain social prejudice against people with physical or mental disabilities. A key point to make here is: don't feel offended if you or your comment is called ableist. Instead, listen and learn (seriously, it's an opportunity). The system is ableist, on top of which individuals make comments that can be called ableist. We (as a people) need to identify and break down that system, but also, people can individually learn: everyone has a degree of ableism (like they have some degree sexism and racism). I know I do. I've been learning about accessibility for about 15 years and still learn new things all the time (same for sexism, or racism, etc, these are all things need regular introspection; and they are related, see also intersectionality).
Learning from the responses
Below, I'll list some responses I found problematic, and try and explain why. I'm hoping this is helpful for people who want to understand better why accessibility is critical, and why accessibility specialists point this out.
- “can’t expect them to make everything perfect, especially in the alpha release” - I think it's fair to have expectations from a company that is a large voice in the web development community
- “Here's a better framing”, “Why the agressive tone?”, “Why are these people so insufferable? (…)” - this shifts the question about accessibility to one about how the person asking for equality phrases their feedback (this is tone policing, a common derailment tactic)
- “🤮 being an insufferable dick to well-meaning, well-intentioned people is not going to work for your cause, no matter how good of a cause it is” - this seems to suggest that inaccessibility is ok as long as the intentions are good (that is ableist; equal access cannot be bought off by good intentions only. It is actual equality that is required)
- “Paying a six figure engineer to add features only 1% of your user base needs only makes profit sense after, idk, 100K active users? [screenshot of ChatGPT to prove the number]” - it’s not only about profit sense, it’s also about ethical sense and legal sense. If you want to focus on profit only: about 20% of people has a disability (says WHO). Also, almost all people will develop disabilities in some form throughout their life while they age.
- ‘You are complaining about a WYSIWYG editor not being accessible to the blind---do you make similar complains about sunsets and VR headsets?’ and ‘I don't think anyone using this site needs accessibility’- this is a fundamental misunderstanding of how people with disabilities use the web. Yes, blind people use WYSIWYG editors (and so do people with other disabilities, which is why creators of these tools care, see the accessibility initiatives for tools like TinyMCE). See also Apple's videos on Sady Paulson, who uses Switch Control to edit videos or on how people use tools like Door Detection and Voice Control.
- ‘Then what is the argument for accessibility, if not screen readers or search engine crawlers?’ - again, there are many more ways people with disabilities use the web, and beyond permanent disabilities (as mentioned, about 20% of people), there are people with temporary impairments (from broken arms to word) and situational impairments
Some responses were particularly hostile and personal. “I'm shocked that you're unemployed ..🤯🤯😅”, “Okay, Karen”, “(…) She wants attention”, “No matter how much you shame Vercel, they don't want you. They never will”, “Go accessibility pimp else where (sic) and pretend that others give a shit”, “[you are] being an insufferable dick”. These are all unacceptable personal attacks.
If you work at Vercel (this was relating the v0 product), please consider speaking up (silence speaks too) and/or talking with your community about how accessibility is viewed and how people in the community interact. The quotes in this post are all real quotes, from people defending Vercel. To his credit, the CEO gave the right example with his response (”Thanks for the feedback”)
So, in summary: the “production ready” claim and lack of nuance about what that means is problematic. Pointing it out got responses I'd call ableist, plus a few responses that were plain hostile. All of this reflects badly on the community.
It's not new that accessibility advocates get hostile responses to reasonable requests (or when doing their job). But it's been a while since I've seen so many of those responses, so I wanted to take the opportunity to write down some common misunderstandings.