When the question of web standards and accessibility comes up, people often attempt to put the blame on someone else; they try to claim that it's "someone else's responsibility". Designers say it's the developers, developers often blame the browser manufacturers, managers blame major vendors and so on. Some people blame the W3C for "making it too hard" and "not going with the browsers' additions".

A common theme is the idea that, somehow, responsibility falls to just one group. Recently on the WSG email list, a comparison was made between web developers and architects - being the poor sods in the middle of everyone else, trying to please everyone.

What follows is a refined version of my original response, with an added quote to provide context:

Date: Feb 11, 2005
From: Bob McClelland
Subject: Re: [WSG] accessibilty and responsibility

[Quoting Christopher K]

Possibly so, but is an architect being given the short straw by being required to include ramps and elevators in the design of a building? It has to be done because of the 'shortcomings" of my assistive technology, my wheelchair, that cannot climb stairs or levitate.

With respect Christopher, I think you're missing the point. To take your analogy further, it seems to me that making web designers solely responsible for dealing with accessibility is like telling architects they're off the hook with regard to ramps etc, and getting the decorators to carry the disabled into the buildings... Until the ramps are built, we decorators do carry folk in and out, but the ultimate responsibility is with the architects, not us. And that often doesn't seem to be the case.

[Original in WSG email archive]

Jumping in on all these architectural analogies... nobody seems to have made this point: ultimately everyone has some level of responsibility, since everyone is and will remain involed.

Let's continue the analogy, for a new building:


The government sets out physical access requirements for buildings in broad terms (there are also other bodies which produce building standards but we'll keep this simple). Web equivalent is the W3C. Their responsibility is to get the standards right and communicate them in such a manner that people know what to do. They also need to keep things in the realm of possibility - W3C has a checkpoint to ensure that a proposed standard is actually possible, governments do not specify that venues provide levitating wheelchairs.


The architects (and possibly structural engineers) have to interpret the standards and apply them correctly in the design for the building. They will have to find the balance between the goals of the building and the many standards the building will have to meet. They also have to make sure the building won't fall down ;) The architect will probably also have to wrangle the interior decorators to ensure their wonderful additions don't contravene critical requirements.

The web equivalent is the web developer, who has to sit between the client, the W3C, the graphic designer and the application developers/programmers. Some people might call this the Web Producer, but most of us don't get the lofty title nor the lofty pay ;)


Then the builders/tradespeople come into the picture. They are responsible for the actual physical creation of the building according to the plan. If they don't follow the plan they have failed in their own responsibility (ignoring the legal horrors of real-world architecture). Web equivalent is the web/application developer(s) who actually put the whole thing together.


The government inspects and enforces the standards. This area is starting to take shape for the web, with test cases appearing in various countries. It is a very weak area, though.


Then the public comes into the building. They will be arriving in wheelchairs which don't levitate, shoes with no grip, they might be drunk, who knows. Nobody who built the place can make them all wear decent shoes (so they don't slip on the stairs) nor can they make everyone's wheelchair levitate. Ultimately people should be allowed to choose whatever shoes they wear. But, they also have to accept falling down if they turn up drunk wearing shoes with no grip.

The shoe/wheelchair manufacturers might be grossly negligent but they'll get away with it. Just like browser manufacturers get away with failure to comply with standards.

No matter how well any one group/individual conforms to the overall goals; they will always have a responsibility since their part of the process must still be done well.

Even if wheelchairs do start levitating, buildings will have to be designed and built with enough space allowed for them to fly around.

Nobody will ever become free of responsibility.


  1. The W3C will always have to make good standards and update them.
  2. Clients will always have to resource projects well enough to facilitate compliance.
  3. Web developers will always have to apply standards properly.
  4. User Agent manufacturers will always have to conform to standards.
  5. Users will always have to maintain a reasonable level of technology to make use of the standards.

The problem right now? Only (1) and (3) are currently happening with any level of success; with (3) carrying the hardest tasks.

It's unfair but life is not fair. That's why web developers and architects like to go to the pub ;)