Accessibility features should not scare 90-year old women

Let me just start by saying that I really don’t believe I should be blamed for the very odd experience I had when I tried to use the restroom at the restaurant we were at tonight; I certainly was not trying to scare a 90-year old woman, and I did not deserve to be lectured by her daughter.

Also, I think there is a funny analogy to web accessibility in this story.

We had a lovely dinner with some good friends. Service was a bit slow, but that just meant more time for good conversation. A nice chicken satay appetizer with a tangy peanut sauce, an absolutely amazing bison burger, a savory cup of clam chowder and a richly flavored quartino of Chilean wine. The ingredients were incredibly fresh, the atmosphere relaxed. Overall, a really wonderful evening.

That is, until I tried to use the restroom.

Maybe this is silly, but a part of how I judge a restaurant is by the quality of their restrooms. In my experience, a really good restaurant pays attention to all aspects of the dining experience, and a part of that experience is the restroom. My favorite restroom in the Twin Cities? The Eden Prairie Biaggi’s. Now that is a restroom you can relax in. I don’t care if the marble is fake, with the mood lighting and wood-paneled stalls, I could read several chapters of Game of Thrones in there.

That was not the experience I had tonight.

I walked over to the restroom area, and nearly immediately, I panicked, as time slowed to a crawl. No men or women door labels. Both were unisex bathrooms. I felt like I was walking into an episode of Ally McBeal. Somewhere in my brain, I am sure I was wondering which door I should pick, and what if something awful happened when I tried to open a door.

Then, I saw it.

There, almost exactly equidistant between the two doors, was a large handicap-accessible door-opening button. Rightly or wrongly, not something you usually see in a restaurant restroom area, and I confess, I wasn’t even really thinking at this point. This was all happening so fast, and my hand shot out and pressed the button.

With that, the door in front of me made a loud thunk, as the locked door tried to automatically open. My goodness, that must have startled whoever was inside, I thought! Almost instantly, my other hand, again not thinking, tried to open the other door next to me. It too was locked.

Slightly embarrassed and confused, and probably red-cheeked, I made my way back to our table. I started to tell the story, when one of our table-mates returned from the restroom. He had been in the restroom on the right, so I made my way back there. Thankfully, it was still empty. And disappointingly, a very plain, if spacious, white-tiled single-person bathroom.

Things didn’t get really bad until I returned to the table to finish telling the story.

As I explained the loud thunk when I pressed the button, one of my other table-mates said that the door had thunked while she was inside. Instinctively, I laughed, out of the thought that I must have startled her, when she continued that she said, “I’m almost done!” just as the door thunked again. I had a moment of relief when I realized I hadn’t startled her, when the moment happened that nearly ruined the night.

Out of nowhere, a woman charged up to our table and began lecturing us. How dare we make fun of her 90-year old mother: I had probably scared her half-to-death, and she was just appalled at our laughing at her. I tried to sputter out an apology, that we certainly were not trying to mock her mother. I think somewhere in her enraged mumbling she might have implied that I had gone over to the restrooms and pressed the button as some sort of prank on her mother, on the night before Mother’s Day of all things. She charged off before I could explain what had actually happened.

I was shocked. One part, upset that she had unjustly accused me of a crime I had not committed, and another part—because I’m a nice guy—worrying if I had done something, even unintentionally, that could have been considered cruel or awful. I’m sure this woman was well-intentioned—if we had done what she thought we did, it would be bad. Yet we couldn’t even have a decent conversation to work through the situation, because she assumed we were young roustabouts intent on frightening her elderly mom.

My wife noticed that our accuser spoke with her mother when she exited the restroom. It looked as if the attempt to explain how horrible we were was somewhat fruitless, as her mother did not seem terribly bothered.

I thought about going over to further apologize, but felt it would not go well, and after all, I had not really done anything wrong, at least not intentionally, so we just left after paying to avoid yet another awkward confrontation.

This probably has nothing to do with web accessibility, but here we go

What struck me, after I had time to digest this further, was that this whole situation stemmed from a non-standard use of accessibility features.

One of the best things about accessibility, in my mind at least, is that in most cases, accessibility features benefit far more people than the original audience. Curb cuts are useful not only to those with wheelchairs: those on bikes, skateboards and roller blades also benefit. Those large buttons that open doors easily for those in wheelchairs are also useful for those who don’t have a free hand, since they are carrying grocery bags. Blind people with service dogs can have the door opened by the dog jumping up and opening the door with its paws.

That multi-purpose aspect did not come into play in this situation. The reality was that as the bathrooms were single-user bathrooms, there would nearly always be a good chance that when that button was pressed, somebody would already be inside the bathroom, resulting in a loud thunk startling both the people inside and outside the bathroom. Yes, the button would still be useful when the bathroom was empty, but there would be many times when pressing that button would result in a less than optimal user experience.

Honestly, I am not sure I have ever run into a door-opening button on a door that is regularly locked. This possibility did not fit within my set of normal expectations for that situation, even if it was perceivable that what happened was a possible outcome.

The confusion was exacerbated by the fact that with the button nearly exactly equidistant between both doors, it certainly was not obvious which door would open when the button was pressed.

It is entirely possible that this button was there due to accessibility regulations, perhaps even as a result of an accessibility lawsuit.

To be fair, I am not even sure how this restroom setup could be improved to avoid this sort of situation. If the restrooms were multi-person, and thus would not likely be locked, and each door had its own button, then my expectations would have likely been in line with what would happen if one of the buttons were pressed. There likely was not room to expand those bathrooms into multi-person bathrooms, however.

Here is the web accessibility part

It struck me that with web accessibility, it is important to keep in mind the expectations of both people who need the accessibility features and those who may be making use of those features even if they are not the originally intended audience. Whether you are trying to improve the tabbing experience for keyboard accessibility, labeling of links and images or logically-ordered source code, think through the various possibilities of how people will encounter the accessibility features you are enabling. Keep in mind the expectations people will have as to how these features are regularly used. If you do something different than normal, it might not work out as intended. You may be trying to be helpful, but the actual user experience could be startling and awkward.

I worry, for example, that with the recent HTML5 decision that alt attributes will not be required on certain images, that certain users with older screen readers will end up having long file names being read to them, rather than a description of the purpose of an image.

It also strikes me that a lot of confrontations happen around accessibility based upon people making unfounded assumptions. I’m sure a lot of people working on HTML5, who have made decisions that have struck me as bad for accessibility, do have good intentions to make improvements to accessibility. Similarly, people who are raising concerns about those accessibility decisions are not necessarily unwilling to make use of new accessibility techniques, but trying to use their knowledge of accessibility to make sure that the web serves those who can really be helped by having an accessible web.

Rather than rushing in to make accusations of each other, it would probably make sense to take a moment or two to truly listen to each other.

Also, think about accessibility beyond the bare minimums required by regulations. Putting a button between two restroom doors might satisfy a requirement, but if you have the ability to do so, you may need to rearrange the bathrooms, or think more deeply about broader changes necessary to make a website both accessible and user-friendly.

The really disappointing part of the evening

The most disappointing part of the evening was that the restaurant we were at ran out of strawberry rhubarb crisp, which I had been salivating over for the past few hours since we first arrived. When we were asked about dessert, I proclaimed my excitement to have this delectable delight, and I could immediately see on our server’s face that my dream would not be coming true that night.

This took place immediately before the accessibility kerfuffle at the restrooms, and I’m happy to let you know that our evening ended with a wonderful dessert at a nearby French bakery with delicious tarts, truffles and a mint white chocolate mocha that was to die for.

So think about accessibility. It matters. Also, make sure you still have a lovely evening. You can have an amazing website that is still accessible. Accessibility does not mean you have to skip dessert: you can have a beautiful website too.