One of the myths of web accessibility is that people with disabilities benefit from text-only versions. The truth is that practically nobody with a disability benefits in any way from a text-only version at all. Text-only versions may be of some benefit to people with slow Internet connections, but not to people with disabilities (unless they happen to have slow Internet connections). In almost every case, it would be better—much better, usually—to fix the original version than to create an alternative text-only version.
Why Some People Think Text-only = Accessible
Web accessibility novices are usually most familiar with the accessibility issues relevant to blindness. When they think of web accessibility, they think of screen readers and
alt text for images. They don't think nearly as much about people who are deaf, people with motor disabilities, or people with seizure disorders, color-blindness, low vision, or cognitive disabilities. With this heavy bias toward blindness, it makes sense that a text-only version could benefit users who don't need images, graphics or illustrations. According to this logic, creating a text-only version could save developers some effort (and money) because they wouldn't have to insert graphics, and wouldn't have to add
alt text for them. Parts of this logic are true. People who can't see graphics don't need graphics. Adding
alt text is an extra step that could be avoided by not including any graphics at all. Other parts of this logic, however, don't hold true.
The Case Against Text-only Versions
Bias against the full spectrum of disability types
The most important argument against text-only versions is that they do not accomplish what they are intended to accomplish. Text-only versions accommodate only one kind of disability: blindness. Web sites with text-only versions are evidence that the site's designers do not understand web accessibility. They may have created the text-only version thinking they were making the page accessible, but they neglected to address the needs of all other disability types.
The need for graphics and visual presentation
Consider people with dyslexia or cognitive disabilities. How can a page full of text—and only text—increase accessibility for these individuals? Some of these individuals could benefit greatly from more graphics, more multimedia, and more CSS styling. A text-only site is quite counter-productive in these cases, and is actually less accessible than the original graphical version.
"Regular" web pages are more transformable
In a sense, the regular version of a web page—even if it includes graphics and styles—is already a text-only version. Screen readers can only read text, so they ignore the graphical and stylistic elements of web content. Screen readers don't attempt to interpret the visual information of an image, they simply read the
alt attribute, which is already in a "text-only" format. For the most part, the visual presentation and CSS styles have no impact whatsoever on the way a screen reader reads the content. In other words, what screen reader users experience is a text-only version of the web page. The full version was transformed into a text-only version.
However, there are no technologies available to the average consumer to transform text-only versions into graphical versions, or to create appropriate styles where none existed before. Text-only versions are not easily transformable into other formats.
"Separate but equal"
Another important argument against text-only versions is that it creates a kind of Internet apartheid of supposed "separate but equal" versions of content. As with racially segregated classrooms, ability-separated web sites are rarely equal when separate. Designers rarely spend the time and effort necessary to make text-only versions as useful or as robust as the regular versions. They often leave out important information entirely. On a psychological level, text-only versions send a message to people with disabilities: "You can't come in the front door. Try the back door instead." Relegating a class of people to a second-class status may not be the intention behind text-only versions, but sometimes it is the result nevertheless.
False sense of security
A third problem is that text-only sites can give developers a false sense of security. They might think that, with their text-only version, they have finished their accessibility obligations. They may not think to take additional measures, like captioning their videos, adding illustrations to the main version where necessary, or even check for missing
alt text for images. Accessibility is not something that can be solved once and for all with the implementation of any one solution. Accessibility requires careful planning, and continual vigilance. Having a supposed solution to the problem may lull developers into thinking that they no longer have to engage in keeping accessibility in mind.
Difficult to maintain
On a more practical level, text-only versions can be difficult to maintain. Because they constitute the metaphorical "back door," designers neglect them. Updates are not always reflected on the text-only version, and before long, the information is outdated and inaccurate. Some developers have created sophisticated systems to ensure that text-only versions are kept up-to-date with the regular versions. Some keep the content in a database and serve it out through different templates and/or style sheets. Others use the text transcoders of third-party vendors to accomplish the same goal. With these sorts of systems in place, the issues of maintenance may be solved, but they do not negate the other issues with using text-only versions.
When to Use Text-only Versions
Despite all of the arguments against text-only sites, web developers may, on rare occasions, be faced with situations that might call for a text-only solution. Perhaps an interactive multimedia element would be too difficult to make accessible to screen readers. A text-only version may serve as a fallback means of trying to explain what the interactive multimedia element was trying to accomplish. Does this achieve true accessibility? Is the text-only version the equivalent of a complex interactive multimedia element? No, of course not. In these cases, though, something is usually better than nothing, and a text-only version is at least a method of providing something. Some might argue that the multimedia element should either be eliminated or redesigned so that it can be made accessible to screen reader users. They have a point. Where possible, multimedia should be made directly accessible. On the other hand, sometimes these issues are out of the developer's control—for example, if the multimedia element was created by a third party. Just be careful. Use text-only versions to accommodate certain types of disabilities when necessary, but only when necessary.