wa11y.co will be a year old in a couple of days!
Let's talk about it, then we can all move on.
You folks remember January 2022, right?
The world was on fire. We were all still on Twitter. And Wordle — which was still Josh Wardle's Wordle and not yet The New York Times' Wordle — was bigger than Jesus.
Wordle is a free-to-play single-player game with the goal of guessing the five-character word of the day. After each guess, Wordle tells you if each letter is correct (highlighted with green), in the wrong place (highlighted with yellow) or not in the word at all (highlighted with grey).
When you've guessed correctly, or after six failures, Wordle offers a copy of your endgame to share on social networks. Since everyone gets the same word every day, your guesses are censored and only coloured emoji blocks are revealed to avoid spoiling the solution.
Wordle 560 6/6 ⬜⬜⬜⬜🟨 ⬜⬜🟨🟨⬜ 🟩🟩⬜⬜⬜ 🟩🟩⬜⬜⬜ 🟩🟩⬜🟩⬜ 🟩🟩🟩🟩🟩
So, the game above indicates:
- On my first guess, the fifth letter I entered is in the word but in the wrong position.
- On my second guess, the third and fourth letters I entered are also in the wrong position.
- On my third guess, I got the first and second letters in the correct place.
- On my fourth guess, the first and second letters are still in the correct place.
- On my fifth guess, I got the first, second and fourth letters in the correct place.
- I guessed the word correctly on my sixth attempt.
Now, while these endgame grids were exploding on Twitter, my bud Mags was pushing back hard on folks to recognise that emojis-as-art create miserable screen reader experiences.
I mean, imagine scrolling through Twitter and hearing grey square, grey square, grey square, grey square, yellow square, grey square, grey square, yellow square, yellow square, grey square... a hundred times a day.
It's a pickle. They're fun if you can read them, and a pain in the ass if you can't. My gut was certain that a decent compromise was possible, so I took a day off, timeboxed 24 hours to see what I could hack, and wa11y.co — Wordle Accessibility — was born. It's a free, open-source, no-ads web application that translates Wordle emoji endgames into readable text.
Did anyone use it?
I expected maybe a hundred or so folks would take a peek over the course of the year, but the app peaked with 31.1k views per month and still gets nearly 2k visitors per month. This makes wa11y.co the most-used thing I ever built.
The critical reception, though?
Did anyone like it?
I'm not going to dig into the archive and find the exact numbers, but I can confidently say that the messages I received about wa11y.co during 2022 were about 49% fan mail, 49% criticism and 2% outright hate speech.
You might not be terribly surprised to learn that the vast majority of fan mail came from abled folks who were thrilled that they could make the world a better place by making their endgames accessible, and the vast majority of criticism came from folks who use accessibility aids and their advocates who are sick and tired of being an afterthought.
I'm not going to lie: the criticism was shocking, and understanding it didn't come easily to me. Coming to terms with the idea that my harmless hack was harmful was tough.
The most common criticism I heard was that wa11y.co just replaces one accessibility nightmare with another. As sick as folks were with hearing grey square, grey squto be are, grey square... a hundred times a day, they were just as sick with Line one: fifth correct but in the wrong place. Line two: third and fourth correct but in the wrong place...
The feedback I got from folks with accessibility aids was overwhelming; This is neither useful nor interesting, and I totally get it. Some folks accused me of selling a lie to well-meaning abled folks who swallowed and regurgitated it in good faith. Of course that hurt, but I get it.
Why didn't I see the problem at the time? Because — leading onto the second most-common criticism — I didn't collaborate or consult with anyone who actually uses an accessibility aid. Again, they're right. There's a old adage in my line of work: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I can sit here and say “collaboration takes time and we wouldn't have finished before the deadline”, but it's not clear to me anymore that this solution is actually better than no solution.
After a month or so of accessibility thoughtleaders calling the app “patriarchal” and accusing me of being “another mediocre white man with a non-solution” (I'm a trans woman, and that's the tamest bigotry that was thrown at me over this) I posted a poll on Twitter to decide whether to keep wa11y.co up or delete it. “Keep it” won, but I muted all the keywords and hashtags and I didn't touch the project again until now.
I don't love wa11y.co. In fact, I'm ashamed of my naivety. I'm never going to pick up an accessibility improvement as a fun, quick hack ever again, and I'd warn any fragile or inexperienced developers away from the topic too.
If you're inexperienced then I guarantee you're going to significantly underestimate the amount of work you'll need to do. These problems are too big, and my skills are too limited to make a meaningful impact, and meaningful is the bar to entry. Folks with accessibility needs deserve better than hacks, and the world isn't saved through good intentions alone.
And if you're a fragile developer, you've got to know that there's a world of pain out there if you try and fail in this arena. Accessibility advocates are rightly pissed at the state of the world, and if they think you're selling snake oil then you'll be ridiculed, insulted and abused. If you can't sit quietly, listen and learn then you're going to crash and burn.
The folks asking to be included deserve better than hacks. In the end, wa11y.co was as popular as it was offensive, and for what it's worth, I sincerely apologise for making noise rather contributing solutions.
Cariad Eccleston • @email@example.com