The Headingless Horseman emerges from the shadows that surround the quagmire of <div>s which the auditor has unwittingly wandered towards. Silently, the imposing Horseman quickly becomes all the auditor can perceive, as an inaccessible overlay fog dims all but the imposing figure. It dismounts, and what seems almost instantly, stands mere feet in front of the lone auditor. A headingless mass with no immediately perceivable purpose. At least, none other than to incite confusion and dread to all that wander too close to the source code.

The air becomes chilled. The surrounding <div>s oddly become clickable. Is this the magic of JavaScript, or something more sinister?

“What is your intent?” the auditor shouts, with a quavering voice. “Tell me now, or by the power of WCAG, I shall knock you down!”

A moment passes, but then a low, guttural laughter can be heard. It comes from the looming figure in front of the auditor, where one might expect there to be a heading, but instead nothingness has somehow found a means to convey its grotesque delight. The Horseman takes a few steps forward, and a menacing whisper dances across the cold breeze.

“You have one chance to audit me. However… I question if your skills are up to the task.”

The auditor, not taking kindly to the insinuation of their inferior auditing prowess, shrilly exclaims with unabashed vigor, “I fail you, Headingless Horseman! I flag you with criterion 2.4.6 Headings and Labels! Begone! Your lack of adhering to the sacred document outline fills me with contempt!”

The figure draws closer. “Begone, I say!” repeats the auditor, though a tremor is now detectable in their blustering.

As before, the horrible sound of laughter can be heard, becoming louder as the Headingless Horseman’s presence becomes all consuming to the auditor… distracting them from other accessibility gaps that could be helpful in their current plight. Rather, the flummoxed auditor cannot understand why the WCAG had no effect. How could the incantation, specifically mentioning “Headings”, be useless here?!

The chilled breeze of the cool night air delivers soft, but terrifying phrases that seem to be protruding from all corners of the overlay fog… “you cannot fail that which has no heading… Especially not with a criterion that specifically normatively dictates that a heading accurately describes a topic, or purpose…”

The words pierce the auditor as if they were cold steel. First, because they have realized the folly of not expending any effort to comprehend the accompanying understanding documents to the WCAG tomes. And secondly, because what dreadful beast speaks in such a cold, normative manner? It is as if this figure is the embodiment of spec text, devoid of any humanity.

The trembling auditor squeaks out “Th-then 1.3.1 Info and Relationships! That is what shall be your demise! Y-you aberration!! You failure!”

This declaration is immediately met with more laughter. An overwhelming sense of dread washes over the auditor as the Horseman’s chortles echo though the night, and slowly dissipate to silence. But that silence is short lived. The Horseman speaks.

“No. Your assertions are meaningless. You know of WCAG, but do not understand how it is to be used. Thus, you miss your mark. Twice… You cannot fail the lack of a programmatically exposed heading, if there is no heading to expose… You wield WCAG as if it were a malleable weapon, rather than a compass to guide. You twist it, bend it… but you are no alchemist.”

The Horseman’s voice, previously hauntingly low, becomes louder. Terrifying.

“You cannot normatively fail me for what is a widely accepted best practice. You do not have the power to change the rules, only to employ them when appropriate. Your time is done, you cannot stop me…”

In the brief seconds before the Headingless Horseman claims another victim, the auditor understands…

As the Horseman said, WCAG is a compass. It can be your guide, and help you find your way to better, more inclusive user experiences. But it is not a weapon to be misused. It cannot be bent in ways it was not meant to, especially when encountering those who know it well. Furthremore, each misuse can cause cracks to form and doubt to spread in those having heard inconsistent tales of rules being effective, or not. The specters of accessibility gaps will continue to linger if people no longer believe in the incantations to exorcise them.

This Horseman has no heading, it is everyone’s problem, equally. I know it’s scary to think about, but WCAG has no place here. The only way to beat this monster is to bring it back to design…

Happy Halloween.