Accessibility Jumpstart 1: What is Accessibility?

Entry categories Accessibility
Shrine gate by K┼Źno Bairei (1844-1895). Digitally enhanced from our own original 1913 edition of Bairei Gakan.

I’ve been working in the accessibility field for quite a few years now. One of the questions I often get is “How do I get started with accessibility?” There so many resources available on the web, it’s hard to know where to start. Assuming you know nothing about it, we’ll start at the beginning.

Definition

Accessibility, as defined by the W3C (more on them in the next article), is “… designed to work for all people, whatever their hardware, software, language, location, or ability… people with a diverse range of hearing, movement, sight, and cognitive ability”. In other words, it provides a universallyequivalent experience”. However, it’s typically scoped in the community to just “…enabling people with disabilities to participate equally on the Web.”

Accessibility is often part of design practices such as Human Factors Design (HCD), Universal Design (UD), and Inclusive Design (ID). For the sake of this series we will be focusing on web accessibility.

I personally believe W3C’s definition is sufficient to cover all the above design methodologies on the web. It’s also the only accessibility method with clear, measurable, and legal standards for the web called WCAG (more on that in a later article as well). W3C’s definition at its root covers creating an equitable digital experience universally.

Finally, as an interesting aside, accessibility is sometimes abbreviated as a11y (pronounced like the word ‘ally’). The ’11’ part is a reference to the eleven letters between the letters a & y in the word. Most people outside of the community seem to find this pretty confusing, so I’d refrain from using it if possible.

Implications

Accessibility is often thought of as making a website for “blind users”. And while that is the case, there are so many more disabilities that accessibility targets. Some examples include those with lower vision, the deaf, those that have a difficult time using their hands to navigate a mouse or provide touch events, those that have cognitive issues where short-term memory or legibility may be a problem, and many more. As of 2019, the US Census states that about 12% of the American population has some sort of disability.

Additionally, when most people think about disabilities, they think about permanent ones. Disabilities are also temporary, situational, or progressive. Consider the following ‘alternative’ disabilities: a broken arm, eyes dilated at the optometrist, the sun too bright to see your screen, a mouse is no longer working, arms too full of groceries, and getting older.

Finally, accessibility also often improves the general experience of those without any disability at all. Siri, Cortona, Amazon Echo all have their roots in technologies such as TTD. This general improvement effect is commonly called a ‘Curb Cut’, and there is a great episode about that by 99% Invisible.

Conclusion

Accessibility is both a need and benefit for everyone, not just “blind users”.

In the next article, I’ll cover some of the global guidelines around accessibility and who sets them.


Want to read the rest of the series?

  1. What Is Accessibility?
  2. Standards
  3. The Law
  4. Assistive Technology
  5. Using Assistive Technology
  6. User Testing
  7. Dev & Design Tools
  8. Staying Current with Accessibility