Accessibility is the act of designing for an audience that includes people who have disabilities, and may (or may not) be using additional software or hardware to complete their goals.
Accessibility is a way of thinking about design and development. Dylan Barrell explains it in his article “What is accessibility?” in terms of a series of traits. Accessibility is empathy for your users. Accessibility is usability in the things you build. Accessibility is compliance with best practices, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel (or make your user do the same). Accessibility is making the experience better for all users, with an emphasis on the users at the edge of the experience. And Accessibility is practical – not idealistic – in its pursuit of a better experience.
(There’s a great discussion of how a map can be accessible not by aligning with the letter of accessibility requirements, but by reassessing what the core user need actually is and building it instead or in addition to the map, in the “What is accessibility?” article, by the way.)
Accessibility is not a few things, though you’ll meet people who think that it is. It is not a checklist of things to do so that your software passes a compliance test, a list of things to do so you don’t get sued, or a pain in your ass.
(Or rather, if it’s a pain in your ass, so is User Experience and everything else that’s going to make your product successful, so deal.)
Accessibility is not a “nice thing to do”, as Karin Hitselberger explains in her article of the same name. It’s the law. And it’s the law because Karin and you and I all share the same rights to life and dignity and safety and security. It’s not kindness, and it’s not charity. It’s the baseline.
I’ve written a few things about Accessibility over the years, which can be boiled down to these two points:
Thing the first: You need to work with the knowledge of your own stereotypes
Many (many many) people in tech I talk to who are unfamiliar with Accessibility invoke internal stereotypes about disabled people. This is called ableism, and like sexism or racism, it means that — consciously or unconsciously — a person thinks of another person as “lesser” or “other”.
In my article, “Reframing Accessibility for the Web” I try to make the reader aware that ableism exists, and that it interferes with our support of accessible design by denigrating the value of the people accessible design serves. In that article I suggest that if you can’t justify writing accessible software as an audience need, then you should reframe it as a technology need — you need your software to run on these pieces of hardware (keyboard, mouse, sip-and-puff, screen reader, etc.) regardless of what you think of your users.
Would I prefer that everyone tear up their internal stereotypes and build accessible software because everyone needs it? Hells to the yes I would. But I’ve walked into too many executive meetings where the first thing I was told about Accessibility is “it has to have a business value, it can’t just be the right thing to do”, so – yay capitalism?
Besides, half the time we don’t even know what our internal stereotypes are until someone points them out to us. The best way to uncover them is to expose ourselves to different ways of thinking, which happens really fast when we try to use input devices we’ve never used before. We’ll never be substitutes for our disabled users, but we might at least see some of the stupider design mistakes we’ve made if we at least try to test our software on multiple devices before shipping.
Thing the second: You will not be able bodied your whole life
Tech still tends to be a relatively young person’s career, although I haven’t figure out yet whether that’s because it kills us faster or we get tired of it or we get rich and retire to the Caribbean. (I’m really hoping it’s the third one.)
Having been a young person once and a middle-aged person now, I can confidently say that we humans do not know what it’s like to lose a fingertip until we’re looking at it on the kitchen counter. We can empathize, cringe, even get nauseous at the thought, but only those of us who have lost the tip of a finger (or toe, I’ll spot you a toe) can nod and go “Yup, and here’s what that experience is like.”
On the other hand, all of us, experienced or no, can imagine and empathize with someone who’s lost the tip of a finger. Giant bandage, itchy healing, difficulty typing, doors are a bit of a pain….
That’s important, especially in light of Thing The First and our internalized stereotypes. When we take a group of people and say “I’m not one of them” or “I don’t know what it’s like to be one of them” it’s easy to say “They’re not important; I’m building for people like me.”
But who are the people like you? When we say “They have an accessibility issue, in that they can only use a keyboard,” do you picture someone who has a severe and permanent disability that prevents them from using a mouse, or do you picture a fingertip wrapped in gauze two inches thick?
The point of An Alphabet of Accessibility Issues is that anyone at any time for any number of reasons might find themselves in need of your accessible product. They might be permanently disabled, they might be temporarily disabled, they might just be distracted or have their hands full. They might be older, they might be younger, they might be exactly like you. Because we cannot predict who our users really are — and for that matter we cannot predict our own health from one day to the next — we have to build for everyone.
Categories of Disabilities
OK, all that being said, it still helps to categorize the kinds of problems that our users experience into some high-level categories of disability.
- Hearing difficulty and d/Deafness
- Low vision and Blindness
- Motor issues
- Neurological issues
Standards and Guidelines
The official standard is the WCAG 2.0 standard by the W3C. Because a lot of articles reference specific guidelines, I’ve broken them down into a giant list of WCAG guidelines (which then breaks down into more lists, etc. because I’m like that.)
Getting it done
- Creating a Culture of Accessibility by Cordelia McGee Tubs at the Dropbox Tech Blog. This article discusses generating excitement around accessibility, running an accessibility device lab, rewarding the organization’s champions, spreading knowledge, and developing a culture of learning around accessibility.
- Reframing Accessibility for the Web by me at A List Apart. This article discusses how stereotypes work, how they’re interfering with our accessible design process, and one approach to testing for accessibility that takes the stereotypes out of the direct line of fire.
- The Web Accessibility Basics by Marco’s Accessibility Blog
- Getting Started with Web Accessibility by Monika Piotrowicz at The Pastry Box.
Accessibility & Mobile Design
- Mobile And Accessibility: Why You Should Care And What You Can Do About It by TJ VanToll at Smashing Magazine