Is accessibility only about people with disabilities?

So here’s a question that comes up every once in a while: is accessibility only about people with disabilities or is it also about older users, temporary disabilities (like a broken arm), technical restraints (older browsers, dial-up) or device restrictions (mobiles and hand-helds)?

It’s well established that there is a cross over between accessibility and best practices for mobile devices but does mobile access dilute from the needs of people with disabilities when we are building accessible websites? In other words should hardware and software be bundled with people – the end receivers of web content?

It’s a question that comes up time and again and while this blog is about “making the web world wide: global, accessible and mobile” (having started it two years ago because I felt constrained writing solely about accessibility on my previous work blog, the RNIB Web Access Centre) I’m constantly challenging myself on it.

So what do you think? And most importantly why?

Comments here rather than Twitter would be preferred just so everyone can follow the conversation, thanks!

19 thoughts on “Is accessibility only about people with disabilities?

  1. Accessibility is a subset of usability. Whilst ‘usability’ addresses issues that potentially affect all users, accessibility is concerned with the barriers people face due to their specific physical needs, including temporary disabilities such as a broken arm.

    Often people misuse the term ‘accessibility’ to refer to the ability to access the content from older platforms, mobile browsers, slow connections etc, or even to describe how often a service is online. These issues impact all users, regardless of physical needs. I therefore prefer to consider these issues under an umbrella term of ‘availability’.

    Of course, all three are inextricably linked and profoundly impact upon one another, for better or worse.

  2. To my mind “accessibility” just means making the gist of your content or service available to the widest number of people. Permanent disabilities may be the most common reason people can’t get your stuff, but I don’t think it’s wise to artificially limit the scope of “accessibility” to those who may be blind/deaf/color-blind/left-handed. Accommodating the “disabilities” of client devices may even be statistically more important than accommodating human disabilities. That’s the whole idea behind “progressive enhancement”, right? You start with just the very basics, and you provide a progressively richer experience for those with more advanced abilities, whether those are human abilities or device capabilities.

  3. I’m puzzled as to why this question keeps cropping up. I think it has to do with context. We have the Web, and everything else.

    On the web, the word accessibility has been repurposed and defined specifically by the W3C as dealing with issues around disability. Repurposing and redefining words isn’t a novel thing; the W3C have repurposed words like validation and ontology in it’s path to having a well-specified platform we know as the Web.

    So logically, it would make sense for all material from the W3C and all material based on W3C material be read and interpreted according to the W3C’s definitions. So on that basis we need to look back at why we have a Web Accessibility Initiative and understand its purpose.

    The main force behind the creation of WAI was a formal complaint from a number of disability groups (largely sight-related disabilities) based on the fear that as the web went from being text-only to highly graphical, people with sight problems found themselves more and more isolated from it. It was a civil movement addressed to the one organisation that represented the Web.

    The W3C’s vision at that time was for universal access to the web by everyone (universality). And every recommendation from every Activity had to support that vision. Disability groups pointed out that the vision, despite being met, was still excluding people with vision impairments.

    The press release of WAI International Program Office ( ) contains the often quoted, and just as often misunderstood Tim Berners Lee quote about accessibility. What is more interesting is the quote in context:

    “WASHINGTON, DC, USA — October 22, 1997 — The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) today announced the launch of the International Program Office (IPO) for the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) to promote and achieve Web functionality for people with disabilities. “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect,” said Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web. “The IPO will ensure the Web can be accessed through different combinations of senses and physical capabilities just as other W3C activities ensure its operation across different hardware and software platforms, media, cultures and countries.” ”

    (Interesting to note the press release starts with Washington – the political heart of the US, not Massachusetts, New Hampshire, where the W3C were based.)

    The WAI came into existence to work alongside every recommendation activity feeding in requirements that protect or improve the quality of access to disabled people. This was a start, but the need for an extra standalone document detailling additional requirements became clear, and that work resulted in the publication of WCAG 1.0, and many years later WCAG 2.0.

    As far as I am aware, their role hasn’t changed, and that means the repurposed definition of accessibility hasn’t changed either.

    So next comes the question of who gave the W3C the right to redefine accessibility. Well, we did, as citizens of the web, their platform. We, the supporters of the various ‘standards’, RFCs and recommendations that make up the web, did this.

    Next comes the argument that the W3C do not have sole right to the word accessibility. And here comes the hard reality:

    Imagine for a moment that you removed all the W3C created material about web accessibility, all the material based/founded/derived on or from it, all the material on those W3C member organisations that moved WAI forward (as members of Good Standing, for example). Now, what does web accessibility look like without all that material, experience, learning and skill?

    Pretty desolate, except maybe for a dictionary. And dictionaries aren’t really the best ways of learning how and why.

  4. Given the rise in touch screen interfaces, I’m curious to see how mobile devices such as the iphone and touch screen computing can be made accessible, for example; how do you find the ‘5’ button when there is no dimple on the button. In the terms of visual impairments I can envisage a gesture based technology using multi-touch, taps, and sweeps to allow a user to control the device and receive feed back. But I can’t imagine manufacturers investing the time (unless legislated) and research to provide a valuable and accessible multipurpose device to the mass market.

    Also, I think accessibility is not so much about ‘disabled’ users and much more about inclusivity. There are a lot of people with lesser-impairments which are not registered disabled but still have difficulty using a computer. An Ageing population comes to mind first with things such as poor eye sight and less dexterity / precession (i realise that WAI-AGE covers this, but personally feel it gets forgotten about in general accessibility comnversations ) 😀

  5. I’d like to offer a slightly broader interpretation.

    To me, accessibility is a subset of user-centered design. The goal is to arrive at an empathetic solution that satisfies measurable benchmarks and is delivered on point with a user’s goals and intentions. The term “accessibility” primarily deals with that of physical and cognitive barriers.

    That said, accessibility efforts can transcend physical or cognitive ability. It’s a broad-spectrum approach ensuring that a product or system can be used by more people in more situations. I know that the strictly-intended definition does not include device restrictions, but accessibility can impact these and other criteria. For example — a blind person may not have reason to update a browser as often as a sighted user might, due to incompatibility with their screen-reading software.

    The end goal is context, not the container.

  6. I don’t agree with @James – accessibility is a kind of superset of usability – web content should be accessible, before being usable. To me, accessibility is very vital aspect of the web for all – humans and machines, so that anyone/any software can access to content at any time, anywhere.

  7. To me, accessibility is primarily for people with disabilities (whether temporary or permanent), but it’s entirely impossible to isolate the benefits to people with disabilities from the rest of a site’s potential audience. I make my sites accessible so that people with disabilities have the opportunity to enjoy and access them in a meaningful and independent way. But by so doing, I also make my sites better and more enjoyable and useful for everyone – which is also “accessibility”.

    Accessibility tends to happen naturally if you gain an understanding and appreciation for those with disabilities. Or, as was noted just today, “Accessibility is about giving a crap.” –

  8. The article Jared linked to really rang true for me. I told Henny this story when I saw her in Austin last week, so she already knows it, but I’ll mention it here. When I first started building web sites in the spring of 1993, my boss was blind. He was a blind man with a PhD in computer science who had invented the screen reader in 1976 as part of his doctoral thesis. When you know someone who is effected by “accessibility” efforts, it becomes more tangible, more real. Because I worked for that gentleman so many years ago, screen reader users have a face. Accessibility has been something I keep in mind when creating sites for 16 years now. Back then, there wasn’t much more to it than making sure all your image tags had alt attributes; tables weren’t even supported yet. I’ve known other blind and partially sighted users over the years via various other interests of mine. These are people I know, and they’re why I give a crap.

    To answer the original question, my inclination is that the word “accessibility” only refers to efforts to make it possible for users of assistive technologies to have equivalent access to the information presented on the sites we create. It’s only part of what goes in to making a site. Maybe a good word to describe the way I think about making a site work with mobile browsers would be “adaptability”. It’s a related but different concept. The mobile world is changing pretty dramatically right now, and the linkage between mobile and accessible may be weakening. New browsers like Mobile Safari and Android Browser make few concessions for the fact that they operate on small screens; you can create an RIA that works only on iPhones now, and Apple’s Dashcode makes it dead easy to do that. I think there’s going to be a lot of temptation to do that in the near- and medium-term future, and that doing so is potentially antithetical to the ideas behind “One Web” and accessibility. Given this, I think there’s a danger in conflating the concept of accessibility with the kinds of things we do to support mobile devices. What’s been true in the past may not be so true in the future.

  9. Ralph, I like the separated concept of ‘adaptability’ with regards to mobile devices etc (although I’d perhaps use the more common term ‘compatibility’, which suggests a wider reference to browsers, devices and platforms in general). I’d consider this to be a subset of ‘availability’, which I mooted previously, and which I think covers all the technical issues that apply across the board to dictate whether or not it is possible to access the content in the first place (regardless of the user’s specific needs).

    So for me, ‘availability’ would refer to whether a site’s content is universally available (with ‘compatibility’ being a subset that looks at the client-side issues around browsers, devices etc). Then ‘usability’ kicks in, looking at whether the site and its content is usable, perceivable, desirable etc (with ‘accessibility’ being a subset looking at a particular set of specific user needs).

  10. I’ve disagreed with Isofarro on this before (at length!) because I don’t agree with the “because W3C says it, everyone else should follow” argument.

    I see accessibility rather more simply – in making content accessible. Irrespective of whether that is for people with older technology, disability, different devices or whatever. However, when it comes to the accessibility ‘stick’ (in terms of shouting at people who have inaccessible sites), I would tend to restrict this to disability only: and I would restrict it to problems in practice as opposed to non-compliance (particularly with WCAG 1.0).

    So for me, I will lump ‘universality’ into that great ‘accessibility/usability’ mix – because I tend to think they all shade into one another. As Justin says, improving accessibility for users with disabilities will frequently make your site more accessible to others – so surely that’s ‘accessibility’ too.

    I also think arguing over the semantics of it can be distracting and is a lot less important than making sites easier for everyone to use, so I don’t object to how anyone else wants to term it…

  11. James, I’m not crazy about the word “compatibility” in this context. I can make a site that’s compatible with the iPhone that’s not adaptable to any other context. My thinking behind the term “adaptability” was that a properly-constructed site has the ability to adapt to the environment in which it’s rendered. It can render one way in a desktop environment. With the use of something like CSS media queries, the viewport meta tag, or media=”handheld” for older mobile browsers that support it, it can render another, more appropriate way in a mobile environment. With the addition of ARIA support, it can render yet another way in an audio environment. That can certainly be a part of your concept of availability.

  12. For me as a deaf user accessibility means text versions for all audio media. Which brings me to the question to Martin Kliehm who posted his comment in end of March and said transcripts would follow eventually. I still don’t see transcripts. They are to be posted with audio AT SAME TIME not after.

    To make content equally available, it’s best that videos and podcasts are to be put online along with transcripts, not before transcripts are ready.

  13. Hi Sveta, thanks for your comments. I agree that accessibility for deaf users is transcripts and captions for multimedia but I would go a bit further and say that clear copy, layout, use of colour to reinforce meaning, clear iconography, images and headings also help.

    Many deaf people since birth, people who are culturally deaf, have British Sign Language (or their native country equivalent) as their native language so written text is not always the easiest to understand.
    Lisa Herrod, accessibility and usability specialist, has extensive experience in this area and wrote a great article for A List Apart “Deafness and the User Experience” Most definitely worth a read.

  14. I think it is great when we can use standards to make our stuff easily accessible. I would love some guidance on how accesibility fits with the other aspects of designing for the web. I do not want accesibility to be a moral high horse that can be climbed and used to ride past other aspects of good design.

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