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Intro to A11y: What, Who, and Why

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This is the first article in a 2-part series. Read the second half: A11y 102: Where and How.

If you're reading this article, you're already passed the first hurdle to web accessibility: recognizing the need for a more accessible web. But no matter if you're a code newbie or a professional developer, knowing accessibility is important is just the tip of the iceberg. Whether you're a seasoned pro or new to web development, it's important to learn:

  • What is 'disability' and 'accessibility'?
  • Who might be affected?
  • Why does this matter?
  • How to get started
  • Where to learn more

This article will cover the what, who, and why of web accessibility.

Plus a few notes before we get started:

  • a11y is a numeronym for accessibility. These two words will be used interchangeably throughout.
  • the correct linguistic choice between person-first and identity-first language (e.g., a person with a disability vs. a disabled person) is the choice an individual or community prefers. Since this article covers disability very broadly, it will use both person-first and identity-first language.

What is disability?

What comes to your mind when you think of disability? Most people would think of another person with some kind of physical impairment, such as a wheelchair user. You might even think about disabilities that aren't immediately obvious to outside observers, like deafness or learning disabilities.

Whatever you can think of... you're thinking of attributes or characteristics that people have. In this mental model, needing a wheelchair is a feature of a person. This is known as the "medical model" of disability. This model has valid uses (for instance, in medicine!) but it isn't particularly helpful for designing and developing digital products. In fact, this model can contribute to an attitude that accessibility is an "edge case" that isn't a priority for the development team.

Now, instead of picturing something for the word 'disability', try something different. Imagine a world in which almost everyone you know is blind. Your coworkers are blind, the food service workers are blind, most people are blind. In this world, since most people are blind, almost all written word is in braille! Library books are in braille. Restaurant menus are in braille. Government pamphlets about essential services are in braille. And you don't read braille.

In this world, being blind is not a disadvantage, it's the status quo. And the world around us has been designed by and for people who live in this status quo. You, as a non-braille reader, are at a huge disadvantage. Your impairment is not due to a medical condition but is a symptom of design.

This is known as the "social model" of disability; poor design disables users, and good design enables all users.

Who is this for?

Now that we have a better model of disability, we still need to understand who is disabled by poor web design. Some users rely on assistive technology, while others may use adaptive strategies. Those users rely on different and multiple devices, screen sizes, and methods of input.

It's also important to understand that disability is not always permanent. The social model of disability reminds us that anyone can be disabled by the world and the situation around them. Check the list below - even if you don't consider yourself disabled, how many of the examples below could happen to you?

Examples of disabled users

Your users may be disabled by...

Vision: Cataracts, color blindness, full or partial blindness

Mobility: Broken wrist, repetitive stress injury, spinal cord injury

Speech: Sore throat, noisy location, unable to speak

Hearing: Ear infection, noisy location, deaf or hard of hearing

Cognition: Sleep-deprived, learning disabilities, autism

Neural: Anxiety, depression, PTSD

Why does this matter?

Chances are you've dealt with at least one of those issues before, and you probably will again. Imagine breaking both wrists or arms in a traffic accident - how would you continue to use your computer or mobile phone while in casts?

Anyone can become disabled, even temporarily. And many disabilities are not visible. Whether or not you realize it, you know people who deal with disabilities every day.

According to a 2014 survey from the Social Security Administration (SSA), 85.3 million Americans are living with disabilities. That is over 1 in 4 Americans. This includes people with impairments and restrictions that are not classified as 'severe'. About 55.2 million Americans, or 17.6% of the population, had a severe disability.

Does your development team support IE, with only 2% global usage? Why prioritize those 2% of users over the 17.6% of Americans with severe disabilities?

While not every impairment will impact web and technology use, there is inarguably a significant portion of potential and current users that may be disabled by our choices as web designers and developers.

Finally, if product reach isn't enough of a motivator, consider this: the United States is currently seeing a massive uptick in web accessibility lawsuits. Since initial rulings in 2017, and spurred by the Domino's ruling in 2019, a growing number of companies are facing lawsuits and liability risks from inaccessible websites. Is a lawsuit something your company can afford?

Making the web accessible reduces liability, increases your market, and most importantly, is the right thing to do.

Getting started

If you're ready to start improving your website's accessibility, continue onwards to the second article in this series: A11y 102: Where and How. Learn how to identify and remediate the most common accessibility issues, and where to continue your learning.