Accessibility is misunderstood — let’s fix that

If we can think about accessibility the right way, maybe we can stop dreading it.

Photo by Eunice Lituañas on Unsplash

I probably shouldn’t start off an article with $4 words, but here it is. A synecdoche (si-NEK-di-kee) is when part of something is used to represent the whole (the reverse is also true).

For example, if you think only of the infantry when you use the word “army”, that’s a synecdoche. It is true the infantry is a vital part of any army; but there are certainly more types of soldiers in an army (engineers, medics, quartermasters, etc.).

If the first thing you think about when you think of “accessibility” is developing for people with disabilities — well, you have a synecdoche on your hands! But it’s ok — that’s what I used to think and it’s a hard mindset to break; but together, we’ll get there!

What is accessibility really?

Making content accessible is just that — creating content that can be accessed by the maximum number of people possible. Therefore, accessibility is the degree to which content is available to all.

Notice this statement didn’t include anything about disabilities, standards, or compliance.

Accessibility vs. compliance

We may think of users with disabilities when we think of accessibility because they have been some of the most vocal advocates for access, including lobbying governments to pass laws requiring compliance to various standards.

The problem is you can’t legislate accessibility; you can only legislate compliance. The reason is obvious: accessibility is an idea; compliance is the conformance to standards — meaning it can be measured.

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

The unfortunate result is companies aim for compliance and not for accessibility because compliance is the legal requirement. Furthermore, accessibility as an idea gets lost in legal obligations and becomes synonymous with developing for people with disabilities.

In other words, accessibility becomes a synecdoche.

Ironically, even if companies have no knowledge of ARIA attributes, color contrasts, or alt texts — they have still attempted to make their content accessible.

When a company states they want their content mobile-friendly, they (whether they know it or not) are working toward accessibility because they are providing their content to users who consume it in a different way.

Having said that, there is a vast difference between the inconvenience of having to view a site made for computers on a phone and not being able to use a site at all.

Alex Krasavtsev from Oakville, Canada, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The problem is many have only attempted to make their content accessible to a hypothetical “typical” user. In other words, they’ve catered to the able-bodied masses.

Again, accessibility is the availability of content for the maximum number of users. And as long as there are users who are not able to access the content, there is work to do.

When a site is not accessible, the ones that suffer the most are typically those who have disabilities. Their concerns were dismissed and ignored for a long time. That’s not right and we’re working to fix it. Part of that is thinking about accessibility as it is and not as a synecdoche.

You might say, “What’s the big deal? So what if I’m using a synech-o-whatever-you-called-it, only thinking about disabled people when I think of accessibility?”

To be frank, it’s perfectly okay to do this — but only if you are the type of person who can produce content for the benefit of people who have disabilities (or are otherwise different than you) on your own initiative.

But if you are able-bodied, chances are, you’re not that type of person — and you should be honest with yourself about this. It is virtually every developer’s tendency to create content for people like themselves.

Don’t feel guilty about it. That doesn’t solve anything. Just understand your tendencies and account for them in your development.

Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

Since we’ve established accessibility is more than creating content that can be consumed by users with disabilities, hopefully, we’ve realized that (as a whole) we’ve let them down.

We have, for the most part, created our content for a certain type of user at the expense of others. In other words, we’ve provided accessibility for people who consume content like we do and have denied it to others. Then, when we’re told to change our content to accommodate others, we put that work in a box labeled “accessibility”.

That’s the problem with the synecdoche. As Shay Perez states in her article How to create accessible and inclusive product content guidelines:

Language has power, and we need to be aware of how our language can harm and exclude our users.

The QA scenario

When QA (Quality Assurance) comes back and says they found a bug during their edge testing, how many times have you heard a developer argue, “What user would ever do that?” Few experienced developers would say such a thing.

Experienced developers know users (especially users unfamiliar with your content) are going to unintentionally find creative ways to break your stuff.

This lesson learned is the same for accessibility and for QA: don’t assume the users will access the content in the same way you would.

The accessibility scenario

If you have some resentment for having to create content that is compliant with WCAG, Section 508, or any other standard, here’s a thought experiment:

If an accessibility specialist comes to you and says some of your content needs to change so users requiring assistive technology can use it, ask yourself this question before you roll your eyes or scoff:

How would you react if someone said the content needed to change to accommodate mobile users? Would you react the same way?

In either scenario, you are working to make the content accessible. If your attitude is “Ok, let’s fix that right away.” for both scenarios, I applaud you. Your attitude will be reflected in the quality of your work.

If you would react in a resentful or snobbish way, consider these words from Pietro Gregorini in his article Designing Kindness:

I often see designers more concentrated on things like trends or how they are perceived by others, instead of focusing on the act of design itself and the true meaning of our job which is actually to solve users’ needs, not feeding our ego.

Sometimes it’s easier for a person to change their perspective on an idea instead of changing their habits. Once you change your perspective, new habits will follow.

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