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Accessibility Primer Part 3: What is accessiblity?

shimmoril profile image Ashleigh Lodge ・5 min read

What is accessibility and why does it matter? Part 3 of a series introducing accessibility, assistive devices and technology, inclusive design, and web accessibility standards and tools. Will include asides on why language matters, the medical vs social models of disability, why Comic Sans isn't the worst thing ever, and fun with acronyms - WCAG, POUR, ARIA and more!

Part 0: Glossary
Part 1: Language & Models
Part 2: Did you know?


Google Dictionary defines accessibility as "the quality of being able to be reached or entered; the quality of being easy to attain or use; the quality of being easily understood or appreciated". While broad and general, these definitions get right to the heart of accessibility - the ability to access and use physical and digital infrastructure (buildings, websites), in all their possible permutations: smartphones (and dumb ones!), apps, public transit, restaurants, museums and galleries, tools for work and tools for leisure.

So far we have a denotative definition of accessibility - the literal meaning of the word - but what does that translate to in day-to-day life? Let's use YouTube as an example. Videos are online, hosted on the largest video platform on the planet, backed by Alphabet/Google. Anyone, anywhere in the world, who has an internet connection can click a link or enter a URL and watch what they want, whether it's a cooking tutorial, or the latest big blockbuster trailer. Right?

I live in Canada, so a lot of the time when I click a link to a movie trailer, instead of actually seeing the video, I get an error:

The uploader has not made this video available in your country.

Or even better:

This video contains content from [company], who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.

Although this video is available to me, it is not accessible. I can refresh that page as much as I want, switch browsers and computers, go from WiFi to LTE and back again, but without applying some kind of assistive technology (a VPN), I am not going to be able to watch that video.

Next we have my friend Leena who lives in Finland and wants to watch the newest Thor: Ragnarok trailer. The video is online, and it's not region or copyright locked, but it's only available in English and she doesn't speak English very well. Again, the video is available, but not particularly accessible. But wait! There's an option on this video to display Finnish captions! Crisis averted and Leena can happily watch Cate Blanchett destroy the world.

In both of the examples above we used assistive technology to make a video accessible. But assistive technology encompasses more than just captions on videos. As usual, Wikipedia is a good place to start: "Assistive technology (AT) is an umbrella term that includes assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices for people with disabilities and also includes the process used in selecting, locating, and using them."

You may also hear people refer to adaptive technology, which is a subset of assistive technology that only includes items developed specifically for people with disabilities. For instance, a prosthetic limb would be adaptive technology, while a tablet configured to allow a non-verbal autistic person to communicate would be assistive technology. And don't be confused by the word "technology"; assistive and adaptive tech can be low or non-tech as well, such as an old-school magnifying glass for reading small type on the back of a pill bottle.

For many users of assistive tech, especially for items related to mobility and communication, AT is considered an extension of their body, and should be treated as such. This means not touching or interacting with AT without explicit permission to do so. You can find many examples online of people leaning on, touching or pushing a wheelchair without permission from the owner, taking a cane or crutches from someone to move them out of the way (thus trapping that person in their current location), or using a person's communication tablet for playing a game. In many cases AT is precisely calibrated to a specific user and use, and random interactions could damage or change that calibration in a way that would leave the device unusable or actively dangerous to the intended user. These issues are part of a larger conversation in many communities about disability-specific etiquette.

Because some of the most commonly-seen and visible examples of AT are things like wheelchairs and canes, many non-disabled/temporarily able-bodied (TAB) people assume that all AT is easily identified, and therefore all disabilities are immediately obvious to observers. However just as not all AT is specifically designed for people with disabilities (PwD), not all disabilities are permanent and visible.

Consider a person who has broken their wrist - they are disabled, although only temporarily. As they wait for their wrist to heal and for the cast to be removed, they have found that using swipe gestures on their phone makes it much easier to use. Here we have a visible, although temporary disability, paired with a non-obvious piece of AT (using their existing phone in a different way).

Another example would be someone with a heart condition who occasionally uses an oxygen tank or concentrator. When this person is out and about with their concentrator, their AT is clearly visible, but the specifics of their disability remain hidden. It can be even worse when they're without their tank and having a bad day - without a physical and visible indicator of disability, others may not understand why they can't walk long distances, or need to use the elevator instead of the stairs.

In the same way that you can't always identify people with disabilities in the real world, there's no way to identify PwD online with accuracy (and without privacy concerns). Not to mention that everyone's disability is unique to that person and their circumstances.

[Accessibility] isn’t a discrete community or field of interest. It is complex, multifaceted and pervades all kinds of cultural identity through race, socio-economic level, gender identity, and faith. If you create an inaccessible product or service, you are almost guaranteed to be disenfranchising someone, including your future self.

Heydon Pickering, Accessibility, the free market, and punching Nazis while sitting down, 2017

Accessibility will never have a "one-size-fits-all" solution that can be implemented once and never thought of again. However, with best practices and inclusive design principles in mind, we can create accessible websites and apps easily and without much extra effort.

Up next: a11y Best Practices and Inclusive Design

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