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The Basics

Accessibility refers to the design of products, devices, services, or environments for people who experience disabilities. The concept of accessible design and practice of accessible development ensures both "direct access" (i.e. unassisted) and "indirect access" meaning compatibility with a person's assistive technology (for example, computer screen readers). – Wikipedia

Types of Disabilities

Why Accessibility


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.)

Paul Boag raises many of the same points in his article Accessibility is not what you think, putting the emphasis on the fact that accessible solutions aren't strictly for the profoundly disabled edge cases. Yes, they are covered by good accessibility solutions, but good accessibility solutions benefit everyone. 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.

Accessibility is not a 'Feature' and Developers Should Never Treat It as Such. Similarly, Access is not Optional.

I've written a few things about Accessibility over the years, which can be boiled down to these two points:

Business Value

Good accessibility is good business.

  • It provides access to a market of customers that otherwise cannot spend money on your product.
  • It provides a competitive advantage over companies that are not accessible - Dell Corporate has lost bids to more accessible competitors in the government sector, and we'd rather be the company others lose bids to.
  • It frequently provides higher quality than inaccessible products -- products that are thought through from an accessibility lens are often easier to use for non-disabled users, or provide features that otherwise may not be thought about. (For example, while Closed Captioning was developed specifically for Deaf audiences, it's a service that almost everyone has used at some point, whether at a crowded bar or in a room with a sleeping baby.)
  • It ensures continued use of the product to customers that transition from non-disabled to disabled. (Keeping a customer is just as important as gaining a customer.)
  • It lowers legal risk of civil rights and access lawsuits.

Further reading:

Legal issues

One of the most, um, motivating aspects of accessibility law is the ability for someone with a disability to sue or register a complaint against the Office of Civil Rights (in the US, and similar offices in other countries) when a physical or virtual location is inaccessible.

United States

As of January 9, 2017, the Standards and Guidelines of the ICT state that federal governmental electronic content shall conform to Level A and Level AA Success Criteria of the WCAG 2.0 via changes to the Section 508 laws and guidelines. That means that if a company want federal contracts or to provide services to the federal government, it has to meet those accessibility standards. Many state and local governments, state colleges, libraries, etc. also use the Section 508 guidelines — so these potential clients would also request or require accessibility at the Section 508 levels.

While officially these rules do not directly apply to non-federal-governmental websites or applications, there have been many web accessibility lawsuits with the Wall Street Journal reporting over 240 businesses being sued in federal court over sites inaccessible to the blind since 2015.’s What Lawyers Should Know About Digital Accessibility, the ADA, and More covers a significant amount of US-based information about accessibility, including a timeline of landmark digital accessibility legal cases.

Interesting or impactful legal rulings

A Cautionary Tale of Inaccessibility: Target Corporation by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This 2006 decision had a major impact on the Accessibility community because it successfully ruled that telling people with disabilities that they have to use a lower-feature mobile website instead of the full-featured desktop website was a violation of California law. “The [Federal] Judge found that California anti-discrimination law covers websites whether or not they are, or are connected to, a physical place, and that those aspects of’s services that are sufficiently integrated with those of physical Target Stores are covered by the ADA’s non-discrimination provisions.”

Bart Group reviews the legal rulings in 2016 in this whitepaper. Summary points include:

  • 6601 ADA Title III Lawsuits were filed in federal court in 2016, a 37% increase over 2015. Many were settled out-of-court so details are unavailable.
  • Both the US and the EU updated their compliance regulations in 2016/2017.
  • Video captions were a major issue in the education, and entertainment sectors.
  • Screen readers were a major issue in the education, and government sectors.
  • Low-vision issues and forms were a major issue in healthcare, and government sectors.
  • Major lawsuits included the Winn-Dixie case already referenced, BMI/BND Travelware (a luggage retailer) who was sued under both ADA law and a California civil rights law, Deckers Outdoor Corp (the company that makes Uggs) which is still pending, Sweetgreen (salad restaurant), Bank of America, and E*Trade.

Winn-Dixie Case Puts Spotlight on Website Accessibility/Compliance by Chain Store Age. This 2017 decision addresses the same kinds of complaints the Target case addressed — the website must be accessible because it is a gateway to the stores. Emphasis added.

This Florida case also include an entire section on vendors: It is a common practice for businesses to host links on their websites that connect them to partners, vendors, or other third parties. The Court’s ruling this week suggests that even if a business hosts a compliant website, it may be held liable for noncompliance under Title III of the ADA, if it links up to websites that are inaccessible.

The Court in Winn Dixie ruled that “There are 6 different third parties . . . who interface with Winn Dixie’s website so Winn-Dixie needs to make sure that those third parties also make sure that their websites are accessible” and “The Court also finds that the fact that third party vendors operate certain parts of the Winn-Dixie website is not a legal impediment to Winn-Dixie’s obligation to make its website accessible to the disabled. First, many, if not most, of the third party vendors may already be accessible to the disabled and, if not, Winn-Dixie has a legal obligation to require them to be accessible if they choose to operate within the Winn-Dixie website.” This language suggests that an operator or owner of an accessible website may face liability for the noncompliance of vendors that it features through its links.

In January 2018, The New York Post announced a blind woman from Manhattan filed lawsuits against more than 30 websites (mostly retail by the looks of it) for being incompatible with screen readers, and that a disabled man in Manhattan has filed 21 lawsuits for similar offenses.

Other countries

The Law Office of Larry Feingold posts an article entitled Digital Accessibility Laws Around the Globe dated from May 2013, but last updated May 2018 (as of this writing) that keeps track of what laws and rulings may affect each of roughly 16 countries. Other cases include:

Standards and Guidelines

The official standard is the WCAG 2.0 standard by the W3C. For resources related to the standard, see Category: WCAG Guidelines.

Getting it done

Accessibility 101: The things you need to get started

Fostering the Culture

  • Extreme Design by Derek Featherstone is a one-hour video of how accessible design benefits everyone.
  • 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.
  • Accessibility for Teams by the US Government outlines how each role at an organization or in a team can improve the accessibility of a product.

Agile and Accessibility

Specific topics

Testing tools

Why test with people who have disabilities?

How to test

Accessibility & Mobile Design

Accessibility & Game Design

anne’s Accessibility talks

Related topics

Accessible PDF files

Web Accessibility 101: Screen Magnification & Reflow in Acrobat Reader

Additional Resources