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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:

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.

Example cases and events that have garnered media attention 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