Section II – Digital Content Creation

7 Chapter 6 – Accessibility


What is accessibility? Could it be as simple as saying, it’s the ability to access, and everything that entails? Definitions are often some of the most difficult things to, well, define. Part of the challenge is developing a definition that encompasses enough of the points of view of the thing you are trying to define. This complexity increases when we deal with concepts, given that they are not often inherently tangible and are therefore open to much interpretation based on the context for their application.

Having said that, given that digital is such a part of our daily contexts in the developed world, we will come to the definitions, discussions and examples from that point of view, for now.


Sometimes you will see accessibility written as a11y. Have you wondered why? There are 11 letters between the A and the Y in the word accessibility. It’s a way of saving characters for applications where there may be character limits, such as Twitter.

So, A11y = Accessibility.

The funny irony here is that this treatment of the word accessibility is in itself not immediately accessible. But perhaps there’s a lesson in there, and that’s the point.


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Attempts at a definition

Dictionary page with word definition. Source:

The United Nations (UN) has a very inclusive definition of accessibility, stating that:

“The term persons with disabilities is used to apply to all persons with disabilities including those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which, in interaction with various attitudinal and environmental barriers, hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” (Source)

In this context, it is about participation and inclusion in society, not just the logistical challenges with interacting with physical aspects of society. In other words, accessibility is as much a social issue as it is a logistical one.

Turing to the digital context, there are types of impairments that exist on a spectrum running from passive to the extreme, with low to high levels of support from a variety of assistive technologies (Source):

  • Mobility – including motor disabilities that can complicate an individual’s ability to interact with certain elements.
  • Vision – these are not limited to blindness, as there a variety of visual disabilities, such as tunnel vision, etc.
  • Hearing – especially when it comes to interfaces with auditory haptic feedback that is not complemented by other feedback methods for actions.
  • Speech – a challenge for speech interfaces such as Google Home or Amazon Alexa.
  • Mental – including the complexity of the text, or density of information on a screen at one time.
  • Hidden – these could be things such as anxiety, phobias, etc.
  • Ageing – could be construed as an assemblage of a variety of disabilities that increase in severity over time.

In this light, a definition that is more adapted to a digital context (from Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities) could be:

“Accessibility exists when a user (who may or may not have a particular disability) can easily make use of a particular digital resource (which may be textual, auditory, visual, or some combination) with their choice of technology (which may or may not be explicitly labeled “assistive” technology) and can, as a result, cognitively process the information as it comes to them from that resource through that technology.”

Although this definition is useful in the digital context, it has more of a focus at the point of use. It is also important to be mindful, as per the UN definition, that any definition of accessibility is as much a logistical one, as it is one of social construction.


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Biases and stereotypes

Moving on from definitions, we must also remain aware of the biases and stereotypes that can affect where, how, and to whom we apply them to definitions in different contexts. It is useful to remember that biases and stereotypes can sometimes distort the definitions we are trying to apply in ways that may prevent us from engaging in concepts in more objective ways.


In her article titled, “I Am Not Broken: The Language of Disability”, the author discusses how Ableism is the elephant in the room and is “that belief that everyone who is able-bodied is ‘normal’ and everyone else is abnormal”. In this light, we tend to put the onus on people with disabilities to adapt to the environment around them, with the few adaptations (whether successful or not) that we provide for them. The idea of being able can also diminish a condition as something that can be overcome, which is not always the case.

This also aligns with the earlier point of accessibility being more than logistics. The idea of able people equating to normal people is problematic because it persists the social construction of what it means to be normal and problematizes people with disabilities, whether permanently or temporarily.

Disabled = Broken?

In this same context, disabled does not mean broken. More often than not, it simply means that people with certain disabilities may do things in a different way than the majority. So this begs the question, is disability defined through consensus?

If enough of us experience a disability, does that become the norm, and therefore everyone who now does not have that disability is considered disabled? Think of eyeglasses. When was the last time that you saw someone with eyeglasses (or even if you have eyeglasses) and thought of them (or yourself) as broken or disabled? Is it because enough of us have the same condition that we become more amenable to accepting it?

Age ≠ Disability?

Also, as our demographics change and baby boomers age, we will experience a kind of disability creep as more people will start to have issues with vision, motor skills, hearing, and cognition.

It’s a funny kind of ableism, in which we do not tend to see this as a disability; instead, we label it “just getting old”. However, functionally speaking, the issues being faced are the same. This also takes us back to the notion of consensus and whether definitions can change as more of us see something in a different way or context.

Assistive vs. Adaptive

And what about assistive versus adaptive technologies? Between these two, there is a big blurry grey line, which often causes confusion. Especially since Assistive, technically includes adaptive. However, it may be helpful to think of it like this: ADAPTIVE is technology that sits on top of other technology, such as screen reader software, closed captioning, etc. It ADAPTS a technology to make it (or its content, or interactions) accessible to a wider range of people. ASSISTIVE is tech that is created to allow people to perform interactions with the abilities they already have. E.g., hearing aids, wheelchairs, eyeglasses, and ramps. So, it ASSISTS people in performing certain tasks with more independence. We tend to have a real bias towards assistive tech, especially when it’s associated with disability creep due to age. (Source: 1, 2)

Key Takeaways

When we compartmentalize accessibility, we allow ourselves to prioritize its execution in certain contexts over others, which means that we are not creating a consistent life experience for anyone. If we were to embrace universal design everywhere, we could start to create a consistency of experience that is more inclusive by default.


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A11y impacts in…

There are many places where accessibility has impacts on society. Below are a few of the areas that it impacts.

Public Spaces

Assumptions about access

In public spaces, we continually make assumptions about access, and that is likely because we take so much of our own experience for granted. E.g., you may assume that a person with a disability would not be alone.

When accessibility = retrofit

Wheelchair ramp retrofit fail. Source:

When we talk about the notion of accessibility, it is often in the context of making something accessible after the fact, which means that we may make assumptions about use that are difficult to understand unless you experience them yourself. In retrofitting an existing design, we are somewhat bound by the constraints that the design provides, which means that decisions about accessibility will be biased towards the design it sits on top of, and not necessarily its actual usability.

Government online is a kind of public space

Which leads us to online. So much of our government’s service and program delivery happens online nowadays that sites such as could almost be considered public spaces online. Without appropriate access for people with different requirements, we could be preventing people with disabilities from accessing programs and services that they are entitled to, with the same level of convenience as ”able” people. In 2012, the Jodhan case made sure that any public-facing government of Canada site would become accessible. However, due to low funding and resources, the government of Canada managed to meet the minimum requirements for accessibility. This means that in certain cases, a person with a screen reader would have to click a down arrow 126 times to get to the content they want. We are just now starting to move towards universal design, with a goal of creating meaningful experiences for everyone.

Online Shopping

Online shopping sites, such as Amazon, could also be considered a kind of public online space. But, what if you are a person that suffers from dyslexia? You may find it difficult to shop, if the typography is not flexible or if the language is written in less-accessible ways. If a person is unable to participate in something such as online shopping due to accessibility issues, we are also preventing them from participating as viable members of the economy, which feeds into their marginalization.


Democracy via voting

Although there have been laws around for some time regarding accessibility for certain things such as voting, it does not necessarily mean that accessibility will be properly implemented. Also, in a very western-centric sense, we assume that if we make enough of a fuss, things will be made to change. However, when considering less-developed nations, whose views on disability may be less inclusive, people with certain disabilities may be excluded from the democratic process altogether.

Participation in public activities

Public activities such as demonstrations are another way in which people with disabilities may be disengaged. Having said that, given how some demonstrations can turn ugly quickly, it may not be the best example. However, in this case, how does the disabled citizen’s discontent get communicated?


Employment? In a 2011 study by StatsCan, the unemployment rate amongst people with disabilities was double of those without (~11% vs ~6%). The ability to participate in the economy through employment is a form of citizen engagement, in that it allows one to contribute to the creation of knowledge and wealth for a country. Poor access to employment may disengage citizens from participating in other socio-economic activities, and also make them feel like they do not have a right to a voice.

Digital engagement with government

All of this trickles down eventually to digital engagement with government. Suppose that someone has a limited education but really wants to be able to submit their own taxes online. Use of complex versus plain language may prevent me from doing that. Or as an aged person with low visibility, a tremor, and little support, I may have trouble accessing information on my benefits.

Other areas

Social media?

The ability to participate in different social activities online could be hampered by something as simple as which language you understand.

As humans, we are social beings, and not having access to localized social networks (geographically speaking) through online platforms, could have an adverse effect on people, which could become an adverse effect on society.

Also, as an interesting aside, translation platforms such as google translate are continually evolving their dictionaries based on algorithms that are programmed by people. So, who controls what we read or say in another language? If the translations are based on consensus, are they necessarily correct? How could this affect things like policy interpretation or rules for small business and/or individuals? Could it be an appropriate defence for wrong-doing?

Accessibility can be contextual

On a personal note, I was taking a course, and I could not attend one of the classes due to a back injury. I was experiencing a low-level temporary disability, so I took the opportunity to attend virtually from home.

Due to the infrastructure constraints in the room, the experience of attending class virtually was less than ideal. I had a hard time hearing what was being said, seeing what was being shown, and generally participating. The classroom experience was designed to be optimized for actually being in the room.

So, accessibility can be contextual. Whether in public spaces or online, if the underlying infrastructure has not been fully and meaningfully thought through, it can create barriers to accessibility.

The impacts of accessibility are not always obvious, nor are they necessarily simple.

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Plain Language (especially in academia) – can we talk?

The elephant in the room. Source: language is the elephant in the room. Academic writing is known for being thick, which means that not everyone can just pick up and read it. Some literature is like that as well. Both can be quite inaccessible.

So, it begs the question of whether this is part of some social construction of identities for which we feel we need certain professions to seem less accessible to establish their credibility? Is it perhaps because in academia we are often dealing with things at more theoretical levels, and as a result we want people to enter the discourse only when they have enough of a context to be able to contribute to the production of knowledge, rather than distract from it with noise?

Part of Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development speaks to the notions of Assimilation and Accommodation, in which, especially in children, they learn a concept first by taking it in and assimilating it into their own mental models, and then later, after much interaction with the concept, they will change their mental models to accommodate new knowledge into existing knowledge.

Perhaps academic writing wants us to be somewhere between the two, to begin with. So, is a lack of accessibility in this case justified? Or is it adhering to old hierarchies and frameworks for professions? This is something to ponder.

An example of plain language

“You Can’t Think About Thinking Without Thinking About Thinking About Something.” – Seymour Papert.

In his paper titled, “You Can’t Think About Thinking Without Thinking About Thinking About Something”, Seymour Papert discussed two examples of how to teach calculus to children.


Example 1

Draw a circle by the instructions “forward a tiny bit (in calculus language fd dx) right turn a tiny bit (rt d?) and repeat (integrate.)”

Example 2

Make a turtle seek a distant light by “ if to the left rt d?, if to the right ltd A, fd dx, repeat.”

Example one is more along the lines of Assimilation, while example 2 is more along the lines of Accommodation. I.e. Example one is more accessible than two because it does not presuppose that you have internalized the concepts of calculus.

When we talk about plain language then, it is perhaps best to think of it in terms of writing for assimilation, and not assuming that everyone will willing to accommodate you as the writer.

In a context of policy, rules, and regulations, one can understand how using plain language would make them easier to be understood by people. The easier it is to comprehend these frameworks by people, the more likely it is that they will be able to remain compliant with them. In other words, plain language, by making concepts more accessible, can make the right thing to do, the easiest thing to do.


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A11y and compliance online

Lenses of compliance for A11Y

The lenses of accessibility online

As you can see from the diagram above, the different lenses that make up accessibility online rarely align all at once, so it is largely a “get as many of them to align as you can and build out from there” type of scenario.

Unpacking some terms

In order to make the relationships between the lenses more clear let’s unpack some of these terms.

Rules = instructions for way things SHOULD be done – can be more organic and flexible

Regulations = rules enforceable by law – more rigid

Standards= Quantifiable low-level controls for level of quality expected. Think quantifiable metrics.

Policies = high-level enforceable rules and guidelines at an organizational level. Think scope and issue identification.

These are the typical elements that go into compliance for the web and interactive applications. If you look at them as a set of lenses, you can see how their intersections can create their own subsets of complexity and discourse. Sadly, the planets rarely align to get full compliance. And so we end up with trying to get as many of them to align, and then implement (usually as some kind of retrofit) and iterate with improvements over time.

However, this is starting to change, as we are becoming more aware of the benefits of universal design, and the concept of inclusive by design and accessible by default. It also raises the question of whether design is a human right or a nice add-on.

Current standards central to a11y

Currently, there are three main standards at the heart of accessibility on the web and in the digital realm (Source):

  1. World Wide Web Consortium (W3C): Covering HTML5, CSS,
    SVG, MathML
  2. Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI): Covering web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) + Accessible Rich Internet
    Applications (ARIA)

The world wide web consortium provides much guidance for the underlying infrastructure of the internet with code, as well as the implementation of content and interactions online.

The International Digital Publishing Forum provides guidance on ePub, which is largely touted as an intrinsically accessible format for content.

Having said that, what they provide is guidance. It is up to the developers and creators of sites, applications, and content to make sure that they are not only compliant with minimum requirements as stated by the various legislature, but are also designing more meaningful experiences for all.

WCAG’S 4 principles of a11y

Symbols for disability. Source:

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines’ state 4 principles, that anyone who wants to use the Web must have access to content that is: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

  1. Perceivable – Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways that enable them to perceive the information being presented, and it can’t be invisible to all of their senses
  2. Operable – the interface cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform
  3. Understandable – the content or operation of the user interface cannot be beyond the understanding of users. I.e., they must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface
  4. Robust – Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.(Source)

So, as technologies and user agents evolve, the content should remain accessible. If any of these are not true, users with disabilities will not be able to use the Web.


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Addressing the issue of a11y

Social constructions of disability


When we look at someone with a disability we may immediately start to think about all the things that they probably can’t do. Which means that we are looking at their abilities based on our assumptions of the totality of their capabilities from looking at their bodies (or containers). Essentially, this is  “othering”, in which we are looking at someone as being intrinsically different from ourselves, even if they are not.

From disabled to diff-abled

But if we flip the script, and start looking at it from the perspective of the capabilities to contribute from INSIDE the person, then we are really looking at the CONTENT inside the container, which from a socio-cultural perspective, is where the value lies, in a person’s ability to contribute to the creation of knowledge and the sharing of it, into the human experience. Look at Stephen Hawking for example. If you were to see a person like him in a mall, you would probably start to make all kinds of assumptions about him because of his container. Meanwhile, on the inside, there is literally a universe of thinking going on.

Not every situation is appropriate for every person.

We are all familiar with workarounds as a way of adapting ourselves or something in our environments to us achieve an objective. The idea of differently-abled means that there are some of us that do things in different ways, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. By embracing the idea of diff-abled, we can start to de-fable our social constructs of disability.

I also wonder if trying to make everything accessible creates resentment towards people with accessibility requirements. The reality is that even with universal design, not every situation will be appropriate for everyone. A blind person should probably not be a pilot, but a sighted person is likely not the best candidate to be a waiter in a restaurant in which you eat in the dark. So, as we construct identities of differently-abled people, we should consider appropriateness as well, in the context of what is presently possible.


A way of seeing design

Design = Purpose + Planning + Intention

With an awareness of how we perceive disability and accessibility through social construction, the next step in addressing issues with accessibility is by using design.

I would say that it’s in how we design, but design writ large, design as in the approach we take towards problem-solving.

If we define design, as the purpose, planning and intention behind bringing a product or service into being, then we should look to be more inclusive by employing principles such as the ones from WCAG into every part of that process. That way, we avoid having to retrofit inclusiveness.

As author Laura Kalbag said in a recent presentation, “We have a tendency to build for people like us”. This speaks to the design bias towards “able” people, in which we are continually “othering” those that are different.


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Case Studies

Case study – a11y challenges for mobile devices and those with disabilities

Cat trying to use Google on a laptop. Source:
— Cat tax!

It is interesting to think that ”able” people on phones and ”disabled” people on the web, in general, can suffer similar challenges in the use of content on the web. (Source)


  • Improper use of colour – problematic for people with colour blindness, low visibility, or using accessibility settings such as colour inversion or grayscale.
  • Media not captioned and/or with no ALT data – Problematic for blind and deaf people, colour blind (if the content is colour dependent), and people with cognitive issues.
  • Sense-bias on content (visual, auditory) – problematic for people with a disability that content is not favoured for.


  • No coherent structure to content – Cognitively difficult to understand the flow of content, difficult for certain assistive devices to help a user understand the content because of a lack of semantic structure. i.e., the relationship between content elements, in the context of the overall narrative.
  • Special scripting and/or plug-ins required to use/interact with content – Could make content non-accessible in environments where scripting is not compatible with system/applications (not necessarily disabled people either).
  • Mouse or other pointing device required for interaction with content – Could make content non-accessible depending on the device or the context of use.


  • Non-plain language – difficult for people with cognitive issues, different education levels, and people new to a culture/context/language
  • Intent of interactions is unclear – windows pop up and/or close unnecessarily or without warning
  • Attention thieves – distracting features that make it difficult to concentrate on the content


  • Non-system agnostic – problematic if the markup is not supported across systems and/or if scripting is required to provide access to content.

Case study – IND.IE’S ethical design manifesto, a UK consultancy,  describes themselves as a tiny two-person-and-one-husky social enterprise striving for social justice in the digital age. The two principals are Aral Balkan and Laura Kalbag. Laura recently published “Accessibility for Everyone”, which makes designing for accessibility, well, more accessible for anyone designing things in the digital realm. I posted my sketch notes from a talk she gave on her book, recently on our slack channel.

So, came up with a digital manifesto for design that looks something like this.

It’s about diverse groups of people coming together and designing for themselves. When we design in this way, we have the ability to minimize the notion of the “other”, because we are doing it all together.

But this is perhaps best explained by Aral Balkan himself. (video)


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Have you ever wondered what the online experience is like for people with different kinds of disabilities? This activity will allow you to do just that.

  1. Go to
  2. Click to install the chrome plug-in
  3. Once it’s installed, go to, click on the Funkify icon and select “Elderly Ellen”.
  4. Try to find out the details for garbage pick up where you live for this week.
  5. Try finding different services with the different Funkify profiles.

How was that? What were some of the challenges that you experienced under the different profiles? How do you think these challenges would impact a person with those disabilities?


Plain language exercise

Writing in plain language seems like common sense but it is often easier said than done. In this exercise you will have an opportunity to try your hand at writing in plain language and then compare your results with other students and/or colleagues. Download the worksheet and try to work in a group of two or more.

Re-write the paragraph in the worksheet using plain language to make it more accessible. While you do this, use these helpful tips (source):

  • No Jargon – use a universal language, not things that may only be understood by a subset of people in certain knowledge domains
  • Use active voice – so, the subject performs the action. E.g., I jumped vs. A jump was made by me.
  • Use everyday words
  • Shorter sentences – Get to the point quicker.
  • Words with fewer syllables

How was that? What were some of the difficulties you faced in this exercise? What were some of the things you changed, added, or removed?


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Wrapping up

Accessibility is a really big topic, and as a result, difficult to define definitively. Having said that, as you can see from the other chapters, you may find that a lot of these topics are. So as we wrap up the chapter, keep the following in mind when you are thinking about or working with accessibility:

  • Impact on digital is not always direct – The impact on digital sometimes comes about indirectly. In the examples of public spaces, citizen engagement, and even academia, we saw how obstacles to accessibility in the analogue can have impacts on the digital.
  • It’s about the human experience – But at the end of the day, it’s about the human experience, which is not always easily compartmentalized into analogue or digital, especially in a world that is increasingly dependent on technology to communicate and transact.
  • Universal design by universal designers – So it seems that we would all be better off to embrace universal design, but not as outsiders to it. Instead, we need to come together as universal designers and embrace diversity in the ideation, iteration, and execution of the design of products, content, and services. This also includes iteration through continuous improvement.
  • In academia, this also applies to the creation of knowledge – Life is real, not theoretical. So, if we want to get at solutions that are more realistic, we need to, as Kirsten suggested, embrace this diversity and start answering some of these questions from a more holistic position of knowledge.

With diversity, we can start to understand problems more fully, which means that we can start addressing them more fully as well. When we work like this, there is no “other”, there is only us.

Food for thought…

“What if the first question we asked was, “What is so unique about this situation that it justifies exclusion?” instead of, “How much does it cost to make it accessible?” – Dr. Scott Rains,  Social Change Agent

In his article “Accessibility is NOT Inclusion” Dr. Scott Rains (a known advocate for disabled people) he writes that “Accessibility is doing for — a 20thcentury task. Inclusion is doing with — a 21st-century vision.”

In this light, What if the first question we asked was, What is so unique about this situation that it justifies exclusion?instead of, “How much does it cost to make it accessible?”


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Some useful links


Policy and advocacy


Further reading

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