Friday, February 20, 2015

Accessibility: "I do not think this word means what you think it means"

Picture of Indigo Montoya with the words, "You keep saying accessibility. I do not think this word means what you think it means."

"Ten men can be sitting at a table eating, you know, dining, and I can come and sit down where they're dining. They're dining; I've got a plate in front of me, but nothing is on it. Because all of us are sitting at the same table, are all of us diners? I'm not a diner until you let me dine. Then I become a diner. Just being at the table with others who are dining doesn't make me a diner. . . ."

I hear people speak of accessibility often.

Very often.

Very, very often.

I hear people value it, are concerned about it, are keeping it in mind when doing X. I hear that a lot of people, a lot of organizations value it. However, I believe that a lot of those same people really have no idea as to what accessibility is.

So how do we get there?

The first thing we need to acknowledge is that accessibility is more than internet accessibility. The internet is just one facet of our world. While it’s arguably the quickest growing facet, it is not the only one. I like the explanations of accessibility offered by the BBC:

"Accessibility is the word used to describe whether a product (for example, a website, mobile site, digital TV interface or application) can be used by people of all abilities and disabilities.” (

In their view, accessibility is a larger than just the web, which it is. Their best practices includes a more expansive view, but I think it can go a bit farther.

I do like the view taken by New Zealand’s Be. Accessible group. Be. Accessible states:

"Accessibility is all about our ability to engage with, use, participate in, and belong to, the world around us.

It's something that you mightn't even consider on a day-today-day basis, however for many of us, access to education, employment, and the community can be difficult and limited."

What I like about that definition is that it both encompasses the BBC view and expands it by relating it to important parts of our lives— education, employment, and community involvement. Instead of constraining people to think in only one set of terms, it provides a broader perspective.

Here’s a video from the Be Institute in New Zealand that further demonstrates this point.

The difficulty with a very broad view is that it can feel unsatisfying.

We want rules to work with.

We want guidelines.

A checklist would be nice.

The problem with that approach is that it doesn’t challenge us to think outside of our regular mode of thinking. It’s also a good way to miss things. There’s always something that’s not on the list. There’s always something that “we didn’t think about.” If we go by a list, we run into that problem. However, if we look a bit more broadly at principles and then try to apply those principles to different areas like Internet accessibility, construction, and product design. Within this bigger picture you can fit things like WCAG ( and WAI-ARIA ( Within this bigger picture, you can also fit the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, The Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), the Assistive Technology Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Telecommunications Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Air Carrier Access Act, the Voting Accessibility of the Elder and Handicapped Act, the National Voter Registration Act, the Civil Rights Act of Institutionalized Persons Act, the Architectural Barriers Act, and the myriad of state, county, and city accessibility statues I’ve definitely missed in this list. Even if we have to have a checklist, if it’s created with these principles in mind, we will end up with better lists than we currently have because we’re thinking more inclusively. We begin by including everyone instead of trying to figure out who we missed and then looping them back in.

The quote I started this post off with was from a speech by Malcom X. While the quote wasn’t necessarily written about people with disabilities, it certainly applies. We need to do more than be concerned with accessibility. We need to do more than just keep it in mind. We need to do more than make it our priority. We need to back those words up not only with deeds, but with a more clear understanding and better ideals. It’s not enough to have a space at the table for someone. You also have to feed them if you’re going to say they are diners the same as everyone else.

Picture of kermit the frog sipping tea with the caption "You say accessibility is important to you. . . in a video statement that is not close captioned."

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