No Accessibility Without Disabilities

People who are tasked with remediating accessibility often have little experience of how people with disabilities actually use the web. This leads to overcomplicated solutions, as they underestimate the capabilities of disabled people.

A few years ago, I talked to a person new to accessibility about their view that data tables were terrible for accessibility, especially for people using screen readers. It took a bit of time until I realized why they thought this was the case: The person had used a screen reader to test their site, but only knew about the basic functionality. Navigating tables, however, comes with its own keyboard shortcuts that help to orient users inside of tables.

Instead of trusting (and through research verifying) that a common pattern like data tables would be accessible, their assumption was that they weren’t.

This type of confirmation bias is hard to overcome, especially without experiencing and observing accessibility technologies directly. If it has “accessibility” in it, it must be hard, so it must be difficult for screen reader users, so I have to build a workaround for them.

The misunderstanding also comes in duplicated information or additional bolt-on code that is either inconsequential or, in extreme cases, harmful.

Take the following image code: <img src="…" alt="Image: Lego Space Shuttle">. The addition of “Image:” to the alternative text is completely unnecessary, as screen readers already output this information.

Another example is the misunderstanding of using the tab key to navigate the page. The tab key only goes from interactive element to interactive element. You use other keys to read, for example, body text. I’ve come across more than a few examples where every element on the page had tabindex="0" set, “to allow screen reader users to listen to the content”. No. Don’t do this!

Some of this might come from the notion that you can view accessibility as separate from disabilities. And you really can’t.

Accessibility removes actual barriers for people with disabilities. And you have to learn about the barriers and how they manifest for different disabilities. That will also highlight why the correct answer to accessibility questions often is “it depends”.

There are a few resources that you should be familiar with before jumping in and searching for solutions:

  • How People with Disabilities Use the Web from the W3C/WAI is a cornerstone for learning about accessibility. It’s three sub-pages really help to understand the interplay of actual user needs, their abilities, and the barriers they encounter, and tools and techniques they use to overcome the barriers.
    • Stories of Web Users is a collection of personas that you can use to build accessibility into your user stories, but they link to the other sub-pages, which allows you to really understand the needs.
    • Diverse Abilities and Barriers describes different types of disabilities and shows examples of the encountered barriers.
    • Tools and Techniques shows features, assistive technologies, and adaptive strategies that people with disabilities use to overcome or reduce the impact of accessibility barriers.
  • Browsing with assistive technology videos from Tetralogical can help to bridge the gap and get a better feeling on how assistive technology actually works.

Of course, the best thing you can do is to observe a wide variety of disabled people and learn how they use everyday websites. As a company, “hire, empower, and promote people with disabilities” (Charles Hall) as a smart way to bring that expertise in-house and have more awareness for everyone. Especially if their workplace has nothing to do with making your actual product accessible.

The last tip is that accessibility conferences often have disabled people show off their everyday assistive technologies. I learned about Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) from Dave Chapple a few years ago at AccessU (which, by the way, has early bird pricing until March 6!). It is a great way to learn about all these different techniques and technologies.

I am personally not a fan of empathy labs or simulating disabilities because they are often counterproductive, as outlined by Sheri Byrne-Haber in her article Simulating Disabilities. Matt May also talks about this in his wonderful talk Design without empathy.

Support Eric’s independent work

I'm a web accessibility professional who cares deeply about inclusion and an open web for everyone. I work with Axess Lab as an accessibility specialist. Previously, I worked with Knowbility, the World Wide Web Consortium, and Aktion Mensch. In this blog I publish my own thoughts and research about the web industry.

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(This blog post was inspired by one of my late-night tweets that got liked and retweeted a fair bit. I thought it would be good to bring that content to the blog.)

Comments & Webmentions




  • 💬
    Steve Faulkner replied:
    2022-02-03 10:35

    Good read!

  • 💬
    2022-02-03 12:40

    A good read and no disagreement from me. Another way I have found useful to prevent the kind of issues you outline (when running training) is to emphasise the ecosystem, i.e. what AT is responsible for doing, and how you should follow standard patterns (like the WAI tutorials).

  • 💬
    2022-02-03 14:25

    Nice article and well taken

    just reading the headline, I might have thought you meant "if you aren't disabled, you can't be involved in AT". I'd hope the takeaway would be more like "don't make assumptions"

    Thanks for writing about this & encouraging devs to do the right thing

  • 💬
    2022-02-04 05:05

    Hello Eric,
    Good read! Often people with disability are perceived as end users & their accessibility expertise is not taken into consideration during design & dev process. Having them from the start of any project makes it easier to build product’s that are inclusive.

  • 💬
    Carl Myhill replied:
    2022-02-07 11:55

    fabulous read, thank you

  • 💬
    Guy Hickling replied:

    Having just audited a website where every single text item had tabindex="0", I know the feeling! (They also added that to all the buttons as well, but at least that didn't do any harm!)

    As regards using tables, I have always believed the dislike of data tables by some IT people has stemmed from the advice developers are constantly given to "Don't use table elements for layout purposes". But that's a bit complicated for some. It has a qualifier to the basic instruction. By 10pm on a Friday evening down at the pub it has lost a few words, and become just "Don't use tables" and that's all they rememember by Monday morning!

  • 💬
    2022-02-07 23:35

    An alternative title: "Educate yourself before taking ableist decisions". Thank you for putting this together.

  • 💬
    Moaaz replied:
    2022-02-12 16:50

    Great article

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