Do We Really Understand Accessibility?


What We

Talk About

When We

Talk About



If our services were not accessible enough, we could be effectively shutting out at least 1 in 10 of potential customers.

“Accessibility is the practice of accommodating multiple abilities, by making products and services easier to use for more people in more situations.” – Kel Smith, Digital Outcasts

When we talk about accessibility in business, two things usually come to our minds: people with disabilities, and compliance.

The only problem is that, accessibility in business is neither about people with disabilities, nor about compliance.




All of Us

“At some point in everyone’s life, barrier-free access becomes not only a feature, but rather a necessary component of how we function.” – Kel Smith, Digital Outcasts

In certain times of our lives, every one of us had and will have certain kind of demand for accessibility. When we were kids, when we are temporarily or permanently disabled due to accidents or diseases, when we become old.

Whenever we are physically or cognitively compromised, we become the people with ‘disabilities’.

“…it’s about the simple dignity of ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to participate in a meaningful way in this increasingly digital world.” – Ronnie Battista, from the forward of Digital Outcasts by Kel Smith

In fact, ‘disability’ is probably the wrong word to use when we talk about accessibility. The term ‘disability’ has any number of definitions, according to how we approach it:

How we interpret the notion of ability… is as nuanced and amorphous as determining the quality of a piece of cinematic art.” – Kel Smith, Digital Outcasts


“Success in life is largely a process of adaptation; one must constantly shift capabilities to best ensure a positive outcome, often limited to available skills and materials.” – Kel Smith, Digital Outcasts

“Human competence is a continuum by which people adapt to their environment.” – Kel Smith, Digital Outcasts

We all exist in that “continuum of competence spanning a wide range of abilities and interests.

The point here is that, disability should NOT be a term that we use to create a binary, us-and-them understanding – us without disabilities and them with.

“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

What if we were judged by our ability to do something we can’t do?

The depth of accessibility is in the notion of inclusion:

“Most discussions around web accessibility mostly refer to people who are blind, have low vision, or use an input device other than a standard keyboard and mouse combination. But it also involves accommodating people who read slowly, people who have tremors, people who are overly sensitive to screen flicker, people who have trouble with comprehension, and people with hearing impairments (some of whom have trouble cognitively processing written text, as people are taught to read based on phonic recognition).” – Kel Smith, Digital Outcasts

Accessibility is for all of us.

It’s the democracy of capabilities.

And in some cases, it leads to fairness.




Responsibility, Not Compliance

To most of us in business, accessibility is often a topic that’s kind of easy to talk about, generally okay to implement, and occasionally costly to comply.

In fact, its rhetorics in business have been focusing more on compliance than on anything else.

Is accessibility in business all about compliance?

Definitely not.

Accessibility in business is more about responsibility than about compliance. And every business has an obligation to address it (if not fully). What’s more, we have an obligation to address it fully not because the government demands it, but because fairness demands it.

“Achieving equivalency with technology is not necessarily the same as achieving equality when interacting with other in social situations.” – Kel Smith, Digital Outcasts

While the compliance mindset rests on achieving equivalency with technology, the responsibility mindset aims at achieving equality with it.

To a government, accessibility is an issue about fairness. Even more of an obligation than a responsibility. While a government can only do so much – it’s always up to everyone of us to fully realize the respect and care we should give to the ones in need.

Just like design, accessibility is about empathy, not sympathy.

It’s about moving forward without leaving people behind.




Inclusive Design

A pragmatic first step is to meet the compliance. It’s the least we can do and we should do more.

To go beyond compliance, we need to adopt the Responsibility Mindset.

Meeting compliance is often easy; designing with accessibility in mind is hard.

Designing with accessibility in mind is much more challenging than designing for accessibility.

And that’s where Inclusive Design comes in.

The British Standards Institute defines inclusive design as:

“The design of mainstream products and/or services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible … without the need for special adaptation or specialized design.

What’s more: Inclusive design does not suggest that it is always possible (or appropriate) to design one product to address the needs of the entire population. Instead, inclusive design guides an appropriate design response to diversity in the population through:

  • Developing a family of products and derivatives to provide the best possible coverage of the population.
  • Ensuring that each individual product has clear and distinct target users.
  • Reducing the level of ability required to use each product, in order to improve the user experience for a broad range of customers, in a variety of situations.”

Inclusive design is closely related to Universal Design, which-

“…refers to broad-spectrum ideas meant to produce buildings, products and environments that are inherently accessible to older people, people without disabilities, and people with disabilities.” (Wikipedia)

It’s not hard to see that inclusive design is a far more holistic approach to accessibility. And that should be our strategic goal when it comes to design.

Are we ready?


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