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What is Accessibility?

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).


When we talk about accessibility, we’re not talking about whether you can access a website from your desktop or your cell phone. We’re talking about whether you can access the site whether you have a disability or not. Our goal is a web that everyone can use – regardless of disability – and that has specific legal, business, and technical ramifications.

About disabilities and the people who have them

First, be aware that various disability communities have different terms for themselves. For the purposes of this site we use the social model of disability: that regardless of a person’s physical, sensory, psychological, or intellectual variations, they do not experience disability unless society fails to take account of them and include them regardless of their differences.

For example, if a person can’t use a mouse because they have Parkinson’s Disease, and we require the use of a mouse to use a website, it is our requirement that they must use a mouse that makes the site inaccessible – not their experience of Parkinson’s.

Read more about accessibility and disabilities:

Five Facts about Accessibility

Types of Disabilities

Microsoft Design Inclusive 101 Toolkit (pdf) (credit: Microsoft’s Inclusive Design).

An Alphabet of Accessibility Issues on The Pastry Box.

Watch Stella Young’s talk “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much”.

Stella Young on a stage preparing to speak

What accessibility is not

Paul Boag’s article Accessibility is not what you think, emphasizes 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 checklist of things to do so that your software passes a compliance test.
  • Accessibility is not a list of things to do so you don’t get sued. 

Accessibility is not a “nice thing to do”, as Karin Hitselberger explains. It’s the law. We 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 (by Michael Hansenon AppleVis).

Access is not Optional, Tim Kadlec explains. 

How we measure accessibility

Web development is complex. Paying attention to the accessibility of what we build can make it more complex if we don’t understand how everything works together. Web standards help us avoid the complexity when creating, and resolve problems that already exist.

Read Essential Components of Web Accessibility for a high-level look at the relationships that make a site accessible.

Become familiar with the WCAG guidelines quickref and the WCAG Guidelines.

Become familiar with the ATAG guidelines at a glance that we evaluate specific authoring tool components against and the ATAG Guidelines .

Read The WebAIM Million report to see how inaccessible most companies’ websites are.

Most business-to-business (B2B) companies on the regularly receive sales inquiries from customers that want to know how accessible products are and how the company responds if an accessibility issue is raised. Many of those customers use a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) to compare one company’s accessibility to other companies. When we don’t measure up to our prospects’ needs – or to our competitors’ product – we lose sales.

Read Voluntary Product Accessibility Template on Wikipedia if you work with VPATs and need a high level understanding.

Most countries view accessibility as a human rights issue. In the United States, accessibility is often enforced at the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), as part of the Heath and Human Services division of the government. Other state and local laws may apply as well.

Your website may not be directly under the purview of the OCR, because it is not a government entity, however your customers – from the US government to universities or other services that receive government funding – may be. If your products aren’t accessible, then you will lose sales, at the minimum.

Federal offices and organizations are required to ensure products are accessible before purchasing them. These rules are defined by the United States Access Board’s Section 508 legislation. Read Section 508 – what does it mean? for more information.

For schools and universities, accessibility is enforced by the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Read Disability Discrimination for more information.

For employers, accessibility is enforced by the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. Read Fighting Discrimination in Employment Under the ADA for more information.

Accessibility Legal Rulings of Note

For those in the European Union, WCAG 2.1 is cited as the guidelines in line with the harmonized EU standard for accessibility on the EU’s Web Accessibility page.

About the business value of accessible products

Good accessibility is good business.

  • It provides access to a market of customers that otherwise cannot use (and spend money) on your product. In the US, people with disabilities have about $500 billion in disposable income.
  • It provides a competitive advantage over companies that are not accessible.
  • It frequently provides higher quality than inaccessible products. Products that are thought through from an accessibility lens are often easier to use for non-disabled users, or provide features that otherwise may not be thought about. (For example, while closed captioning was developed specifically for Deaf audiences, it’s a service that almost everyone has used at some point, whether at a crowded bar or in a room with a sleeping baby.)
  • It ensures continued use of the product to customers that transition from non-disabled to disabled. (Keeping a customer is just as important as gaining a customer.)
  • It lowers legal risk of civil rights and access lawsuits.

Additional resources on business value

About accessibility-enabling technology

Curb cuts – those slopes down at the corner that let you roll your suitcase on and off the street cleanly – weren’t invented for your suitcase. They were invented for people in wheelchairs. 

They’re an example of technology that was built for people with disabilities, but benefit everyone. 

Here are some more:

Closed Captioning


When we make accessible software, we make our platform available to more people in more situations (not just disabilities) than when we don’t. That makes our platform more attractive to customers.

When we fail to make accessible software, we make our platform available to fewer people, fewer companies, and fewer segments of the US Federal government. That results in lost sales, and potentially legal consequences.

We’re not doing this alone, and we’re not reinventing the wheel. There are a number of organizations, most notably the W3C, who have invested significant time and effort in making accessibility implementation clearer, more effective, and easier to implement.

Additional Resources