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  • November 30, 2021

Accessibility is Everyone’s Job

Decorative Illustration It’s been 18 years since Happy Cog founder and web standards advocate Jeffrey Zeldman originally published Designing With Web Standards. The web itself may seem in many places unrecognizable now compared to what it was. We’ve added new devices, seen frameworks fall in and out of fashion, matured whole disciplines, seen the real and lasting global impacts of the digital and connected world – for better or for worse. Life without all these things seems nearly unimaginable at this point.

So, you might be asking yourself, why do they matter?

If you’ve ever driven an automobile before, and get into the driver seat of another car, you’ll probably find you have a general idea of how that car operates. There are standards in place that help the driver intuit how that car operates without much instruction. This can make shifting from one car to another a relatively seamless process. There may be features that are new or unfamiliar, but by and large these flourishes are not crucial to understanding how that vehicle operates. Anyone with the knowledge of how to drive can intuit how that vehicle works. Steering, brakes, and signaling are all familiar and expected. If, for instance, these standards weren’t in place and acceleration wasn’t where you expected it, and the brakes didn’t have the same affordances—operating a car could be a more dangerous and exclusionary experience for all.

It’s the same with web standards. Simply put, web standards are a set of principles that technology companies have agreed to, freeing developers from having to develop multiple instances of a single website. In such a world, somebody always gets left out, and without consistent attention to these standards we risk ushering in a more exclusionary world.

And potentially a more dangerous one. One in four adults in the U.S. has a disability. Whether we realize it or not, we're all going to experience some form of long-term or short-term disability or impairment at some point in our lives. These include conditions like a brain injury which might impact your balance or motor control, pregnancy that limits your range of motion, a migraine that causes temporary vision loss, and situational depression that inhibits your memory. By taking these situations into account and reducing the needless mental and physical loads of an interface, we can make a better experience for all.

Frustratingly, the nature of our work and the variables at play will always keep total accessibility an ideal, rather than something we can achieve with 100% certainty. In a world built within flawed systems, we can only try to get as close as possible to creating access for everyone.

Much of the work we have to do to make an experience standards-compliant and accessible is often “unseen” and not easy to check off a checklist. It won’t get caught by an automated checker. Robots don’t know how to test for clarity and coherence. Instead, content strategists guide consistent tone and style across an organization full of content creators; developers make sure the foundation of their work will be intuitive and extensible later; project managers anticipate what comes next so that everyone is included and involved.

Digital accessibility relies on everyone to uphold: designers, content strategists, project managers, developers, content creators, leadership, clients, stakeholders, people who inherit projects, and more.

And in that spirit, I’m continually learning. While this is only a primer, I want to lift up the following people and organizations who are leading and who I’m following and learning from lately. But, of course, this is only a tiny fraction of those doing this work:

People and community who I’m following and learning from lately

  • Lainey Feingold, a disability rights lawyer and author of Structured Negotiation A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits.
  • Laura Kalbag, designer, developer, and author of Accessibility for Everyone.
  • Natalie Patrice Tucker, Subject Matter Expert on Section 508 and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Committed to a web that works for everyone.
  • Chancey Fleet, who demystifies accessible technology so you can get on with your work/education/dream; advocates for robust universal design features in tech products and services; builds a wise, resilient and resourceful community of support among peers with disabilities and our allies to make technology work for all users.
  • Marcy Sutton, web developer and accessibility advocate.
  • CB Averitt, Principal Consultant at Deque Systems.
  • Sarah Pulis, co-founder and digital accessibility consultant at @intopia and founder of @a11ybytes events.
  • Tatiana Mac, an American engineer who builds inclusive, accessible, and ethical products with thoughtful practices.
  • Matt May, head of inclusive design at Adobe.
  • Eric Bailey, maintainer of @A11YProject.
  • Everyone in my favorite a11y slack groups, communities who are so motivated and curious to find better ways of doing things, and so generous with their time and expertise.
  • The National Digital Inclusion Alliance, which combines grassroots community engagement with technical knowledge, research, and coalition building to advocate on behalf of people working in their communities for digital equity.
  • A11y Weekly, a weekly dose of web accessibility to help you bring it into your everyday work. Delivered to your inbox each Monday, curated by David A. Kennedy.
  • Paciello Group Blog a blog about web accessibility by one of the first accessibility consulting firms.
  • The A11y Project, a community-driven effort to make digital accessibility easier where you can Learn the fundamentals and principles behind accessible design.

Further reading (aside from Designing With Web Standards)

In its 18th year of being, if Web Standards were a person, many cultures would consider it to have fully come of age. In the U.S., turning 18 may mean the opportunity to legally purchase lighters and lotto tickets. In the vast majority of countries, that person could celebrate the opportunity to vote.

This year I plan to celebrate by doing more of the work.

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