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What does accessibility mean?

One of my coaches at the Master Design course I’m following wondered what I mean when I say accessibility. I’ve heard the term so often that I forgot that the definition I use is not common at all. In this blog post I’ll try to explain what I mean by looking at a few definitions used by different organisations.

Broad definitions

The dictionary on my Mac defines accessibility as follows:

the quality of being easily reached, entered, or used by people who have a disability: many architects believe that accommodating wheelchairs is all there is to providing accessibility.

Oxford Dictionary of English

And let’s see what Wikipedia says:

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).

The broad definition used in this dictionary and in Wikipedia can be summarised with this quote by Shawn Henry

Accessibility basically means that people with disabilities can use a product.

But Shawn Henry goes on with a more specific definition:

… accessibility is making user interfaces perceivable, operable, and understandable for people with a wide range of abilities. Accessibility also makes products more usable by people in a wide range of situations — circumstances, environments, and conditions.

So here a broader definition of (dis)ability is used. She mentions people with a wide range of abilities and people in a wide range of situations. Situations can be abling or disabling. This means that people who would never see themselves as disabled can benefit from accessibility in design as well.

More specific definitions

But let’s not forget that accessibility is indeed about people with disabilities in the first place. It’s a nice side effect that accessible design enhances the usability of many more people. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 describe accessibility as follows:

Accessibility involves a wide range of disabilities, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities

This is a very wide range of very different disabilities. And when I talk about accessibility in my research in principle I talk about designing for people with as wide a range of disabilities as possible.

Why do we want accessible design?

The easy answer is because we can. But the more empathetic answer can be found on the about page of the accessibility blog on the GOV.UK website:

Accessibility means that people with a disability can do what they need to do in a similar amount of time and effort as someone that does not have a disability. It means that people are empowered, can be independent, and will not be frustrated by something that is poorly designed or implemented.

So next to because we can we can say because it’s a nice thing to do, or even better it’s a humane thing to do. By designing our products in an accessible way we empower people, we make sure they can be independent.

In practice

What does accessible design mean in practice? Here’s what Vox says in their Accessibility Guidelines:

… content is at our core at Vox Media. We want to ensure that everyone — regardless of ability, situation, or context — can access it.

Vox wants their content to be accessible to everybody, and again, just like what Shawn Henry wrote, it’s about more than people with disabilities. It’s for everyone regardless of ability, situation, or context.


I’d like to conclude with this quote from the Design Principles of the Government Digital Services of the UK Government. These are not my own words, but I they could have been:

Accessible design is good design.