What is Digital Accessibility?

By Kemi Ukadike, 29 July, 2021

Digital accessibility is the practice of ensuring that digital technology, including websites, mobile applications, immersive experiences, digital environments, and mixed reality, can be consumed by anybody or entity, regardless of visual, mobile, cognitive, and auditory abilities.

Disability cuts across all our lives, with over one billion people with disabilities, or about 15-20% of the population. Any experience that is inaccessible leaves out much of this population. In addition, many disabled people rely on digital products to communicate and get information at home, in the classroom, in their professions, and in their activities of daily living. 

For example, somebody with weaker arms may need to use a mouthstick to type. A person with auditory issues uses captions to watch videos. Those using hearing aids, and those who are blind or have low vision will use a screen reader to read aloud what's on the screen. A person who has suffered a stroke may have difficulty using a mouse. An older individual with dexterity issues may have problems using a keyboard.

A visually impaired girl with a pink dress and red roses sitting in a wheelchair and wearing a black binocular telescope
Visually Impaired girl wearing binocular telescope
Source:  IAPB/VISION 2020 is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Needing accessible digital environments is also necessary for the non-disabled, and/or those compromised due to situations such as a broken limb, pregnancy, or simply juggling tasks and only having one hand to work with. Imagine being in a noisy airport and needing to watch a video concerning your flight and having lost your headphones. In this case, captions would be essential. 

As someone who has total-body weakness and mobility issues due to the autoimmune disorder, Guilliane Barre, I often use assistive technologies in my activities of daily living. When I was bedbound, I could not use my hands at some point and had to rely on my wrist to read books on my tablet. In this case, keyboard navigation was totally off until I managed to become strong enough to hold on to a pen with a wide grip to hunt and peck. At the time, a regular mouse was impossible to use and is still challenging. For my ability level, a trackpad and stylus are adequate when I need to use a mouse.

In addition, I really want to use voice-to-text software such as Dragon and Google Docs Voice typing tool, which for most English speakers are quite useful. The biggest caveat is that while English is my first language, my Nigerian and Jamaican accents from my heritage get into the mix, inadvertently, and the algorithm can't quite pick up these intonations yet! For those of you in artificial intelligence voice mapping, this could be an area of interest to include different accents in voice recognition tools.

Like me, many people with disabilities repurpose the technology in their environment to suit the ways their bodies can adapt, and how they need to use these tools with what they are faced with.

Access to digital technologies, including to the Internet, is a basic human right, according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Most of the international community has adopted this UN convention and other binding policies.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has created international standards for digital creations, in addition, the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has further developed standards and support materials to help designers, developers, content creators, designers and others in the field understand and implement accessibility. 

"The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect," says Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web W3C. 

The standards set by W3C (we will delve deeper into this in a later class) are as follows:


  • Provide text alternatives for non-text content.
  • Provide captions and other alternatives for multimedia.
  • Create content that can be presented in different ways, including by assistive technologies, without losing meaning.
  • Make it easier for users to see and hear content.


  • Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
  • Give users enough time to read and use the content.
  • Do not use content that causes seizures or physical reactions.
  • Help users navigate and find content.
  • Make it easier to use inputs other than the keyboard.


  • Make text readable and understandable.
  • Make content appear and operate in predictable ways.
  • Help users avoid and correct mistakes.


  • Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools.

(Source: WCAG 2.1 at a Glance)

The practice of digital accessibility is deeply rooted in principles of Universal Design. Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design. (The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design.)

There is increasing social justice awareness to accessibility in general, and although this is not the scope of this course, it benefits us to be aware of these paradigms to guide our critical thinking behind the products we intend to design.  Particularly principles of Design Justice and Disability Justice. I urge you to go through the readings below. We will begin our discussion with accessibility as a social issue.

Guiding questions and concepts

  • Who benefits from accessible websites? Identify those in your network that could benefit from universal design.
  • What are some social issues concerning creating inclusive spaces?
  • What is disability justice?

Readings and links

Introduction to Web Accessibility, WC3

Video Introduction to Web Accessibility and W3C Standards (4 minutes)

7 Principles of Universal Design The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design

Design Justice, Chapter 2: Nothing About Us Without Us , Sasha Costanza Chock

Changing the Framework: Disability Justice, Mia Mingus

10 Principles of Disability Justice: Sins Invalid (also read comments)


A11y Meetups

From Web AIM: Disability Types