Skip to main content

Over the last year, I’ve grown weary about how accessibility is perceived and discussed within the field of design. This was originally a Twitter thread that I’m re-posting here with minor edits. It’s about who specifically afforded us as designers the privilege to ignore, overlook, and pass the buck on accessibility.

Yesterday, I took the CPACC exam. If the gods smile on me and I pass, it will combine with my Web Accessibility Specialist credentials and I’ll become a IAAP Certified Professional in Web Accessibility. Peers and loved ones offer congratulations and praise, but…

If I’m being honest, I can’t accept it.

I didn’t pursue these certifications to become an Accessibility Expert — I did it to become a better designer. Being between jobs and planning the next chapter in my career, I’ve had ample time to consider the skills I need to work on, and those I thought I had. Accessibility was one of them.

In almost two decades as a web designer, I have never made a website that was fully accessible.

If I split hairs, there were some which adhered to a number of WCAG AAA standards (yay!) while not passing others at all (BOOOOO).

Regardless of the ratio, it’s an abysmal figure. I’m ashamed of it.

Those are, all of them, my failures to own. Even if only in part. I wasn’t often setting budgets or timelines, but I was the one creating the websites. Try though I did, I wasn’t getting buy-in from those clients and leaders, but those were the ones I was choosing to work with.

Maybe I’m taking more than my share of blame, but if I am, it’s to remind myself not to repeat this going forward. If I don’t frame it in a way that stings, it’s won’t stick. If it’s a choice between my ego and someone with a disability being excluded from yet another part of the internet, it’s the easiest choice in the world. It’s no longer optional, it isn’t an add-on, it isn’t a can that gets kicked down the road in order to hit short-term deadlines. Moving forward, it will be built into my contracts and I’ll only take jobs where it’s a serious priority.

I don’t bristle against praise because of past oversights or shame, but because this new milestone really shouldn’t be noteworthy at all. It should just be part of the job. I should have gotten these certifications years ago to exactly ZERO fanfare. It should have been as mundane as getting a driver’s license.

For years, we’ve been content to sit on Twitter or Medium debating things like “Accessibility vs Aesthetics” (if we even consider accessibility to be under the purview of Design at all). Meanwhile, people with disabilities keep shouting about being excluded and we remain willfully ignorant that much of the rest of the world has already moved beyond straw-man arguments we like to have cyclically.

Among most of the countries in this world, we’re exceptional. But not in a good way.

Many countries have their own accessibility laws on the books, including Norway, Australia, Brazil, Denmark, France, The Netherlands, Taiwan, and many more. The entire European Union will implement new regulations by 2025.

In spite of this, designers in those nations still manage to make beautiful & awesome things while doing their due diligence so that all people can use them.

Why is the USA different?

Because five (5) Republicans prevented the United States from joining the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2012.

We signed the convention and then became one of the only countries to fail to ratify it. What’s worse is that it was based upon the Americans with Disabilities Act itself; legislation which was championed, passed, and signed into law by the same party. Just over twenty years later, they would refuse to ratify the CRPD based on unsubstantiated fears of being accountable to a foreign power.

If those five men voted differently, accessibility wouldn’t be up for us to debate. Like many of the other countries who ratified the convention, there would by now be federal legislation to settle the issue.

It’s important for us to know why the systems within which we design are the way they are.

That the diverse and often left-leaning community of designers we are gets to do a discourse about “aesthetics vs accessibility” is a privilege afforded to us by a handful of Republicans who voted that our country shouldn’t give a damn about people with disabilities.

Literally FIVE rich old white men enabled us all to fully overlook a vital human rights issue. Some in the design space seem to do so gladly because it’s easy to think #a11y is (1) difficult or cumbersome, (2) is someone else’s job, or (3) they think it’s inherently ugly.

Let me just address each of those concerns now:

  1. not really
  2. nope
  3. absolutely not

I want us to understand where this privilege comes from so that we can understand that the issue is far more systemic than it seems when we’re just talking about aesthetics or individual job responsibilities. If we look beyond our individual jobs, we can start to see that it’s about the managers and leaders who choose not to include accessibility in their budgets or to cut it from the “MVP” criteria in order to make a deadline. It’s about legislators who drop the ball time and again while people with disabilities are ignored and left to be harmed by a lack of safety, consideration, and regulation.

Even though the problem may not have originated with us, it’s still our responsibility to address it in our designs, to advocate for it in budget meetings, to make sure the people work with know it’s non-negotiable, and to ensure the people we help elect are going to do the same.

As far as I can tell, the fact so few of us are trained in accessibility is the only thing that makes my certification noteworthy. I liken it to how new fathers tend to get glowing praise when they do something as mundane as walk down the street holding their baby.

Be present. Don’t drop it. Dad of the Year. That’s how low the bar is.

There’s nothing innately remarkable about any of us who do the right thing to make the web more accessible. Yet it’s vital we do the work because people’s lives actually do depend on it. They require it of us because most of us in Design and Tech have overwhelmingly failed them.

“People with disabilities” isn’t an abstraction.

It’s over a billion people. Around 15-20% of EVERYBODY. It’s you and me and everyone we love — because even if we’re able-bodied now, just give it some time.

Over 98% of the internet is inaccessible to people with disabilities, and that number gets bigger every year. #GAAD is a month away. It’s a great day that can be used to affect real change, but what are we doing for the other 364 days of the year?

I don’t know what future as a CPWA holds for me, but I’m becoming one because I’m sick to my stomach of doing the bare minimum. If that notion agrees with you and you know you could do #a11y better, hold the praise and let it inspire you to learn.

Thanks for reading. 💙


Recommended Resources: