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Digital Accessibility Basics

Kemi Sijuwade-Ukadike





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. This is an excerpt of the first chapter of the Digital Accessibility Syllabus I am researching, with support from the Processing Foundation.

The Recipe

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. Image Credit: IAPB/VISION 2020. Licensed under 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, Guillain-Barre, I often use assistive technologies in my activities of daily living. When I was bed-bound, 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 right1, 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 power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect” – Tim Berners-Lee, director and inventor of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)

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.

W3C Standard Guidelines2


Universal Design

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 further readings below. I propose we begin by thinking about accessibility as a social issue.

Guiding Questions

  1. See the Human Rights Council

  2. This set of guidelines reference WCAG 2.1 at a Glance

Further Readings

Disability, Design, and Justice
  1. Digital Accessibility Syllabus, Kemi Sijuwade-Ukadike.
  2. Introduction to Web Accessibility, WC3.
  3. Video Introduction to Web Accessibility and W3C Standards (4 minutes), WC3.
  4. 7 Principles of Universal Design, The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design
  5. Design Justice, Chapter 2: Nothing About Us Without Us, Sasha Costanza Chock
  6. Changing the Framework: Disability Justice, Mia Mingus
  7. 10 Principles of Disability Justice (also read comments), Sins Invalid
Disability Types, Web AIM
  1. Visual
  2. Auditory
  3. Motor
  4. Cognitive
  5. Seizure and Vestibular Disorders
  1. A11y Meetups


What is the context or background that inspired your recipe?

While managing artists at Eyebeam, one big issue that arises is how to create digitally accessible platforms. To some, it is a novel concept that they wished they had awareness of earlier. I want this to serve as a guide to immersive experience creators in thinkinging about universal and inclusive design, and creating accessible content.

Which community are you offering the recipe to?

Anyone wanting to create digital content that can be accessed by anyone, regardless of ability.

How does your submission relate to intersectional feminism?

As a woman facing total-body/physical mobility challenges, I need access tools to complete almost every task, including my digital work. I use voice-to-text tools, as well as adaptive interfaces such as exists in my home office setup, from a vertical mouse to an ergonomic keyboard, even down to my seating and workspace setup. Being involved with teaching about and learning more about digital accessibility, makes me feel more equity in my contribution to this personally vital field.

As a black woman of African and Caribbean descent and as a mother of two teenagers, it is important that my work exemplifies the range of opportunities that are available within this field of art and technology, for other women and youth, especially black and disabled folx.

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