What is digital a11y?

January 25, 2019

by Cyndi Wiley, Ph.D.

digital accessibility hashtag designed by Cyndi Wiley

Hello World!

Please forgive my very basic programming joke. I’m Cyndi Wiley, Iowa State’s new digital accessibility coordinator. Many of you are already taking initiative and producing content with accessibility in mind, and I will be joining in your efforts by reviewing websites, documents, and software in order to keep us in compliance with ADA standards. This sounds scary, I know. That’s why I wanted to begin writing a weekly column to make this topic more approachable.

To kick things off, let’s get familiar with the basics of accessibility. If you search for the hashtag a11y on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, you will find thousands of posts. Take a moment and try it. This particular hashtag is being used by a large community of practitioners, including academics, entrepreneurs, and IT leaders.

But it’s not just some viral trend like #tbt, #caturday, or #NotToday, it’s an important part of the landscape of inclusion. The term “digital a11y” refers to the word accessibility, with the letter “a” followed by 11 letters and ending with the letter “y.” The number 11 stands in for the 11 characters omitted from the abbreviation. This shortened version of the word accessibility has a specific meaning.

While access means different things to different people, the root of it is inclusion and opportunity. It boils down to the method of inclusive design. I define inclusive design as the appropriate use of the elements and principles of design to avoid exclusion of any person due to differing abilities. However, digital a11y can and should be flexible and nonlinear.

Designers of hardware and software systems wield a lot of power, and this power can be dangerous if real users of these systems are not brought into the design process at the beginning of a project. Too often, testing with people comes too late (or not at all), and we are left with mediocre designs that are not accessible for many people. When inclusive design is done well, it can be innovative, creative, and growth fostering, not to mention it can make a positive economic impact.

The first step in creating digitally accessible content is to look where designs are excluding people by talking to and observing people using your content. In her book "Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design," Kat Holmes addresses the method of inclusive design as starting with a basic understanding of accessibility fundamentals. It is more than simply a buzz-worthy trend embraced by a few Silicon Valley elite startups, inclusive design is a way of being. Being in a relationship with others is the only way to design appropriate technology that includes, rather than excludes.   

If this is a brand new concept to you and you don’t know where to start, don’t worry. That’s why I’m here, to guide your accessibility efforts. And if you are already practicing accessible digital design, I would love to hear about it.

Resources for further learning:


Cyndi Wiley

Digital Accessibility Coordinator

Iowa State University

205 Durham

Email: clwiley@iastate.edu

Phone: 4-8765

News Type: