WebAIM - Web Accessibility In Mind

Accessibility vs. Visual Design – Why can’t we all just get along?

There’s been much discussion lately about the influence of accessibility upon the design and development process (and vice versa). Some of the posts and comments have been very volatile and may be offensive to some. These heated discussions between the visual design and accessibility community have begun to form a rift between the communities. The comments to Roger Johansson’s recommendation of using light text on dark backgrounds kicked things off. Jeff Croft then stirred the pot by saying we’ve taken accessibility too far. His follow-up, while slightly more level headed, still presents this theme that I am seeing more and more – that accessibility and visual design/development are somehow at odds with each other.

Here’s how the conversation usually goes…

Designer: There’s no way I can implement all of these accessibility features without going way over budget. Stop demanding so much of me!
Accessibility standardista: Fine, you arrogant pig. Be inaccessible – I just won’t visit your site and I hope somebody sues you.
Designer: But I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve been given.
Accessibility standardista: Well, your best just isn’t good enough. By the way, your site has an unescaped ampersand.
Designer: I hate you.
Accessibility standardista: I hate you too!

But sometimes the conversation goes like this…

Accessibility standardista: There’s no way I can implement all of those visual design elements and make that site accessible.
Designer: Fine, you arrogant pig. Your site will look like garbage and I just won’t visit it. You’ll never win a design award!
Accessibility standardista: But don’t you understand that accessibility is the law? Not to mention what my friends at the W3C will think if I don’t pass WCAG 2.0 Success Criteria 4.1.1!
Designer: What’s WCAG?
Accessibility standardista: I hate you!
Designer: I hate you too!

These conversations are happening too often lately.

James Bennett has defined some excellent rules for Accessibility Club that we all should follow. I’ll try to follow those rules here. He also presents an excellent definition of what accessibility is and what it is not. I hope to add my own thoughts to what he has written and further present how accessibiliters and designers can (hopefully) learn to get along. (I just made up the word "accessibiliters™"! It means "those that do accessibility". Using it will decrease this article size by about 100 words.)

The ground rules…

1. Accessibility is no longer optional.
There’s been plenty written on the motivations for accessibility. I won’t repeat it here. If you want to be taken seriously on the web, you must address basic accessibility issues first.

2. Visual design is no longer optional.
If you want to be taken seriously on the web, your site can’t look like it was made in 1996.

3. Accessibility cannot be absolutely measured.
Sure there’s Section 508 and WCAG and (insert accessibility standard/law here), but these are not measures of accessibility. They also are not written by the finger of god as the binding law of humanity. While in some rare cases, laws actually do apply to actual web sites and vaguely define what accessibility is, most of the time we will all be better served if we treat discrimination laws and accessibility guidelines primarily as tools in helping us determine how to best implement accessibility.

4. Accessibility is a continuum.
High levels of accessibility are possible without great amounts of effort, but there is ALWAYS more that can be done. Your site can ALWAYS be more accessible. Users and accessibility advocates should applaud designers that are providing accessibility, if not perfectly, rather than lambasting them for not doing everything they can do to implement every accessibility feature and gadget they believe is necessary. So, the key is for designers to determine what should and can be reasonably done and for accessibiliters to determine what should and can be reasonably expected of designers.

5. Accessibility and design have the same business goal.
It is the goal of each of us to make it so that the user experience with our sites is not less enjoyable than their experience on the sites of our competitors. We can work together toward that mutual goal.

The cost of accessibility

Many people are so focused on design that they see accessibility as a barrier to artistic freedom. And there are those that are so focused on accessibility, that design and visual appeal simply become avenues for inaccessibility to be introduced. Most designers that resist accessibility tend not to fully understand accessibility to begin with. Most standardistas who despise visual flare just need to get out more. Visually appealing sites can be accessible, which naturally means that accessible sites can also look good. But it all comes at a cost.

Thus, the conflict between accessibility and the design/development process can usually be summed up in one statement: accessibility has a cost. Of course, design has a cost as well. Many in the accessibility field could not create a visually appealing site to save their lives. Whether we’re talking about accessibility or good visual design, there is a cost. That cost is either time, money, effort, research, trade-off of functionality/accessibility, or any combination of the above.

The cost of implementing high levels of accessibility is nearly inversely proportional to the developer’s knowledge in that area.

The cost of implementing good visual design is nearly inversely proportional to the developer’s knowledge in that area.

The problem is that there are few people that are highly knowledgeable in both realms. Those that aren’t, and that includes most of us, tend to gravitate to the side of the fence that is most natural to us. The people on the other side of the fence are always wrong. This mentality needs to come to an end.

Gaining the knowledge to be good at either accessibility or design is expensive, but for the most part, it’s a one-time cost. Web accessibility is not rocket surgery – you can learn most of what there is to know in a short amount of time. But it’s a difficult field to master and implement well. It’s easy to learn the basics of good site design, but difficult to master and implement. Once you understand the basics of either field, it’s relatively easy (read "inexpensive") to build into a web site. In fact, if designers learned more about accessibility, they’d quickly find that accessibility is usually just another part of good design, not something separate. Accessibility can transform from "How can I stop this barrier from causing a problem?" to "How can I remove the barrier in the first place?" to "How can accessibility promote innovation and better design?" (Hat tip to Jon Gibbins’ Some Views on Contemporary Web Accessibility for this thought.) Standardistas would also be well served by learning that a good visual design can do more for the universal accessibility and appeal of their site than using the correct DOCTYPE. Still, there will always be an additional implementation cost for both accessibility and visual design.

Understanding Each Other

The question that many designers seem to be asking lately is, "How far do I have to go?" Remember, accessibility is a continuum. So, you have to draw the line somewhere. Regardless of where you draw that line, someone will be critical of that decision. I believe that most designers are making good faith efforts toward providing access to content for those with disabilities, but are frustrated by the extreme demands that accessibiliters are placing upon them. Accessibiliters must understand that the lack of accessibility in a design is not always the fault of the designer. On many projects, the level and quality of accessibility will not meet your expectations. In most cases, I believe this is not because of the designer’s inability or lack of desire, but because of real-life constraints, constraints usually defined by their clients. Designers who are making good faith efforts but suffering under real-world constraints are not your enemies. Wouldn’t the web be a much better place if everyone made that minimal effort?

With that said, any design that not make a minimal effort and intentionally or unintentionally bars access to content for some major disability group does deserve to be criticized, though that criticism should be constructive and informative. Designers, whatever you do, do not claim to be a proponent of standards because you added a few ‘alt tags’. And don’t expect the end user’s software to fix things that you could have made accessible through minimal effort. Perhaps in return, accessibiliters won’t claim to understand design because they have Microsoft Paint.

But what is this "minimal effort"? As ground rule #3 states, Accessibility cannot be absolutely measured, thus it is difficult to define a minimal effort. This is where a joint understanding of accessibility and the design process is important. One would hope that any web page designed today would include proper alternative text for images, form labels, table headers, and other basic accessibility features. These should be a natural part of web development. This alone would make a vast majority of the web quite accessible. I believe that WCAG 1.0 AA with adjustments for up-to-date technologies and current understanding is an excellent and reasonable goal for all of us to shoot for. But those on both sides of the fence need to place their energies and efforts on the things that really make a difference for accessibility – and accessibiliters, unescaped ampersands is not one of these things.

Golden Wheelchair Ramps

In the United States, the American’s with Disabilities Act requires that public buildings have a mechanism for wheelchair access. It has taken us decades to do, but now nearly every public building has a wheelchair ramp or other means of providing basic wheelchair access. This recent phenomena in web accessibility is like us saying, "Let’s drag the wheelchair up the stairs to give them the same experience as those that can walk." Or more accurately, "If a wheelchair ramp is good, then a 100 foot, motorized wheelchair ramp that replaces the stairs and is made of gold must be better!" This is what many accessibility folks are telling designers, "Don’t do that! You can’t do that! Why didn’t you do this? This is a terrible alternative? Where’s the text resizing widget? Where’s the inverted style sheet? Why doesn’t this validate?!?" when they are already meeting or trying to meet basic accessibility requirements. Having the wooden wheelchair ramp on the side of the building is not the same glorious thing, but it provides access none-the-less. Those in the accessibility realm are criticizing the contractor that constructed the ramp for not making it out of gold; they’re lambasting the designer that doesn’t include every bell-and-whistle accessibility doo-hickey possible. And that’s not fair.

The goal of both design and accessibility is to improve the user experience. Designers must understand that accessibiliters will never stop asking them for high levels of accessibility. Asking them to do so would be similar to them asking designers to stop using color because it’s just too darn colorful. Accessibiliters must stop demanding every new fangled accessibility widget, tool, and guideline implementation that comes around. As long as designers understand the issues of accessibility and provide as much accessibility as is feasible within the constraints they are truly faced with, I believe that most in the accessibility community will respect and understand that decision. They should be happy that the wooden wheelchair ramp is available, even though deep inside they know that the golden, motorized ramp would be wicked cool. If they still criticize, then they should be ignored as they do not understand the constraints most designers are faced with. This does not, however, mean that they will stop being proponents for better accessibility, just like designers will never stop being proponents for better design.


  1. zara

    Hi Jared,

    I think you have made some interesting and valid points but I respectfully feel the “golden wheelchair ramp” analogy is a poor one. While there are certainly people out there on both sides of the fence who can be or seem rather inflexible or even unreasonable, the ultimate goal here is “equal access” and I think that most people in our field understand that equal access is not a ramp on the side of the building (often in an ill-lit dirty alley where the garbage bins are kept) and it is not a 100-foot motorised wheelchair ramp made of gold. I have honestly never gotten the impression that persons with disabilities or their various advocates were demanding the equivalent of a golden wheelchair ramp in terms of Web accessibility. And I will not get into the unescaped ampersands discussion because more than anything, I think the underlying issue about that ended up being distorted from both camps.

    As you know, the work done in Web accessibility in the last decade has produced important material in terms of what the basic requirements are to ensure reasonable equal access to the Web for persons with disabilities, namely WCAG and other associated work. Of course, this work, as well as how it is sometimes applied, is not perfect and will continue to evolve as the Web and its related applications evolve. But regardless, this work, which is the basis of what we promote and implement, was developed with the participation of most stake-holders and it is important to remember that this involved compromises for everyone, including persons with disabilities. And where I come from, compromises are hardly considered golden.

  2. Steven

    Friendly people rule. And so does web-accessibility.

    A friend of mine is autistic. She’s intelligent, but nevertheless it’s difficult for her to deal with a world dominated by (well…) normal people.
    Autistic people are seldom mentioned as a potential target-group when it comes to usability e.a.
    I’m new to this accessibility-issue. But consider it to be very important.
    What is going wrong in my opinion is that people who are starting developping websites, most of the time learn wrong habits from the beginning. I’ve learned al lot of studying source-pages. But I’ve learnt too many bad habits also.
    Schools should consider to educate their students better in this. Professional webdeveloppers should consider themselves: do I want to be responsable learning younger people things the wrond way. Everyone knows it’s hard to deal with/get rid of bad habits.

    Thank you WebAIM for being a friendly place, with friendly people, educating people accessibility-issues the friendly way.



  3. Patricia

    Dear Mr. Jared Smith,

    As a student….new to terms such as web accessibility….WebAim, and this article in particular, are excellent sources of educational information. After reading this article I am going to focus on making certain that I learn everything I can (in regards to Web Design) to make the WWW as accessible to as many persons w/ disabilities as possible.

    1st yr. Web Design/5th yr. Fine Art student

  4. Stuart Clayton


    In this admirable article, I unfortunately felt that the author himself (unwittingly to be sure) sins against the spirit of accessibility by continually using his nonce words “accessibiliters” and “standardistas”. Something like “accessibility promoters” would do just fine to say what he means.

    I understand that his terms are meant in a humorous vein – but then why use them throughout the article? One could get the impression the author doesn’t take himself or his subject quite seriously – although the article seems otherwise to have a serious intent.

    What is the point of subjecting the reader to this mental tension between apparent jocularity and apparent seriousness? It makes the article more inaccessible – that is, it makes it less easy for the reader to take in the main points, not to mention the nuances.

    Issues of accessibility are not restricted to vision and hearing.

    “Intemperance in talk makes a dreadful havoc in the heart”
    Wilson’s “Maxims of Piety and Christianity”

    Stuart Clayton

  5. Jeff Croft

    Simply put: If you think I believe design and accessibility are at odds, you clearly didn’t read my posts. Accessibility *is part of* design.

  6. Jeff Croft

    (I will say, though, that I agree with your post — I see this sort of thing way too often, and it’s nice to see someone combatting it. I just refute the suggestion that I am part of the problem). 🙂

  7. Stuart Clayton

    In post #6 you took my remarks in exactly the spirit I hoped you would.

    I myself am often seen as being part of a problem I’m combatting. It annoys the socks off me, but I think I know why it happens. When you take arms against a subject dear to the hearts of people who don’t regard it as a problem, you are seen as a party to a problem, and that problem is of your making, so you are part of the problem 🙂