Analogies for accessibility

I’ve never been able to pin down my learning style. Although I’ve always thought myself to be hands-on, my learning style tests always seem to suggest that I’m multimodal, varying slightly around level scores.

I like analogies. I find them to be useful tools for learning, particularly ones that have physical value. They make understanding a new topic easier by relating it to and drawing parallels with an already understood topic. Apparently, it’s auditory learners who tend to use stories or verbal analogies to understand things. Hmm, perhaps that somehow links with my love of music.

Making accessibility more… accessible

Okay, before I wander off on any more tangents, I’ll get to the point. In learning about Web accessibility, I’ve come across a few analogies for helping people to understand the topic and I have a couple of my own. I thought I’d air some of them to see what people think and perhaps hear some new ones.

The access ramp analogy

It’s probably safe to say that most people will think of physical access to buildings when you talk to them about accessibility. It’s something that most people know about and can understand without much effort.

Ramp access to buildings makes a good analogy for any kind of access technology — something that reduces the effect of a barrier or bridges a gap. Ramps improve accessibility for wheelchair users, parents with prams, the UPS guy delivering your office’s new photocopier – notice it’s not just about people with disabilitiesfootnote 1.

Jon Dodd from Bunnyfoot uses a library as an analogy for Web accessibility (or see the library analogy in more detail in the Northern Ireland Civil Service’s accessibility primer). It makes good use of the ramp analogy. Personally, I think a ramp is more an example of what I call bolt-on accessibility, designed to overcome existing obstacles rather than prevent them.

The transport analogy: everyday access

Think about the innovation that are curb cuts while reading this quote from someone who obviously knows what he’s talking about, me:

“We all know, the Web is not as real to people as the physical world. Using a computer is still very alien to some people. This, I think, is one of the reasons that people are unaware of Web accessibility. Most people will see accessibility on a daily basis in the physical world. In a way, everyone experiences accessibility on a daily basis — every time a person drives their car, rides their bike or uses their wheelchair. Roads, pavements and buildings are reasonably barrier-free, or getting there. People can understand these kinds of physical considerations easily.

“I think some people have difficulty considering accessibility in computers because it’s fairly intangible and those people almost expect accessibility to just exist because they don’t have any problems.”

Roads are so common that we forget that they facilitate accessibility — to get you from A to B. Pavements (“Sidewalks” for the uninitiated) have curb cuts, an innovation that facilitates accessibility for many of us on a daily basis.

Websites are like mobile phones

This one is more related to user experience rather than directly to accessibility.

You know how annoying it is when you’re trying to send a text message on your mobile phone and you can’t get a signal? You try holding your mobile up in the air to get a better reception. You try a different room to see if there’s a better chance of a signal somewhere else. You try hanging out the window. You wonder if there’s a problem with your phone.

It’s an example of a poor user experience and inaccessibility caused by a barrier or some other problem. Like trying to send a text message when you’ve got poor signal, sometimes things are not as immediate or as obvious as they should be.

People may try to muddle through, but rarely without frustration. We try relentlessly to get better reception with our mobile phones, hoping for success, but sometimes there just isn’t a signal. Likewise, sometimes a website is simply more noise than signal. Don’t fuel user frustration — take time to consider how you might create a positive user experience.

You may not be able to send your text message because there’s too much interference from something — a problem caused by things you cannot see. Sometimes there’s a problem with the phone that you don’t know about. If you cannot see or do not know about a barrier, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Being able to foresee problems comes with experience, but it’s important to be receptive to problems faced by frustrated users in order to learn. When it comes to accessibility, if you can’t see or don’t understand a disability, it doesn’t mean you’re okay to ignore it.

Bad experiences with your mobile phone will make you think twice about using that service provider in the future or buying that brand of phone again, won’t it? People are impatient, so don’t burn their fuses at both ends by not taking the time to think about accessibility and ensuring a good user experience.

Accessible specsfootnote 2

Okay, this one’s not an analogy for Web accessibility as such, but I think it’s worth mentioning.

Think of how many of your family and friends either wear glasses or contact lenses. Quite a few I’d imagine. Myopia (nearsightedness) is surprisingly common. Something in the order of half of us are affected by it. Much of the world will probably think nothing of it these days, but there was a time when specs were a new technology (eyeglasses were invented in northern Italy some time around the end of the 13th century).

Spectacles are really a crutch — an aid, not a solution. We have solutions for improving Web accessibility, and techniques that help us to avoid causing problems for people, but my guess is that the majority of Web designers don’t use them. I sometimes feel frustrated to think that accessible techniques are not used by every Web professional. Then I remember the specs that are perched on my nose and wonder how quickly they caught on when the technology was new.

Your analogies

A couple of rather straggled analogies there, so I’m sure there are better ones. Do you have a favourite analogy for accessibility you’d like to share with the world? Post a comment and let us know…


  1. Some people would argue that a ramp is an example of universal design rather than being an accessibility feature. That’s not meant to sound like a dig at the “universalists” out there, but while I’m thinking about it: It seems to me that there are more useful things that require our attention than arguing about different interpretations of what accessibility encompasses. Just a thought. Back to footnote 1 source
  2. Nope, not WCAG – I said specs! Back to footnote 2 source