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Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design

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Advances in technology are having a dramatic impact on our lives. For example:

The Web is providing unprecedented access to information and interaction for people with disabilities. It provides opportunities to participate in society in ways otherwise not available. With accessible websites, people with disabilities can do ordinary things: children can learn, teenagers can flirt, adults can make a living, seniors can read about their grandchildren, and so on. With the Web, people with disabilities can do more things themselves, without having to rely on others. People who are blind can read the newspaper (through screen readers that read aloud text from the computer), and so can people with cognitive disabilities who have trouble processing written information. People who are deaf can get up-to-the-minute news that was previously available only to those who could hear radio or TV, and so can people who are blind and deaf (through dynamic braille displays). People with quadriplegia who cannot move their arms or legs can shop online to get groceries, gadgets, and gifts delivered. People who cannot speak can participate in online discussions, such as through blog comments.

However, this possibility is not reality throughout the Web. The problem is that most websites have accessibility barriers that make it difficult or impossible for many people with disabilities to use them. And most web software tools are not sufficiently accessible to people with disabilities, making it difficult or impossible for them to contribute to the Web. This is a very big deal. Many millions of people have disabilities that affect their use of the Web.

Web accessibility is about removing those barriers so that people with disabilities can use and contribute to the Web. [1]

This book helps you improve your products—websites, software, hardware, and consumer products—to remove accessibility barriers and avoid adding new barriers. One guiding principle is: just ask people with disabilities.

Accessibility in Design

Accessibility basically means that people with disabilities can use a product. More specifically, accessibility is making user interfaces perceivable, operable, and understandable for people with a wide range of abilities. Accessibility also makes products more usable by people in a wide range of situations—circumstances, environments, and conditions.

Thus, while access to people with disabilities is the primary focus of accessibility, it also benefits people without disabilities, and organizations that develop accessible products. (for example, see “Additional Benefits from a Business Perspective”)

Designing for accessibility doesn't require a whole new design process; it generally involves only minor adjustments to your existing design process. For example, accessible design techniques fit well into User-Centered Design (UCD) processes. This book tells you how to integrate accessibility throughout design.

  1. Part I: The Basics is for anyone wanting to include people with disabilities in their design process, even at an informal level.
  2. Part II: Accessibility in the User-Centered Design Process focuses on helping usability professionals incorporate accessible design practices into a User-Centered Design process.

Even if your organization doesn't use a robust UCD process, you can still use many of the tips and techniques described in Part II to incorporate accessibility in your designs—however formal or informal your process.

You Can Do It

Throughout the book there are anecdotes like this:

In a workshop on including people with disabilities in usability testing, someone said, "There sure is a lot to know."

Indeed, there is a lot of information in this book. It is the collected wisdom from myriad experiences, mine and others. Don't be overwhelmed. It's not a prescription that you have to follow precisely; it's a collection of little tips to help things go smoothly. Instead of scaring you away, I hope it will empower you with confidence and inspiration to incorporate accessibility and involve people with disabilities throughout your design project.

Contents Overview

Even if you are currently in the early phase of a design project, I encourage you to read the entire book right away. Some of the information later in the book is also useful early in a project, such as details on recruiting people with disabilities.

The Table of Contents includes links to all of the sections of the book online. The main chapters are introduced below:

Throughout the book there are references to related sections in other chapters. This is an artifact of having the book online. I included them in the print version to help if you read one section out of context, or later go back to one section and might have forgotten the related information elsewhere.


Most of the information throughout the book applies to all electronic and information technology (E&IT) products, including computer hardware products, software products, web-based products, and consumer products such as music players, cell/mobile phones, and digital cameras. Information that applies only to a specific type of product is indicated in the text.

The scope of this book is integrating accessibility throughout the design process. It doesn't include specific design solutions. It's not intended to replace training and experience in designing products to be accessible. It doesn't address legal compliance, or provide instructions on determining if a product conforms to a specific accessibility standard.

Instead, this book focuses on including people with disabilities from the beginning of design in order to develop effective accessibility solutions efficiently.

Let's get started with some basics.


  1. Henry, S.L. "Understanding Web Accessibility", Web Accessibility: Web Standards and Regulatory Compliance. Berkeley, CA: friends of ED/Apress, 2006.


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