Blog Post

Cool Accessibility

Some time ago on a listserv (I think it was WebAIM), a developer commented that arguments for equality, compliance, etc. were never going to get people outside of the accessibility community interested in accessibility. His argument was that accessibility had to be cool. I've thought about this a lot since, especially as I do accessibilty workshops, work on my dissertation, and the like. What is it that gets me excited about accessibility? How can I can convey that excitement and cool to other scholars and teachers?

As a writing teacher, one aspect of accessibility that is really motivating for me is how well accessibility links to multimodality, a connection Allison mentioned in her intro post. As we work to provide content in multiple formats for accessibility, I think we have some amazing opportunities to understand the affordances of various modes. One of my favorite illustrations of this is from the online exhibit of Sight Unseen, a collection of images from photographers who are blind and low vision. When you go to the Gallery, each image in the collection is accompanied by an audio description of that image. Audio description is a key component of accessibility for people who are blind and low vision, but with its mix of objective description and poetic language it provides an incredible way to understand how visual information can be translated into text and vice versa. (and if you're a rhetoric nerd, audio description is an interesting modern iteration of ekphrasis). For, me accessibility is cool because it reveals the multiplicity of representation, how the same information can be conveyed through sound, image, text, and more.

So, for those of you who are involved in accessibility, what makes it cool? How do you persuade others to get involved in accessibility?






I've been trying to come up with a good response to this post for over a week now. It difficult (and frustrating) for me to come to terms with the idea that accessibility must be "cool" for people to engage with it. For me, accessibility is important for its social justice implications--for equity and treating people fairly, regardless of their physical & mental abilities.

I wonder if that developer would make a similar argument about other issues of social justice. For example, do we have to make gender and racial equality "cool" for others to be interested? I wonder if that comment speaks to the fact that many people don't see disability as an embodied identity similar to race, gender, class, etc. Maybe the social justice angle isn't as compelling for folks who don't claim those identities, though. 

I definitely agree with you, though, that accessibility holds a level of intrigue with its attention to multiplicity of representation. I often think of Ted Talks as a cool example of accessible video. They include a full transcript, which is fairly standard, but it's an interactive transcript vs. a static one. You can click phrases to get to a certain point in the video, which adds an extra level of representation and interactivity. So maybe interactivity is one of the ways that accessibility can be considered "cool."

Thanks for starting this conversation!



I totally agree that accessibility is important because of social justice. I guess I'm exploring the "cool" idea because I've seen so many eyes glaze over when I start talking accessibility. Since accessibility will only work if there is large-scale buy-in, I want to think about ways to generate interest and motivation. Maybe "cool" trivializes things too much, though. The developer I mentioned was speaking about directors, so maybe the value of cool is stronger than social justice for some.

Maybe educators are more willing to get involved because of issues of social justice, but even when I do see conceptual buy-in from fellow educators, there is a certain amount of hesitancy. Isn't this going to be too hard? The challenge with accessibility is that it doesn't only require a change of mind, but a change of practice (and a new set of skills). If a teacher can see the personal/ pedagogical benefit of accessibility, they might be more motivated to change their approach. It's easy to see accessibility as an add-on, a task, rather than an intellectually compelling project. Maybe that's what I'm getting at with "cool"--seeing accessibility not just as a way to help people, but as a means to expand our understand of language, multimodality, semiotic possibility.

The TED website is one of my favorite examples, as well. I think their approach illustrates well how accessible features can benefit all users (of course, their site isn't fully accessible, but it's a start). Thanks for responding, Allison. I appreciate your perspective.


I hope my comment didn't come across as brash. I definitely see why you're exploring accessibility's "coolness" factor. I've definitely had those encounters where it seems like either eyes are glazing over or people are nodding their heads in agreement and then moving on with their lives. I think my shock at the need to make accessibility cool is just an indication of my own grumpiness with not knowing how to interest people in issues that I think are (ethically) important.

I appreciate your point that not only does this require changing people's attitudes & assumptions (change of mind) but also changing practice. It seems likely that you've seen this article, but our discussion made me think of this article from Profhacker:

It definitely speaks to the issue of recognizing a problem but not being able to motivate people to become interested enough to work on the problem.


Sorry for my late reply to this! I definitely didn't read your comments as brash. I think it's valuable to challenge our assumptions and perceptions in every direction. Labeling accessibility "cool" can trivialize its importance in terms of equality. But the motivation thing is SO tricky. It's so easy to leave accessibility to someone else.

Maybe part of the challenge, at least in terms of higher ed, is that faculty may not feel like they have the expertise. Accessibility is often discussed in terms of web development, which can feel intimidating for faculty who don't have programming experience. Even if you get people motivated about the idea of accessibility, they have to be persuaded that they can actually do the necessary work.

I'm working on a few projects for my campus that I hope will provide some of this inspiration and motivation, so we'll see how it goes. I think that awareness of accessibility issues is increasing, so maybe it's just a matter of time (or federal mandates). I hope, though, that people get involved with accessibility because it's exciting and the right thing to do rather than because they feel forced. Ultimately, that's my interest in exploring the "cool" factor--to encourage people to get involved before they feel like it's an onerous obligation.


Hi Allison and Melissa!

Really glad I came across this series of posts in my HASTAC digest.  I don't come from the accessibility community (and am not sure if there is one singular community - for example, there may be different communities around specific populations or types of technology).  I come more from a communication, technology, and child development background, and am finding that disability issues productively complicate some traditions within these fields.

In terms of scholarship, I think it's really important to situate your study of accessibility within theories or issues that apply more generally to scholars in your field, and demonstrating that theories might have to be improved to account for cases (such as technological innovation, change, and/or learning) that involves people with disabilities - and that better theories help everyone out ultimately!




I really like that you emphasize accessibility's interdisciplinarity here. Disability studies always straddles and applies to multiple fields. I wonder if this interdisciplinary focus could contribute to its "coolness" factor. I feel like people are often drawn to issues (and theories, like you say) that apply more broadly to multiple disciplines…


How does time go so quickly? Thanks for adding your thoughts to the thread Meryl! I totally agree that the more we can apply accessibility/ disability issues to specific fields of scholarship, the better. We have to show how accessibility matters in a range of arenas, not just in web development (which is often where it gets lumped). Maybe this is what I'm trying to get at with "cool"--to show how accessibility connects with the ideas and theories that people are already interested in, to illustrate its significance beyond equal access. Another benefit of this approach is that it can get us outside of our own experience and perspective and reveal new knowledge that we may not have had otherwise--as you say, it can help us to develop better theories in general.