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Date: 24 Sep 2015

A11y - A Contradiction in Terms

If I say to you, "The i18n of web a11y matters, rather than the l10n of such issues, has resulted in an increased understanding of the subject!", do you know what I mean? Do any of those terms mean anything to you? (And just to be clear, that third term, l10n, is the capitalised letter i followed by the digit 1 - just in case you missed it, or the font in use in your browser makes those characters almost indistinguishable!)

To many of you that sentence will be complete gibberish. However, those of you interested in web Accessibility may have come across the second term, a11y, because it stands for "accessibility", as in accessibility for the disabled. The term is increasingly being used within the accessibility movement. But it is an exceedingly strange abbreviation to use for that particular word, very strange indeed - it is an outright contradiction in terms. Indeed, I would go so far as to say the abbreviation a11y is a poke in the eye for disabled people in general.

The Inaccessibility of A11y

I say that, firstly, because the whole reason for implementing web Accessibility procedures is to make things easily available to everyone. The term 'A11y', on the other hand, makes nothing available to anyone except the select few who know the term.

Secondly, one of the important principles of web accessibility is, so far as possible, to use plain and simple language, particularly for the benefit of people with cognitive or learning disabilities - though keeping things straightforward benefits us all, actually, not just the disabled. W3C discuss this in detail in their accessibility standards. The term A11y is neither plain in meaning, nor simple even for the ordinary person to use and remember, quite apart from ones with a cognitive difficulty.

Another accessibility principle is to make things visually clear for the sake of those with poor eyesight, and a11y fails on that count as well. It is guaranteed to confuse many, even those with perfectly fine eyesight. I wonder how many people, reading our stuff, wonder why the word "ally" (meaning friend) crops up so often in documents about accessibility?

And how is it for the blind? Screen readers can't usually read it as "accessibility"; they are reduced to spelling it out, character by character, as in, "We must all follow A, 1, 1, Y methods to be clear to everyone." Again, not helpful.

A11y in the Web Industry

Unfortunately the term "a11y" is slowly but surely creeping into the Accessibility movement - surely the one place on the web where it ought not to dare show its face! In fact, one of the most useful web accessibility sites around, The Accessibility Project, has the term in its URL,, as does also a similar site at, and certain other sites.

Likewise, one of the hashtags for accessibility in Twitter is #a11y, even though the #accessibility tag is used equally often by others. (It does not help that some other workers in web accessibility also invented the #axs hashtag, in another attempt to keep the length short. Shame that tag has since been taken on by the music website!).

The problem is that if we conduct all our discussions about accessibility in Twitter and elsewhere using the #a11y hashtag, then we are excluding all the people who have never heard of it. As a particular evidence of this, many blind people have complained that they have missed much of what is said about their needs by web accessibility professionals, until they eventually discovered the term. Whereas what we as developers in the accessibility field need, of course, is input from the disabled communities to let us know what problems they have that we can answer through our designs. That input won't come by excluding them from our discussions!

And Wordpress shipped a new release just a few months ago with new JavaScript functions including wp.a11y.speak for event handling on screen readers. That will be a confusing name for programmers to use, and there are poor sighted people in web development as in every other walk of life.

What really seems a trifle beyond understanding, however, is that W3C, the supposed advocates of "plain and simple language" on the web, have recently started to use the term themselves in both URLs and associated text. They have a Mobile Accessibility Task Force (which they abbreviate to Mobile A11Y TF, yes W3C, that really keeps it simple!) at .


It could make you wonder if some people are really taking web accessibility seriously. Or perhaps it is simply that some web designers and developers readily consider people disabled by sight and other physical handicaps, but simply forget about those with a learning disability? Are those with cognitive disabilities being pushed, however unintentionally, into a back seat?

Of course, we can see that people on Twitter use this hashtag because it saves some of that limited 140 character space. But is it really necessary to use such a meaningless tag just for the sake of an 10 character saving? ....umm, no that should be 11 characters shouldn't it - see, I find it hard to remember it even when I'm writing about it!

In fact many commenting on accessibility now consider it necessary to include both tags in their tweets in order to reach everyone who is interested, which completely defeats the object of inventing #a11y in the first place! As it is, using #a11y on its own simply means thousands of people searching Twitter for accessibility (and using the much more intuitive tag #accessibility which does exist) miss half the information available. It limits such tweets to being the preserve of the select few who know what the abbreviation means. In effect, it disenfanchises the average person from easy access to that information.

Sadly, the process of numeronymising long, difficult words is well under way, and I wonder if it will just grow and grow until one day we shall meet up with t2t l2e t2s c6d of c4e g7h t2t w2l m2e u11g e2n s4e t4s i8e (word puzzle enthusiasts can spend a delightful half hour working that one out!) And how confusing will it become if archaeologists start using a9y for their field of archaeology, anthropologists use a10y for theirs, and others follow? There are 119 thirteen letter words in the English language that would fit a11y! Will students in actinobiology and actinotherapy, surgeons doing adrenalectomy, and chemists in aluminothermy muscle in and start using "our" term a11y? - perhaps we should start peace talks with them now before it happens.

But if we do, we had better use plain and simple language while doing so!

We Must Set the Example

I, for one, will not use this horrible hashtag; you will only find my tweets (always assuming you want to, of course?) from #accessibility, and I hope I am not so devoid of inspiration that I cannot reword my messages to use 9 fewer characters where necessary to leave room for the it! Others working in the accessibility field have taken a similar position. A11y is simply a contradiction in terms.

It is sad to see many of those involved in web accessibility lending their assistance to the ones who want to sew up the web in a maze of cryptic jargon understood only by the select few. To use 'a11y' is geeky, elitist, and uncaring of others.

We should stick to plain and simple language ourselves, before we go telling the rest of the world to do so.

By Guy Hickling

I would welcome your thoughts on this subject...

Please speak your heart here:-

- No need to prove you're a human being. I'll just take your word for it.

A11y is a poke in the eye for many disabled people.
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