John Stokvis

March 14, 2023

Accessibility on the internet

Curb cuts are the canonical example of how building products with accessibility in mind ultimately makes life better for everyone.


It's not just about making a special accommodation for people with permanent disabilities. There are also knock on effects for people with:
  •  "temporary" disabilities (like being on crutches)
  • situational disabilities (like pushing a stroller or a bike)
  • deviation from the ability norm (like the elderly or children for whom stepping up onto a curb is a little harder)

It's a great example because everyone has seen curb cuts and experienced the benefits even in a small way, but it can be hard to apply lessons about building products in the physical world to building products in the digital world.

So here's a new, potential canonical example of how accessbility makes everyone's life better: alt text.

The original purpose of alt text is to display a short description of an image in the event an image doesn't load. According the World Wide Web Consortium, the standards setting body for the internet: 

When an image contains words that are important to understanding the content, the alt text should include those words. This will allow the alt text to play the same function on the page as the image. Note that it does not necessarily describe the visual characteristics of the image itself but must convey the same meaning as the image.

It can serve as a literal replacement for the image, conveying the image's meaning in another form. This makes it very useful for the visually impaired who use screen readers which parse the text on a webpage and speak it out loud (and since alt text is text...).

But as a conveyor of meaning about an image, if paired with an image, alt text can be a means to communicate a deeper message than just the image alone.

For example:
Screenshot 2023-03-14 at 11.15.02 AM.png

Build for accessibility.

pro-tip: "accessibility" can be a tough word to spell (which is kind of apropos when you think about it). So there's a common abbreviation that makes it much easier to type: "a11y" (accessibility is "a" followed by 11 letters then "y")