Let's Disambiguate Some Terms

by Cam N. Coulter


Posted on April 23, 2021 accessibility


Universal access icon: a stick figure with a circle around them

You know what I love? Context. I can honestly get quite excited about it sometimes. I appreciate when folks pause to provide some context for a discussion, define and disambiguate their terminology, and make sure everyone is on the same page. In that spirit, before I progress with my 100 Days of A11y blog series, I want to take a moment to do just that.

There are several different theoretical models that people use to understand what disability is, and how you define disability is influenced by which model(s) you subscribe to. In my next post, I’ll explore these different models in more detail. Personally, I tend to view disability through the social model and define disability as a mismatch between a person’s capabilities and what their environment requires. For example, a deaf person is disabled when a video they are watching fails to provide captions, but they are not necessarily disabled while going about their everyday life as a deaf person.

Accessibility is an attribute, a reflection of how accessible something is, of whether different people (with varying capabilities) are able to use it (and to some degree, how easily they are able to use it). I think, strictly speaking, accessibility refers to whether someone is able to use something at all (sort of like a binary on/off switch), while usability refers to how easily and intuitively someone can use something (sort of like a zero to one hundred slider). In practice, I think usability considerations are often intertwined with accessibility considerations, and they may not always be easy to separate.

I almost described accessibility as a feature a moment ago, rather than as an attribute, but I don’t think that’s the best word choice, for a couple reasons. First, accessibility should not be viewed as an optional, nice-to-have feature. That’s ableist. Second, a product’s accessibility really is a sliding scale, from accommodating only a small number of people on one side to accommodating every possible person on the other. In this way, accessibility isn’t a feature that something has or doesn’t have. Rather, it’s a fundamental attribute of anything we create, with many different possible values ranging from “barely accessible to anyone” to “accessible to people with certain impairments but not others” and finally to “accessible to everybody!” I think the word “attribute” reflects this reality better than the word “feature.”

Accessibility is often abbreviated as a11y because there are eleven characters between the “a” and the “y” in the word “accessibility”.

Accessibility applies to both physical and digital spaces. I’ve noticed that the abbreviation a11y more often tends to be associated with digital and specifically web accessibility. I’ve also noticed that people tend to use the phrase “accessible built environments” to refer to accessibility in physical, real-world spaces. Personally, I think that’s a little confusing, because digital, virtual spaces are also “built,” albeit in a different way.

Accessibility is related to inclusive design. Inclusive design is a method, a way of approaching design that is proactively mindful and respectful of human differences across many axes. If someone practices inclusive design, they will be mindful of people’s wide array of varying abilities and carefully design accessible products. An inclusive designer will also pay attention to considerations beyond accessibility. For example, as a nonbinary person, I am frequently infuriated by web forms that assume gender is binary (male or female). While this isn’t necessarily an accessibility consideration, it is something that an inclusive designer would care about.

Accessibility is also a professional field. The International Association for Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) is a professional organization that represents, supports, and champions this field. Within the field of accessibility, there are many different roles you might have. Accessibility professionals may audit and remediate websites, documents, and apps, to ensure that they are accessible to people with disabilities. Accessibility professionals may also work as designers, developers, or product managers, proactively ensuring that products are built accessibly from the get-go. Accessibility professionals may also work as trainers or consultants, supporting others in learning about and creating accessibility. Accessibility professionals are often guided by an ethic of universal design and seek to create things that are natively accessible to as many people as possible. Finally, accessibility professionals frequently stay up-to-date on relevant laws, regulations, and standards, and some accessibility professionals trained in law may specialize in accessibility laws and disability civil rights.

For some people, accessibility is their whole career path. For others, it’s just a part of what they do. It’s helpful to have some people who specialize in accessibility, but it’s also important to have many others who are aware of accessibility fundamentals and who can help create accessible experiences, even if it’s not their core responsibility.

There are a few other distinct professional fields that relate to disability and accessibility.

First, there is the world of specialized assistive technologies for persons with disabilities. This is related to but distinct from accessibility. Accessibility professionals create things that can be accessed by assistive technology. For example, a web accessibility specialist will focus on creating websites that can be accessed through screen readers or switch controls. However, assistive technology professionals focus on actually creating those screen readers or switch controls to begin with. Assistive technology professionals may also help people with disabilities learn about and learn to use assistive technology, depending on their exact role. Folks who are immersed in the assistive technology world are more likely to be members of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA), rather than IAAP.

Another distinct but related field is occupational therapy. Occupational therapists (OTs) help people improve their fine and gross motor skills so that they can more independently perform tasks they want and need to do. OTs work with people with disabilities and other people as well, such as those recovering from certain injuries or who have been diagnosed with certain medical conditions. OTs may also help make modifications to a person’s environment or help a person learn to use assistive technologies. OTs are likely to be members of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). I’ve also noticed that some OTs are members of RESNA. Here is a link to an interesting article I found about occupational therapists and assistive technology engineers working together.

There is also a universe of people whose job it is to support people with disabilities in academic institutions. Teachers, paraprofessionals, and others who work in disability services may support students in K–12 schools. Those who work in higher education might be members of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD). AHEAD members are a diverse group of people, some of whom may work in disability resources, others in IT, and others might work as ADA/508 coordinators or have other roles on campus. Those with a background in rehabilitation counseling might work in disability resources, or the Office of Accessible Education, as it’s now known at my alma mater. Others on campus might work to facilitate accommodations for students with disabilities, make assistive technologies available to those students, create accessible curricula materials, train faculty and others on campus on accessibility, or otherwise support the university’s accessibility policies and infrastructure. Who exactly has these roles and how they are carried out can vary by institution.

One last group that I want to shout out are direct support professionals (DSPs). DSPs support people with disabilities (I think most frequently those with intellectual and developmental disabilities) in a wide array of contexts, including work, hobbies, community life, and activities of daily living. The relevant professional organization here is the National Alliance for Direct Support Professionals (NADSP). I worked as a DSP for a couple years in a few different roles (residential, day services, and supported living), and I’ve seen the great work that many of these professionals do on a daily basis. This field is painfully undervalued by society as a whole, but that’s a topic for another post. When it comes to accessibility and assistive technology, DSPs aren’t expected to be experts, but they typically have a lot of experience with accessibility barriers and adaptive strategies. Depending on whom they support, DSPs may also be more knowledgeable about assistive technologies and might support persons with disabilities in using their assistive tech.

What’s the point here?

There are many professional fields, career paths, and job roles when it comes to disability, accessibility, and assistive technology. While there are similarities and overlap between all of these roles, I think these are nonetheless distinct fields, each with their own expertise, experience, and professional competencies.

Depending on where you enter from, you may or may not be aware of all these fields and roles. I am working to become an accessibility professional, but I started out as a DSP. It’s taken me time to be able to write this blog post, to be aware of and be able to tease out the differences between all these roles. For a person who enters from another point (design or engineering, for example), it may take them a while to become aware of roles OTs and DSPs play. That’s part of why I mentioned so many professional organizations in this blog. Discovering those organizations help me understand what all these distinct fields are, and it also helped me learn more about each one. If one of those organizations or fields is new to you, I’d encourage you to check out their website and learn a little more about it. I think that can help make us all more effective allies and advocates for disability justice.

Imaged created by Cam Coulter. Icon by mikion on the Noun Project.


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100 Days of A11y