What is digital accessibility?

When something is accessible we tend to think about a place, object or person that is easy to reach or approach and the same is true about accessibility, where products and services can be used by a wide range of people. In this case we are not including affordability, although it is acknowledged that this has an impact on accessibility.

People tend to have diverse needs, skills and abilities and some products and services are designed to take this into account. Others sadly fail, presenting barriers to their use, in particular for those individuals who experience health conditions and / or physical, sensory and cognitive impairments. However, not everyone identifies with being disabled (in particular the elderly), so it is important to think about digital accessibility as having the potential to be helpful to us all at any time in our lives.

Accessibility can be achieved through a process of inclusive design or universal design (these terms are often used interchangeably). Inclusive design is not a specific design methodology; it is more like a philosophy that is applied to the design and development of products, systems, services, and environments in a people centred way.

Think of the example of the person who cannot use stairs but wishes to visit a museum. The climb up to the door requires support, a stair lift or a ramp so that the visitor can remain sitting in a wheelchair. By including a ramp the design could be considered inclusive, having dealt with the barrier to access for this individual. However, it may also help those with young children in buggies or the delivery that requires a sack barrow. The stair lift could also be used for this purpose in certain circumstances.

When you navigate the world of technology, there are good and bad examples of digital accessibility. Some web sites are straightforward to use, even if you have considerable difficulties with your vision. Others are so poorly designed that despite good vision you are lost from the start.

Digital accessibility needs to be applied to technologies such as mobile or cell phones and tablets along with their applications. It covers both online and offline activities involving any computerised device. Digital materials such as documents, graphics, video and audio are more examples of where accessibility is important. Is the PDF file you made really accessible? Can anyone read it? Possibly not, because accessibility rarely happens by chance.


Course content

In this course you will learn about digital accessibility, covering the wide spectrum of digital media, how to make it accessible and how making our digital world more accessible helps everyone.

During the next few weeks, we will be introducing you to nine fictional individuals for whom the use of technology is vital in many different ways as well as actual users. Please share your experiences as we go through the weeks.

In week 2 we will take a close look at how people with disabilities use their computers at work, what barriers they encounter, and what technologies they use to overcome the barriers.

In week 3 you will discover how accessible mobile devices can offer support not only for communication but also for daily living and work activities and how this can increase the level of independence people with a disability can achieve and also the ways in which people with disabilities interact with their mobile device (different input and output methods).

In week 4 you will discover some of the main barriers authors of web pages can create through lack of knowledge or understanding and also how accessibility of web pages can be tested according to guidelines or according to usability requirements.

In week 5 we will be looking in more detail at examples of technologies found inside and outside the home such as washing machines and microwaves; self-service terminals, ticket machines and the like and we will be discussing the problems that arise with some of these technologies and the way they could be improved using Universal Design principles, along with the involvement of users and finally thinking about alternative solutions.


There is a glossary available in step 1.19 if you are concerned about some of the technical terms or wish to learn more about other digital accessibility topics.


© This work is a derivative of a work by Stuttgart Media University and licensed under CC-BY BY 4.0 International Licence adapted and used by the University of Southampton. Erasmus + MOOCs for Accessibility Partnership.

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This article is from the free online course:

Digital Accessibility: Enabling Participation in the Information Society

University of Southampton