The language of accessibility

While I was in Berlin for the BIENE awards, I found myself thinking a lot about language and meaning… as one does when one is in a foreign country.

First of all, I think I may have inadvertently insulted my fellow jury members, and just about everyone else I came into contact with, by continuously using the familiar, rather than the polite form. I never could figure out when to use “du” and when to use “sie”, so I’ve always just stuck with “du.”

Secondly, I was thinking about the German word being used to describe accessibility: “Barrierefreiheit”, literally “free from obstacles.” It’s a good word, but because it’s describes websites by what they don’t contain (obstacles), it leads to a different way of thinking about the topic.

In English, it’s relatively easy to qualify the word “accessible.” We can talk about sites being “quite accessible”, “fairly accessible”, or “very accessible”. But if you define accessibility as a lack of obstacles, then as long as a single obstacle remains in place it’s hard to use the word “barrierefrei” as an adjective. The term is too binary; black or white; yes or no.

Thinking further along these lines, I realised that English is not without its problems in this regard. Consider for a minute the term “making a website accessible.” There’s an implication there that accessibility is something that needs to be actively added, something that requires an expenditure of energy and therefore money.

The BIENE awards ceremony began with some words of wisdom from Johnny Haeusler, the German of equivalent of Jason Kottke and Tom Coates rolled into one:

In der realen Welt steht fast immer die Frage im Mittelpunkt, was wir tun müssen, um Menschen mit Behinderung zu integrieren. Im Internet müssen wir umdenken und fragen, was wir tun müssen, um niemanden auszuschließen – und dabei spielt die Barrierefreiheit eine zentrale Rolle.

In the real world, we’re almost always asking what we can do to include handicapped people. On the Internet, we need to rethink this question and ask what we can do so that we don’t shut anybody out—and accessibility plays a central role in that.

This highlights a really important point: good markup is accessible by default. As long as you’re using HTML elements in a semantically meaningful way—which you should be doing anyway, without even thinking about accessibility—then your documents will be accessible to begin with. It’s only through other additions—visual presentation, behaviour, etc.—that accessibility is removed.

Far from being something that is added to a site, accessibility is something we need to ensure isn’t removed. From that perspective, the phrase “making a site accessible” isn’t accurate.

Just as “progressive enhancement” sounds better than “graceful degradation”, talking about accessibility as something that needs to be added onto a website isn’t doing us any favours. Accessibility is not a plug-in. It’s not something that can be bolted onto a site after the fact. So here’s what I’m proposing:

From now on, instead of talking about making a site accessible, I’m going to talk about keeping a site accessible.

Join me.

Have you published a response to this? :


Shaun Hare

Like you say good markup is accessible by default

However obstacles occur because people don’t always grasp the language

# Posted by Shaun Hare on Monday, December 11th, 2006 at 10:48pm


We’ve been using ‘progressive enhancement’ for a large project and the benefits can be bigger than even accessibility for all (i know, even bigger). Combined with REST it makes testing and utilising functionality easy - often even when presentation bugs have crept in.

I like the positive spin on the terminology (although there are shades of newspeak or propaganda - I guess whats good for the goose is good for the ‘ganda ;)) it does change the way people/stakeholders look at it.

# Posted by wioota on Tuesday, December 12th, 2006 at 10:04am

Michael Schwarz

So true! I’ve been asked many times "is barrierefrei more expensive than just a regular site" and my answer is always "no, not per se - if you don’t willingly add unaccessible features…". Many clients obviously don’t get this at first. They think in terms of "30% extra cost for accessibility features". But actually, a well designed and properly crafted barrierefrei relaunch can be less expensive! Also, the "total cost of ownership" of such a site will be below that of an old school table based dhtml web 1.1 equivalent. We all know why, right?


Totally agree. It’s amazingly hard to sell accessibility as an "add-on" to IT managers. But if you take it the other way and don’t make it an enhancement. But a base line feature you are ensuring the accessibility stays as the site is progressively enhanced. Hence you achieve accessibility from the beginning and the plan for the enhancement (functionality) of the site from the ground up. And not as an afterthought.

# Posted by Tuna on Tuesday, December 12th, 2006 at 1:54pm

Dominik Schwind

I’m not familiar with the Biene Award itself but at German web conferences "Du" is standard. So I guess you didn’t insult so many people. ;)

Relly Annett-Baker

Speaking purely about the semantics, have you not backed yourself into a corner? You like the flexibility of describing something as ‘fairly accessible’, ‘very accessible’ etc as the equivalent ‘barrier-free’ is too rigid. Yet ‘keeping a site accessible’ is to keep it barrier-free. It is either kept wholly inclusive, or it slips into a grey area of being kept partially accessible, to parties x and y but not z as they don’t fit. I think it is ‘accessible’ that is semantically misleading. We should be adapting pre-existing buildings to be’accessible’ but perhaps we should be making new buildings (and for that read websites I suppose) ‘inclusive’, literally barrier-free. ‘Keeping’ still implies special effort.

I stress though this is purely semantics.

Martin Stehle

Hello Keith,

"keeping a site accessible" - a remarkable insight. "Barrierefrei" - somewhere translated as "barrier free" - is a great term because it describes an ideal state of a website, a building, mobility or communication. But is is not without difficulties: How to talk about the fact that there can’t be 0% obstacles? So, some people try to use "barrierearm", i.e. "to be poor in obstacles", if they want to address the practical experience. But that term is odd yet, and "barrierefrei" is the mainstream term everyone understands.

To the right use of "du" or "Sie"? If you are hearing people talking to each other with "du" you can assume that they became acquainted with each other. If you are not sure how to address someone, use "Sie" first. By-and-by you will get a feeling if and when it would be right to change to "du" and you can ask the other person if that would be right for him/her, except the other person has a higher position than you (or is a policeman :-).

Kind regards. Martin Stehle

# Posted by Martin Stehle on Wednesday, December 13th, 2006 at 2:51pm

Previously on this day

15 years ago I wrote Customer feedback


16 years ago I wrote Museum of Middle Earth

Jessica and I went to The Lord Of The Rings exhibition at the Science Museum in London today.

17 years ago I wrote Life of Pi

It’s not unusual to see slick interactive websites promoting the latest hollywood movie, but it’s unusual to see a slick interactive site promoting a book.

17 years ago I wrote Images

Here’s an interesting image…