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What is a11y?

May 4, 2017

You may have seen the term "a11y" floating around the Internet as a hashtag or popping up in tech discussions. Also referred to as "A11y" and "A11Y," a11y is an abbreviation for "accessibility" that is more compact for the character limits on social media. The “11” in the middle stems from conventions in software engineering and Information and Communication Technology that shortens long words by substituting middle letters with the number of middle letters instead. There are 11 letters between the "a" and the "y," so accessibility becomes a11y. For another example, “l10n” refers to "localization," because 10 letters come between the “l” and the “n.”

Coincidentally, a11y looks like it would read phonetically as ally, which has been the topic of controversy in some circles on social media.

No less, many technologists see a11y as a movement, and not just the simple act of making websites more accessible.

a11y as a Movement, Not Just an Abbreviation

a11y does not refer to a specific standard, measurement, or law that has to do with technology and accessibility. However, a11y is frequently used outside of social media and in tech circles to refer to the movement for more accessible Internet and technological infrastructure altogether.

Many people use the term a11y to refer to the audit process for ensuring that a website is accessible. Some web developers and UX designers, for example, refer to a11y as a scoring matrix to assess the entire user experience of a website, from first page load through completing the site's various functions.

a11y Goes Beyond Websites

Websites rely on computers and other devices to provide access, so making websites themselves accessible doesn’t solve the whole problem. For technology evangelists, a11y goes deeper than website accessibility, focusing instead on how accessible an entire computer system is to people with disabilities, both hardware and software components. Keyboards, mice, alternative input devices, and other peripherals that are designed for the visually impaired and people with motor control issues are a major aspect of computer system accessibility.

However, a11y isn't just about connecting disabled users to assistive technologies, but also implementing hardware redesigns that benefit all users, such as laptops that are easy to open if a user is missing fingers.

Making assistive technologies more readily available is central to the a11y movement. Most of the standard screen reader programs are available for free because they are open-source, but other programs are only available commercially. a11y advocates strive to make these programs free for all users.

a11y is a Global Movement

a11y is also not entirely restricted to specific countries such as WCAG and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. It refers to a global movement to make web content and computer systems more accessible. In a global economy that is largely digitally-driven, developers who participate in the a11y movement might use WCAG and the like as guidelines while striving to make websites and computer systems accessible worldwide and compliant with all nations' accessibility regulations.


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