The words we use in #a11y

A few days ago, I started this thread on twitter…

reading this report on disability & AI, and I’d highly recommend at least the first few pages to anyone working in tech– raises some great questions, then goes into definitions around disability and technology that might challenge how you think…

Here’s the report I’m talking about: Disability, Bias, and AI [PDF]

In particular, the definition of “Assistive Technology” made me think- it helped solidify something I’ve been thinking about but unable to articulate. The basic definition is “assistive technology is shorthand for technology that assists disabled people.” [1]

But why do we need to specify that some tech is especially “assistive”? Non-disabled people are assisted by tech, too, but that’s not what we mean. By having this concept, we might assume tech fixes everything, and if so, we don’t need to address the social issues that impact disabled people​*​.

Why is it that persons with disabilities have assistive technology, while the rest of us just have technology?

Accessible Technology and Models of Disability [2]

I do think we need a term like this in the web dev industry because we want something that puts the focus on how disabled people interact with technology. Otherwise, this population becomes invisible.

Look at Inclusive Design, which emphasizes all diversity alongside disability, and introduces “situational disabilities.” In my experience though, people focus on the relatable issue (like screen glare), and stop thinking about the blind person. This leads to two things: we stop thinking about the full experience for a user with a screen reader, and we devalue the experience and skills of disabled people already using technology.

On the other hand, by focusing on “how it works with assistive tech”, we might be focusing on creating disparate experiences, like when we thought mobile sites were a good idea.

In Accessible Technology and Models of Disability, Ladner suggests using “accessible technology” instead:

The term “assistive technology” has come to mean special purpose devices, but given that computers are general purpose devices that can provide multiple accessibility solutions the term “accessible technology” might be more appropriate.

Accessible Technology and Models of Disability [2]

And while I can get on board with the idea, if I call something “accessible”, I mean it works with a screen reader, not it is a screen reader. So… where does that leave us?

I think I’m going to try to remove the phrase “assistive” entirely and stick to “technology”, or the specific thing I mean. Like, if I mean screen readers, I should say that. If I need to be very broad, “technology used by disabled people.” Removing the “special-needs”-esque feel from my language, and being more specific at the same time, will probably be more clear in the end.


  1. ​*​
    Not that I’m not saying people should not use this tech, or that all problems people with disabilities face would be solved by social change (we’ve invented the tech and medical fields for a reason). This is broadly about the impact of the words we use.

  1. Disability, Bias, and AI. AI Now Institute. https://ainowinstitute.org/disabilitybiasai-2019.pdf. Accessed November 2019.
  2. Ladner RE. Accessible Technology and Models of Disability. In: Oishi MMK, Mitchell IM, Van der Loos HFM, eds. Design and Use of Assistive Technology: Social, Technical, Ethical, and Economic Challenges. New York, NY: Springer New York; 2010:25-31. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-7031-2_3

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