Make accessibility discussion more accessible, don’t use the #a11y hashtag

18 May is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. This is an excellent initiative which seeks to put accessibility on the radars of those who may not think about it very often. Many web and app developers either don’t know that assistive technology exists, or due to their limited exposure to assistive technology users, think that no disabled person would be interested in their offering.

To raise awareness among the unaware, we must ensure that our discussion about accessibility is accessible. So I’d like to revisit an issue I first raised in 2013 on this blog, couched in more explanatory and mellow language. You can thank all the meditation I do these days for that.

It remains my view that the use of the #A11Y numeronym, a hashtag sometimes used on Twitter to group accessibility-related tweets together, lessens the impact of tweets on a subject that is critical to the independence of many of us.

As a blind guy who confronts accessibility challenges on a regular basis, it’s hard to over-state the impact of hitting an accessibility barrier. If I’m qualified to perform a job but the software at my potential place of work is inaccessible, it can literally alter the course of my life. If one operating system has better accessibility solutions than another, or I can’t use an appliance I like because of a touch screen with no accessible user interface, my consumer choice is limited in a way that someone’s without a disability is not. So accessibility evokes strong emotions among those affected, quite understandably. It’s therefore vital that we make discussions about accessibility as easy to access as possible, both for end-users who need support, and for anyone interested in obtaining advice.

Even after all these years, as the author of a guide to Twitter from a blindness perspective, I still get contacted by people regularly who are perplexed by the “A11Y” hashtag. A11Y is a numeric abbreviation, known as a numeronym. The word “accessibility” comprises 13 letters. The numeronym abbreviates it by writing “A”, 11 for the next eleven letters, and then the “Y” at the end.

Since I first raised this issue in 2013, some people have come back and said, “What are you on about, Mosen. It’s a standard”. Most of these people are developers or professionals of some sort in the accessibility field. I have years of experience in product management, and now also keep a gratitude journal where I write down all the things for which I’m grateful. So I’ve often felt considerable admiration and gratitude for everyone who does whatever they can to make the world a more accessible place. I urge the geeks to keep geeking on, and making a difference. We love you. But I also have a background in journalism, communications and public relations, and it’s that perspective that causes me to raise a red flag about the widespread use of this numeronym.

If you’re a developer or a tester, and you want to abbreviate the word “accessibility” in a bug report, then as my New York friends keep saying to me, “knock yourself out”. But when we’re talking about accessibility in a public environment like Twitter, where we can connect with people who know little about it, using A11Y as a hashtag creates a clique that has the potential to lessen the reach of the subject matter.

True, a disabled person, or someone working in the field, will see tweets tagged with #A11Y, perhaps ask about it, and ultimately work out what it’s for. Of course we need to communicate with one another as a community about accessibility, but to keep changing the world, we need to keep reaching out. Put yourself in the position of a web developer, app developer, or curious social media team member for a company. If a disabled person approached you to say that your offering was inaccessible, you might fire up the search function of Twitter and type in “#Accessible” or “#accessibility”. But you’re not going to type in “#A11Y” unless someone’s told you about it, because it just wouldn’t occur to you.

What if you’re a social media representative scanning Twitter for references to your company. If they see a tweet saying that there are issues with the #A11Y of the website, it’s most likely that they will need to perform a web search to work out what #A11Y means. They might do it, but depending on how many tweets they’re contending with, they might not. if they don’t, then that’s an opportunity lost, all because of a counter-intuitive hashtag.

So if we want to use #a11Y as some sort of vehicle for the in-crowd, then great, in that regard I suppose it serves a purpose. But why would we do that? Surely, inclusion is at the very core of accessibility. Why would people who profess to stand for tearing down barriers knowingly choose to erect a barrier to accessing helpful people and information?

One of the reasons some give for using the #A11Y hashtag on Twitter is the 140-character constraint. I sympathise, and would personally like to see that character limit relaxed, at least a little. I’m not convinced that communicating with each other in 140-character zingers has helped make us more understanding or tolerant of difference. Be that as it may, 140 characters is what we have now. It’s important to note that Twitter now excludes usernames in replies and mentions from the 140 characters. Additionally, a new retweet style and the ability to quote tweets have all come into effect since people started using this hashtag. Further, because a growing number of us have concerns about the hashtag and people know it, we’re now seeing many tweeters including both #a11y and #accessibility in the same tweet, to make sure they reach everyone. So clearly, the objective of the #a11Y hashtag has met with some end-user resistance.

Because I care passionately about making sure accessibility discussions on social media reach as wide a potential audience as possible, I find myself more disposed to organisations that tweet using the #accessibility hashtag. Microsoft does this consistently, unless they are retweeting, and that shows me that they understand the importance of inclusive communication.

So happy Global Accessibility Awareness Day, and if you’ve done anything, whether it be development, testing, advocacy or policy making to make the world a more accessible place, I salute you. I urge you to give thought to making our discussions about this vital subject as inclusive as possible, by not using a hashtag that is exclusive. Let’s open the discussion to as wide an audience as we can. End-users with big dreams and high aspirations are depending on it.

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