The #a11y hashtag is harmful to the #accessibility cause. As we start afresh on Mastodon, it’s time to let it die
With so many of us with accessibility needs having made the move to mastodon recently, the divisive question of the #a11y hashtag has been raised once again. I’d like to offer an updated version of a previous article I have written on this subject in the hope that it may alert a few open-minded people to the very real harm this hashtag is causing.
As a blind guy who confronts accessibility barriers frequently, it’s hard to over-state the impact of being stopped in my tracks by a roadblock that could have been avoided with a little thought. 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.
While I am grateful to the nondisabled accessibility professionals who have become allies and choose to provide much appreciated support to us on our journey, the big difference is that disabled people can’t walk away, we can’t find another profession. Poor accessibility constrains our choices and can make our lives a misery. accessibility understandably evokes strong emotions among those affected.
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 ensuring that their product or service is accessible.
Even after all these years, as a technology author and podcaster, 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, a good number of them not disabled themselves. I have years of experience in product management, and it has been my honour to work with some of the most talented software developers in the assistive technology industry. 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. I have had to think a lot about getting people on-side to make good change. 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 Mastodon, 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 Mastodon 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 Mastodon for references to your company. If they see a toot 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 toots 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?
I have heard some nondisabled people claim that the #a11y hashtag has value because it is easier for some with dexterity issues to type. It is important that we can all contribute, but there are plenty of long words in the English language. That’s why tools exist for those with dexterity issues so abbreviations can be used that auto-expand.
One of the reasons some gave for initially using the #A11Y hashtag on Twitter was the original 140-character limit that used to exist on that platform. We have a minimum of 500 characters on Mastodon, so why does it persist when character count is no longer an issue? Some argue it has become a convention now, even a standard. It’s certainly not a standard, and conventions can quickly be changed simply by each of us choosing to be the change we want to see in the world.
With the exception of posts like this when I am pointing out the harm that this hashtag is doing to the accessibility cause and therefore the harm that it is causing disabled people, I choose never to use it, nor to boost posts that contain it. Only in exceptional circumstances will I reply to a post containing it, and if I have to do that, I use a more inclusive hashtag in my reply. I always use #accessibility if I want a hashtag referring to accessibility, because it’s clear and you don’t need to be part of the in crowd to find it. If each of us who understand the harm this hashtag is doing were to do those two things, don’t use it, don’t boost it, it will die the death it deserves.
There is a sense of hope on Mastodon at the moment. A sense that we can learn from past social media mistakes and do it better this time. One way we can do that is by retiring this exclusive hashtag.
The stakes are far too high for us to hide these critical discussions behind a hashtag that few members of the general public understand. Accessibility deserves to be discussed accessibly.
Let’s commit to the death of this unfortunate practice, be inclusive in our discussions and put this hashtag to bed once and for all.
As someone who has been a big proponent of the #A11y hashtag for many years, I have to say, I absolutely agree with you. At first, the hashtag made sense to me in the context of Twitter for the reason you mention: the limited character count which early on, was only at 140 characters. Over the years though, it’s evolved into something far different and definitely has this exclusivity feel to it. I think the first time I started feeling that something was very wrong was when a well-regarded member of the accessibility field started talking about “ally” at a conference I was attending and I had no idea what she meant by the word “ally”.. Eventually, someone explained to me that the digit 1 can look like a capitalized L and so visually, A11Y looks like the word ally. And isn’t it an awesome thing to be an ally to people with disabilities? I remember standing there listening to this explanation and thinking that as someone who has never seen printed letters, I was left out of something else yet again. Put another way, I sort of felt locked out of the very hashtag I had tried so hard to support.
The other piece that I think gets lost a bit is that early on, the hashtag was really intended to help identify tweets and eventually other materials as having to do with accessibility. Now, it’s on stickers, it’s on coffee cups, it’s on hats, it’s on wrist bands, pencils, logos, I even have a backpack with A11Y embroidered on it that I got from somewhere or other. I’m told this is fantastic because it raises awareness, however, I disagree. I think what it does is take away from the real challenges, the real struggles, the real impact that accessibility (or the lack thereof) has on peoples’ lives. I think the next time I present at a conference or event, I’m going to try and get the message across that truly being an “ally” to people with disabilities takes a lot more than just displaying a shiny A11Y sticker on a laptop, or including it in a social media bio.
Thanks for republishing your article on this topic, I hope that others, like myself, who may have disagreed with initially, may have a very different view this time around.