Accessibility issues that can’t be solved by tech

Stacks of full shelves in a library, table full of study materials
You can’t consider yourself accessible in the broadest sense of the word without considering non-technical factors that disproportionately impact people with disabilities

There are two different categories of thought on the WCAG accessibility guidelines:

  1. WCAG is a goal, something that one should be compliant with
  2. WCAG is a method that supports being accessible when combined with other best practices and things outside of software behavior.

So what are the other things you need to think about besides WCAG to put yourself in category #2?

Socio-economic status

Disability is both a cause and consequence of poverty.

  • People with disabilities live in poverty at more than twice the rate of people without disabilities.
  • People with disabilities make up approximately 12 percent of the US working-age population; however, they account for more than half of those living in long-term poverty.
  • Medical costs and time off work due to disability are involved in a whopping almost 2/3 of US bankruptcy filings.

When you are thinking about users with disabilities, do not make the following assumptions:

Assumption: All PwDs have the latest devices.

Reality: PwDs rarely have the latest hardware, as they may not be able to afford to upgrade. They are also reluctant to upgrade software (operating systems, browsers, java) because they don’t want to break their carefully constructed and functioning tech stack that they rely on to get things done.

Assumption: PwDs have reliable access to high-speed internet.

Reality: Many people with disabilities use WiFi hotspots and the library as their most reliable forms of internet.

Assumption: All PwDs have the assistive technology that they need.

Reality: Access to expensive ATis largely linked to employment

Assumption: All PwDs who want to work have a job.

Reality: Less than 20 % of people with disabilities are employed. That’s a pre-COVID number. 20 % of those that are employed have lost their jobs during the pandemic, which brings that number down to below 16 %. All of these figures are atrocious.

Dual Diagnosis

You can’t assume that someone only has one disability. Frequently, people have multiple disabilities, sometimes related, sometimes not. In the medical field, a second diagnosis closely associated with the first one is sometimes referred to as co-morbidity. I prefer the term I have recently discovered, which is “dual diagnosis” — the idea that with one diagnosis (such as learning differences or autoimmune disorders) comes a group of potential second diagnoses that occur at a much higher rate than in the general population. The most common dual diagnosis with any disability is mental health challenges. Some examples of dual diagnoses include:


Disability is intersectional and does not discriminate. Disability can intersect with any number of other identities — gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation. This intersectionality complicates the identity of people with disabilities. It is challenging to derive why people stare, exhibit unconscious or conscious bias, exclude, or discriminate. Is it because you have a visible disability, are Jewish, or are a grandmother?


Ableism is the elephant in the room for people with disabilities. Just a few examples of ableism include:

Othering — references to people with disabilities as “us” and “them.”

Devaluation of disabled lives — this has been prevalent in COVID where many politicians have stated “only a few people (mostly those with disabilities)” are going to die. In Alabama, people with disabilities had to sue to ensure they had the same right to a ventilator as everyone else. A Texas man died because his physician withheld treatment due to his quadriplegia. These are all very stark instances of people without disabilities deciding the value of disabled lives.

Failing to provide accessibility beyond the bare minimum required by law — Providing service animal relief areas is not required by law. But if you don’t do that, what message are you sending to service animal users?

Assuming when people “look normal” that they aren’t disabled — 70 % of disabilities are invisible, and 96 % of people with visible disabilities also have an invisible disability.

People without disabilities using facilities meant for people with disabilities. Misuse of accessible restroom stalls and parking spaces by people without disabilities, which is rampant, is the most common occurrence of this.

Lost luggage depot in an airport with hundreds of multicolored pieces of luggage and random people looking through them

The Disability Tax

People with disabilities are carrying a lot of baggage of accumulated penalties that they have experienced directly as a result of their disability. This is the Disability Tax. This is time, money, and effort people with disabilities have to expend because of our disabilities. Every person with a disability that you know, and especially parents of children with disabilities, continually pay this tax. This system is not set up to benefit people with disabilities. A classic example of the disability tax is the almost 10 hours and $500 I had to spend getting my rheumatoid arthritis medication reinstated after it was cut-off as a result of COVID.

Anything you can do to reduce the disability tax will be immensely appreciated. Friction in your software, which might be perceived as a minor annoyance by someone without a disability, might be incredibly aggravating to someone with a disability. Eliminating that friction reduces the disability tax.

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