Is ‘a11y’ our ally? Thoughts on a tag for web accessibility

The discussion over what should be the best tag to use for technology and accessibility related content on social media sites like Twitter and Delicious continues apace, with a number of different suggestions – with the merits of the abbreviation ‘a11y’ at the centre of most debate. Alternatives such as ‘access’ and ‘axs’ have been proposed.

Here are my thoughts.

Why tags?

A tag is a useful piece of metadata – i.e. a description of some content. Tagging allows us to refind the content, and allows others to find it more easily. Tagging also allows us to find other related content. Aggregation works in many ways – I can describe a resource using more than one tag, I can describe lots of related resources using the same tag. And so can others people.

Tags can be abbreviations, and therefore provide meaningful information and at the same time saving space when there isn’t much available (like in a tweet). I think that the particular restrictions provided by Twitter, and the growing use of hashtags, have brought the issues of a suitable abbreviated accessibility tag to the fore (hence why in this post I use the Twitter hashtag notation when I quote a tag).

A tag for accessibility

There are lots of problems with using ‘accessibility’ as a tag, as a single word description of content.

  • It’s a long word – 13 characters, almost 10% of a tweet.
  • It’s hard to spell correctly (google for ‘accessability’ or ‘accesibility’ or ‘acessiblity’ to see what I mean’).
  • The term accessibility means lots of things to lots of people. I use it to mean “something related to disabled people and the web or other ICT“. Others might use it to describe what I would call ‘availability’ or ‘affordability’.

So when we need to tag something as being related to accessibility, and space is tight, it would be good to have a short tag that we can all agree on to represent accessibility as “something to do with disabled people and the web or ICT“.

‘a11y’ versus other options

#a11y has been used as a tag to mean accessibility for a while. It has benefits:

  • It’s short.
  • It follows an ICT-oriented convention of shortening long words by using a format AnnB where A is the first letter of the word, B is the last letter of the word, and nn is the number of letters between the first and last letter. So we have a11y for accessibility, i18n for internationalisation, and l10n for localisation.
  • It’s used by lots of people in the accessibility community, so a search for ‘a11y’ finds useful and relevant content.

It also has shortcomings:

  • It uses a rather geeky convention, so lots of people don’t know what it means.
  • It’s awkward to type (for example on an iPhone, switching between alphabetical and numerical key screens)
  • It’s easy to misspell, mistaking the ’11’ for ‘ll’. I’ve tagged more than one tweet as ‘ally’ (as in Sheedy or McCoist)…
  • It may not sound meaningful when spoken by a screen reader.

So some alternatives have been proposed:

  • #access – in comparison to #a11y, it’s longer, and only marginally more recognisable as relating to the concept of accessibility we want to define.
  • #axs or #AxSthis has been proposed recently as an alternative, and is shorter than #a11y, and less prone to mis-spelling (although are we supposed to use the capital letters or not? It shouldn’t matter, but may confuse some people) or mis-pronunciation. But I’d argue it is no more recognisable as representing ‘accessibility’ to a newcomer, and less recognisable for those who already use #a11y.
  • #ax – this could represent ‘accessible experience’ in the same way that ‘ux’ is reasonably well recognised as ‘user experience’. But I’d argue it’s almost too short to be useful, and (stating the obvious to US readers), it’s already a word – an implement for cutting down trees.

And, for me the biggest problem – none of the above are in widespread use right now. So if we were to adopt one as the new tag for accessibility, it would then make it that mcuh more awkward to find useful existing content already tagged with #a11y?  None of the above options have compelling advantages over #a11y.

The question of whether a tag should be understandable and recognisable to people is interesting, as I’d argue that when we tag in Twitter, the primary purpose of the tag is to be machine readable, not human-understandable. A hashtag in Twitter is useful because a Twitter client can automatically do useful things with it:

  • a Twitter feed can be set up to retrieve all tweets with a particular hashtag;
  • A hashtag could be displayed as a hyperlink to the results of a search query for all tweets with the hashtag.

Ah, you say, but how would you know to use #a11y in your searches? My answer is that I learnt about the term by reading tweets from people I follow who talk about accessibility, and who used #a11y to tag their tweets. Think about how you build up a subject-specific network in Twitter. You start by following people you know provide interesting tweets on that subject. Then you follow people they retweet, or mention. Then, you might start to search for tweets on a specific subject, by which time you should have got a sense of which tags are used by your network.

And let’s not forget about hashtag definition sites like ‘what the hashtag‘, which do provide a way to store definitions of tags.

Summary

So, in my opinion:

  1. Longer, descriptive tags are best when space is not constrained, and certainly more human-friendly.
  2. If space is constrained, #a11y is currently the best (or least worst) option for an abbreviated tag for accessibility.
  3. Let’s not make already-tagged content harder to find by trying to find and promote a ‘better’ accessibility tag.
  4. But it would be much, much better, for Twitter at least, if we could tag tweets outside the 140 character limit, as Jared Smith suggested. Tags, after all, are metadata, and not content.
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11 thoughts on “Is ‘a11y’ our ally? Thoughts on a tag for web accessibility”

  1. Excellent summary David. I’d add a couple more reasons against changing to #AxS. Firstly, if you search Twitter using that tag you get a lot of noise – that’s because the term isn’t unique enough. Of the top 20 results I got just now, all from the last 7 hours, only 2 related to accessibility. Whilst I know the tag isn’t yet widely adopted, it’s clear that others are using it for other things (most notably as an alternative spelling of ‘ass’!). Searching #a11y returned 100% relevance.

    Secondly, we’re now seeing people use both #a11y and #axs in their tweets. How long will we have to do that? When do we know when one or the other can be safely dropped? Either way, for now, people are using 10 precious characters to cater for both.

  2. One of the benefits of “AxS” John Foliot pointed out is that it is pronounced “access” by screen readers, “when written as UPPERCASE lowercase UPPERCASE”.
    (http://john.foliot.ca/it-stated-with-a-simple-thought/)
    Personally, I find it harder to type – all that shifting! – and doesn’t really do anything to help the “understandability” problem.
    So, for now at least, I’m using both and waiting to see what happens.

  3. Great summary of the relevant points surrounding this issue David.

    Until now, I had originally planted my feet firmly in the AxS camp. Your article, however, has raised a couple of issues I’d not considered previously.

    You’ve made me think about the whole topic again – well done!

  4. Thanks for the summary David, excellent post. The debate caught me by surprise earlier this month; I didn’t realize using #a11y was an issue for people.

    I’ve followed the discussion on blogs and Twitter, and for now, I’m with Sarah on this: it’s much easier for me to type #a11y than #AxS. Plus I often forget which letter is supposed to be uppercased.

    I’m trying to use both, but admit it’s easier for me to remember #a11y.

  5. Some interesting thoughts here David, and I’d like to offer an alternative perspective.

    I think the irony of the #a11y tag is that it is in itself inaccessible in a sense. That is to say when I raised this subject on Twitter, many of the blind people I follow had absolutely no idea what it meant. They’d read it on many occasions, but never equated the tag with issues of accessibility that they encounter every day. Therefore if issues of accessibility are being discussed via Twitter, those who actually use the technology are being excluded in large numbers. I can only think of two blind people out of the many hundreds I follow who have ever described an #A11Y issue with anything, but plenty who daily talk of accessibility issues they are having. The tag has not gained critical mass with real world users.

    Further, a11y is not that much shorter for a screen reader to say than accessibility.

    For people with a learning disability or intellectual impairment, A11Y is hardly intuitive.

    The phrase “nothing about us without us” comes to mind here. This tag seems to have been imposed by a small clique of professionals, not end users, and the majority of people with disabilities I have read commenting on this are strongly opposed to the use of such an obscure tag. Don’t tag valuable content with such obscure meta data that the meta data is meaningless to anyone but a tiny minority in the know. Surely it is counterproductive to use a tag that, through its very obscurity, lessens input from real world users.

    in addition to the points I’ve already raised, let’s consider the scenario where a software developer or web developer is searching Twitter for resources to ensure that they get it right when it comes to a new website or application. Are they going to know to search on #A11Y or #AxS? Of course they’re not. So again, through poor tagging, information that can make the world a better place is missed by people who really need it.

    So what to do? I’m afraid I still come down on the side of #accessibility. I appreciate that it’s length is a disadvantage, but If a message you want to convey is longer than 140 characters, move onto a second tweet or use one of the many long tweet services such as TwiShort.

    The reality is that enough of us object to the use of #A11Y that there’ll be people, myself included, who will just never use it. A consensus simply doesn’t exist on this tag, and won’t.

    1. Thanks everyone for sharing your comments so far! Jonathan, I’d like to pick up on a couple of points you made:

      1) Firstly, #a11y is a tag, and also an abbreviation. That is to say, if there is space to use #accessibility, then #accessibility should be used (for example I don’t use #a11y as a tag for this blog).

      2) I’m hesitant of accepting the “it sounds weird in a screen reader, so it’s bad” argument. Normally I’d find that a very strong argument for change, but surely as an abbreviation, the correct behaviour should be for a screen reader to expand the abbreviation rather than making a mess of reading it out? Of course I accept that it is probably too early to expect screen readers to have functionality that recognises a hashtag and can be set to read an expansion instead of the hashtag (and where would it get the expansion from ?) But I think only using abbreviations that sound the same as the expansion is going to be severely restricting. This strengthens the argument that tags belong outside a tweet.

      3) As I alluded, #a11y is an example of a rather geeky approach to abbreviation. In this case, the geeky approach gives more of a technology focus to the tag #a11y, and that’s ok, as it strengthens the definition as something to do with “accessibility AND Web OR ICT” – i.e. not accessibility in the physical world. In other words, it’s a tag offered for anyone in the web accessibility field to use to identify web accessibility-relevant information for the benefit of anyone else looking for web accessibility information.

      So it’s a shame that you see it as something ‘owned’ by a clique – when I see it as an effort to share knowledge more widely. I admit the first time I saw it I first had no idea what ‘a11y’ meant, but now I’ll mention it as a way of finding more information, for example at the end of a lecture on web accessibility.

      I’ll finish by reiterating that #a11y is in no way perfect, but in context, it can be very helpful 🙂

  6. Hi David, a lot of people prefer screen readers not to expand abbreviations. As a blind person myself, I want to know what is written, not what the screen reader thinks is written. All screen readers have the ability to change the pronunciation of something, so a user can program this in manually. But if I were to do that, I have no way of telling when someone has written “accessibility” and when they have written “a11y” unless I review character by character or check it in Braille.
    If you want to limit discussions to web accessibility professionals only, then sure, this tag achieves that objective. One wonders why such people do what they do, if they are so happy to alienate the people for whom all this is done.

    1. Hi Jonathan,

      I appreciate your reply, and I accept your point about abbreviations and expansions. I should have made it clearer that I believe there should be a mechanism to allow someone to choose whether or not to receive the abbreviation or the expansion. But I would still suggest that limiting abbreviations to those that sound like the expansions is excessive, and would call into question all sorts of currently widely used abbreviations (‘lbs’ and ‘oz’ to name two).

      I also wanted to make it clear that in no way do I see this as creating a dividing line between ‘web accessibility professionals’ and beneficiaries of web accessibility (who are by no means two mutually exclusive groups), and I’m sorry if I led you to think that alienation is what I’m suggesting. My point is that in certain situations, like Twitter, #a11y is a useful way for people who provide web accessibility-related information to make it easier to find for others who are looking for that information (regardless of whether or not they themselves are disabled). I remain sceptical about #AxS, but if you can convince me that using #AxS means accessibility tweets will be more easily found than if #a11y had been used, then I’ll happily use it 🙂

  7. Nice write-up. I agree that “#a11y” is the least worst option. It seems to be the most practiced and recognized by those in the accessibility community.

    PS: Iza, good point, but as far as I know, Twitter’s annotations *still* haven’t been implemented yet.

  8. Hi, David. To stir the pot once more, the promised annotations elude us, and the use of hashtags continues.

    My main objection to a11y (along with its partners, i18n and l10n) is that it’s a numeronym — a puzzle to be solved as a sort of initiation rite for the cult of the elite Web workers.

    Yes, they save space. But they also confuse. And if we’re going to concede that it’s acceptable to confuse people to save space, why not use the hexadecimal counting system to really save space?

    Instead of #a11y, write #aby.

    Instead of #l10n, write #lan.

    Instead of #i18n, write #i12n. (OK, so we don’t save any space there, but, as they say, two out of three ain’t bad.)

    #AxS might never catch on. But even when people forget to capitalize its “A” and “S,” it looks and sounds more like part of what we’re talking about.

    I myself have lapsed back into generally using #a11y. But I really regret that the spirit of #i9y* wasn’t a stronger factor the group — whoever it was — that decided that A-one-one-Y was the way to go.

    Cheers!
    Cliff

    * That’s “inclusivity,” which is said to be an important construct of our field.

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