I was pleased my grumpy old man blog post on usability myths really sparked some interest, with most people agreeing, although a few seemed eager to point out that I’d just ‘critiqued’ them rather than ‘demolished’ them. 

I guess I’ll be similarly accused of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story this time.  Still, I’ll take the risk and attempt to knock some accessibility myths on the head.

Myth 1: Accessibility is only about following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

No it’s not. Yes, these guidelines are a very useful benchmark for assessing the accessibility features of a website. Following WCAG 2.0 will make help ensure that content is:

accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, including blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity and combinations of these.

But, as you might expect, I like to use the definition of software accessibility contained in ISO 9241-171:2008  Guidance on software accessibility:

usability of a product, service, environment or facility by people with the widest range of capabilities.

So while it is necessary for websites to meet these widely accepted guidelines, they are not sufficient to ensure good usability for disabled and non-disabled users.  Simply applying the WCAG 2.0 success criteria (which are helpfully written as testable statements) will not determine whether users can perform the kinds of tasks they want successfully. 

We find that the best way of checking this is to run usability tests with users who have disabilities.  In fact, this not only provides good data on accessibility, but as we found for BBC Ouch!, also provides compelling usability evidence.

Myth 2: Accessibility stops you using images on the website

No it doesn’t.  Of course, if you put critical content as images, without appropriate text descriptions, then visually impaired users will miss it. But many visually impaired users have some vision and find that images help them navigate around pages. 

Even users with no vision can find that images on the page help them form a mental picture of the layout of the page. The most important point (as my colleague Mickela eloquently pointed out in our World Usability Day podcast on accessible communication) is to check that the website still works with images turned off. 

This is a relatively quick and cheap way of checking that visually impaired users can make sense of your site.  Which brings me on to Myth 3.

Myth 3: It is expensive to make a website accessible.

As you might expect, I disagree again. Of course if you design and code the site without considering accessibility, it might be expensive to have to do lots of redesign and recoding. Although even that might be cheaper than being sued by a disadvantaged user with all the negative publicity that might entail.

However, if accessibility is planned into the website design and development, there is no reason for it to be expensive, and most requirements improve usability for all users, not just those with disabilities.

Myth 4: Deaf users can read the screen so they won’t have problems.

Of course, for many deaf users this may be true. But users who have been deaf from birth, or who became deaf in early childhood often regard sign language as their first language, with spoken language coming second. 

If you ever watch people communicating in sign language, you will find it hard to relate their gestures to what you would say out loud. It is a very rich and powerful language, with its own grammar and rules, and this means that many users of sign language find it hard to follow complex written language on screen. Keeping screen language simple and straightforward benefits most users, including deaf ones.

Myth 5: Disabled users are only a small minority.

This is a more controversial ‘myth’. It is true that registered disabled users are a minority. According a recent Guardian report, 36% of the 9 million disabled people in the UK are regularly online.

However there are a much larger number of users who are not classified as disabled, but who benefit from accessibility features such as being able to:

  • Increase font size.
  • Adjust image contrast.
  • Use text to speech in noisy environments.

We were once asked by a car insurance website manager why he needed to bother with visually impaired users as they would not be driving anyway.  Apart from his legal obligations, we pointed out that some users with visual impairments can still drive, and anyway, they may well wish to buy insurance for others.

Regarding accessibility as an option for a minority is a big mistake.  The Disability Discrimination Act (now replaced by the Equality Act) makes it a legal requirement, but many sites still try to get away with doing as little as possible.  The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which came into force in 2008 made accessible and assistive Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) a legal right.

Inaccessible websites are not just be unusable and annoying, they are breaching people’s human rights.  I think that is something to get grumpy about!

Tom Stewart

Published 3 December, 2010 by Tom Stewart

Tom Stewart is Executive Chairman at System Concepts, and a guest blogger at Econsultancy. System Concepts can be followed on Twitter here, and Tom is also on Google+.

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Comments (11)

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Andrew Hart

Hi Tom A well rounded review of all the great myths that have been around for a while and will no doubt be with us for some time to come. It's great to see more and more businesses are Accessibility-aware and your summary of the myths will no doubt prove a great reference point for those responsible for persuading those further up the chain to give their buy-in. For me points 1, 3 and 5 are the most common and most compelling myths to bust: once people break the "check-list" approach to accessibility, understand that it isn't that expensive and that there are indeed 'carrots' to the investment (not just the 'stick' of legislation)....then they truly begin to benefit from embracing accessibility and it's no longer an exercise in compliance.

over 7 years ago

Tom Stewart

Tom Stewart, Founder at System Concepts

Hi Andrew, thanks for your feedback. I think some web accessibility issues are similar to physical accessibility adjustments which help lots of people, for example cut-outs in pavements and automatic doors in shops - both are heavily used by people with pushchairs and wheeled luggage. And as you say, when people embrace accessibility early it doesn't cost much either. Tom

over 7 years ago


Verity Cork, Senior Web Editor at RNIB

Great article! Here at RNIB, we're always trying to convince people that accessibility matters, and that it's not the massive scary monster that people sometimes imagine it to be. You're dead right that it's harder and more expensive to undo a bad website than it is to do it right in the first place.

One thing that I think gets missed in accessibility discussions is that the people designing and developing websites now are going to get older. Yes, you are.

And it's often older people who tend to struggle more with accessibility: for instance, your sight is not what it was, you've got arthritis so it's harder to click on small links...

Set the standards for accessible web design now - you may well thank yourself in the future.

*Shameless plug*

Since I'm here, I may as well plug RNIB's web accessibility pages - lots of good, free advice: www.rnib.org.uk/wac

Also check out news about the new British Standard for web accessibility (BS 8878), which was launched today:


over 7 years ago

Tom Stewart

Tom Stewart, Founder at System Concepts

Hi Verity, thanks for your comments. Further to your "shameless plug", I can fully endorse the RNIB resources and would point out that they cover a wide range of disabilities not just visual ( as you might have expected). Tom

over 7 years ago


Graham Armfield

Thanks Tom for this useful blog post (it was shared on the Web Accessibility group in LinkedIn).

In my dealings with clients and prospective clients the main myth I often need to dispel is not featured on your list. It is the one that goes: 

"Blind people can't access the internet anyway." 

Sad as it may seem in 2010 there are still many people who believe that. Of course there are also many who've actually never thought about it. Thankfully once they know it's not true some people are actually quite fascinated by how accessibility is achieved (must be the way I tell 'em). 

After that the main consideration is of course Myth 3 - "that's going to cost me, right?". And of course retro-fitting accessibility to an old and/or poorly designed site can be a pricey business. That is why designing for accessibility is so important and if it's done properly a website really shouldn't cost any or much more than it would without it.

Whilst it's not a myth as such, some clients do actually say "My website is not appropriate for blind/deaf/motor impaired (circle as appropriate) people". That's when the Myth 5 information is useful. And now there's a growing realisation that accessibility techniques also work for the elderly too - a lot of whom would never consider themselves disabled.

over 7 years ago

Tom Stewart

Tom Stewart, Founder at System Concepts

Thanks Graham.  With you 100 percent on people underestimating blind users. In fact, when we do usability/accessiblity testing with blind or visually impaired users, who use screen readers, they usually slow it down so that we can follow what they are doing! It is actually quite humbling to watch expert blind users. Tom

over 7 years ago

Dean Marshall

Dean Marshall, Managing Director / Lead developer at Dean Marshall Consultancy Ltd

Frankly I'm surprised that there aren't a few more comments on this article.

On the whole I agree with the sentiments expressed but I do have one major worry related to 'Myth 3'.  Making changes to the site isn't expensive - but for us the testing process looks expensive.  

As a small web design agency we strive to follow best practise and to stay abreast of latest developments in all the various fields (usability, accessibility, HTML5, CSS3, Javascript, JQuery, PHP, and the rest).

We do our best to build in accessibility but are frustrated by the inability to take many of the tools for a test drive.  Without ready access to a pool of disabled users, we'd like to take screen readers for a test drive - but last time we looked (18 months or so ago) they were very expensive and as our requirement is for occasional use (small scale testing during and after development) we couldn't justify the expense.

Outsourcing may be an answer - but I feel would prove even more expensive - paying for the labour that necessarily goes with it.  I don't really see us being able to sell the client on external testing.  The up-shot is that we continue to try and do the best we can - hindered by lack of access to the technology. Guidelines and checklists might not be enough - but they seem to be all we have.


over 7 years ago

Tom Stewart

Tom Stewart, Founder at System Concepts

Hi Dean

Thanks for your comments. Using checklists is certainly better than nothing. I guess I agree in part with your concerns. Making websites accessible is not free but then neither is usability, and websites, which are neither, are not much use. Part of the problem for a small company is that you can only do a reasonable job if you are similar to your customers. So every time you tweak a design, it’s a bit like a user test only quicker and cheaper. But there are two big problems. Firstly, you will never be like a new user who doesn’t know in advance what the site is trying to do, and secondly, unless you use assistive technology yourself, it is very difficult (if not impossible) to guess how well your site will work with it. In terms of costs, we can test websites with disabled users for the same price as regular usability testing. The key point is that website accessibility is a legal requirement in the UK and having to fix it later will always be more expensive than getting it right first time. Tom

over 7 years ago



In response to Dean... there are free screen readers available and you can use evaluation copies for the occasional use. It may be worth a new look at the market. Although as Tom says you are then relying on your experience rather than your user's experience. Another benefit of outsourcing is that you get someone who knows the topic and the tools inside out and it lets you focus on your specialities. You can work together on designs without having to have the learning curve yourself.

over 7 years ago


Jonathan Hassell

Great article, Tom.

And, one year later, things have moved on further in web trends.

So I've written an update to your blog - Web Accessibility Myths 2011 - mostly focusing on the business case behind accessibility.

Leonie Watson called it "a stepping stone to the next generation of thinking around inclusive design" so I guess it should be worth a read...

Find it at: http://www.hassellinclusion.com/2011/12/accessibility-myths-2011/

over 6 years ago

Tom Stewart

Tom Stewart, Founder at System Concepts

Thanks Jonathan
yes it amazes me that some people still mistakenly think that web accessibility is a luxury - there are still too many sites around which make the elementary mistake of putting important stuff in untagged images. So keep up the good work. Tom

over 6 years ago

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