Accessibility vs. Inclusive Design: 4 Key Differences

By Edward Rademeyer on Aug 15, 2017
Topics: Web Accessibility


“What is the difference between accessibility and inclusive design?” 

This is a question we hear often at UsableNet, and it is a good one. Both terms are used frequently in the digital accessibility world, and they are sometimes used interchangeably—and incorrectly. They both generally refer to making websites, apps and other digital content accessible and inclusive and usable for all. But how are they different?

When aiming to make your digital assets and content usable and accessible for users with disabilities, you want to focus on the right things and not get lost in buzzwords. This brief primer explains the concepts of accessibility and inclusive design, and evaluates their similarities and differences. 

Accessibility and Inclusive Design, Explained

Accessibility refers to making websites, apps, and other digital content usable by all users, regardless of innate ability. According to the W3C, web accessibility “means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them.” Generally, accessibility is discussed in reference to users with disabilities, but accessibility can benefit all users by making things simpler and more intuitive.

Inclusive design (ID) refers to designing digital environments so they can be used by as many people as possible. Adobe defines ID as design “that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.” Generally, ID is discussed in broader strokes around diversity and inclusion (D&I) goals.

In addition to accessibility and inclusive design, another phrase can be easily found in discussions about making websites accessible for users with disabilities: universal design (UD). UD refers to designing environments that can be used by as many people as possible without special adaptation. It is often discussed in reference to education and the built environment. Universal design often evaluates products and environments upon completion, as opposed to accessibility and inclusive design, which heavily focus on the process to design and build those products and environments.

→ Want to learn more about UX accessibility best practices? Download our primer.

Key Differences Between Accessibility and Inclusive Design

There are many nuanced differences between accessibility and inclusive design, but we’ve focused on these four factors to help you understand the distinctions.

1. Accessibility is a goal; inclusive design is a way to get there.

Although both accessibility and inclusive design are process-based, accessibility has a more defined end goal than ID. For accessibility, there are a specific set of users that must be able to successfully navigate your website. For ID, the primary goal is ensuring websites are designed inclusively, accounting for every type of potential user.

2. Accessibility is (largely) standardized.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a set of internationally accepted standards for accessibility that can be qualified by checking a site for specific accessibility errors. There are principles of inclusive design, similar to the four principles within WCAG, but no codified standards.

3. Accessibility supports users with disabilities; inclusive design focuses on more broad inclusivity (e.g., language, diverse circumstances).

If accessibility is a targeted solution to a specific problem, then inclusive design is a blanket methodology to address more vague potential problems. Think of it with this analogy: Accessibility is Western medicine and specific remedies for specific problems.; inclusive design is Eastern medicine—a holistic approach to prevent a range of many problems.

4. Accessibility is one of many outcomes of inclusive design.

When inclusive design is implemented properly, the outcome is, typically, accessible products and environments. But accessibility alone doesn’t fully address all of the principles of ID. It’s a classic square/ - rectangle situation: All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares.

Implementing Accessibility and Inclusive Design in Your Larger Web Strategy

For designers considering utilizing accessibility and ID in their projects, accounting for both in the earliest stages of design is imperative. Getting buy-in from every part of the design team and incorporating accessibility and ID into your workflows will help you seamlessly implement them into your process. Getting proper feedback from stakeholders, such as  users with specific disabilities or users in a specific context, is also crucial.

The impact of designing for diverse groups of users is powerful and long-lasting. According to Forrester, most companies market specifically to the 80 percent of users they consider “normal.” But that ignores thet 20 percent of people who are all potentially users and customers. That gap is the strongest business case for both accessibility and ID—and it cannot be underestimated.

The Final World on Accessibility vs. Inclusive Design

Although the contrasts between accessibility and inclusive design are clear in their approaches and end goals, both enable designers to create equitable digital products and environments that are usable by as many people as possible. The two concepts often work in concert to identify and eliminate barriers to access and use.

When considering implementing accessibility and/or ID into your future designs and builds, analyze the level of effort that will be needed. Consider partnering with experienced experts in the space if you don’t have all of the resources to take the project in-house. 

You can learn more about web and app accessibility by visiting our website and downloading our Web and App Accessibility Roadmap.

Free Guide: Web and App Accessibility: Your Roadmap to Digital Inclusion Download Now

Edward Rademeyer

Edward Rademeyer

Edward Rademeyer

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