Privilege & Web Design: Putting the Web And Accessibility in Perspective

Four icons representing someone in a wheelchair, someone's brain, two signing hands, and a person with a mobility cane.I am privileged.

Privileges are traits valued by a dominant group in society and often considered to be “normal” or “better.” I’m white, male, able-bodied, born to well-off parents in a good school district, and employed.

When attending web design meetups and reading industry blogs, I notice that many professional web designers have overlapping privileges. ((I would never claim that any two  people are exactly alike, but it’s instructive to examine groups that share many of the same privileges. An excellent way of understanding the web of interconnected yet independent privileges and identities in society is through the lens of “intersectionality.”))

Awareness of these privileges is incredibly important when building any website, but it’s especially important for organizations – often nonprofits – with websites visited by less-privileged populations. I want to discuss how a few commonly-held privileges among many web designers affect the websites we build and offer a few tips to begin addressing these issues.

Access to Technology – The “Digital Divide”

Everyday, I open my expensive laptop and connect to a fast and consistent DSL internet connection (which I often consider “slow” at five megabytes-per-second). But across the world – the United States included – a huge number of people don’t own computers or have access to fast, reliable internet. This difference in access is often called the “digital divide.”

When building websites for people without regular access to computers or the internet, consider the following:

  • Does the site work for someone with a slow internet connection? (Designers can often address this by providing a text-only, “low-bandwidth” version of a site.)
  • Does the site function in older browsers? Many public libraries or computer labs don’t run the fastest version of Google Chrome or the newest release of Mozilla Firefox.

Physical Health and Able-bodiedness

For many people, impaired mobility, vision, and other physical conditions affect their ability to use services built with able-bodied people in mind. Regardless of whether someone can see a computer screen or use a mouse or keyboard, websites should work for everyone. With this in mind, remember to:

  • Follow all W3C and Section 508 guidelines for websites and just use common sense! If you trouble seeing black text on a gray background, imagine what someone with poor vision or colorblindness sees.
  • Use headings and alternative “alt” text. Headings are a way of using HTML to structure each page (like an outline), and “alt” text provides a description of images for people and machines which can’t see them.
  • Make your website ” keyboard accessible.” This means a person can navigate the entire site without using touching mouse.
  • Never rely on images without alt text, or audio or video without a transcription.


Class—as in “social class” and not “I have to go to class” or “I wrote an HTML class attribute”— is often thought of in purely economic terms. However, a more complete definition regards class as set of experiences, vocabulary, and cultural knowledge that is highly correlated with a person’s historical and current economic status. For example, the rich have a lot of money but many rich people also know which fork to use for the salad course.

As a person who grew up in front of computers and who spends 8- to 10-hours-a-day on a computer, few interfaces confuse me or prevent me from using a site. But, I worry that when white, middle-class, native English-speaking web designers describe a website as “intuitive,” they have an audience of their peers in mind. What about a user raised in a different culture, a lower socioeconomic class, or with different education?

As an example, let’s consider MySpace. I always found MySpace too visually aggressive and “unintuitive,” but research shows that other groups find MySpace to be the best format for them to express themselves on the web. When I interned with ByteBack, a community technology training organization in DC, our computer lab flooded with young, mostly black and low-income MySpace users every afternoon. These 10- to 14-year-olds had no problem using and teaching each other how to use MySpace. Further research nicely backs up my anecdotal observations. ((See “Does it Speak to Me? Visual aesthetics and the digital divide.”))

  • When making a website, the only way of understanding its “intuitiveness” is to watch people other than your friends or your coworkers – who likely share your cultural background – use the website.
  • Remember that intuition varies depending on who you are. MySpace isn’t necessarily unintuitive. It’s different.

No Excuses: Universal Design

When people using wheelchairs go to the grocery store, they often can easily enter through automatic doors. But those same doors sure are convenient for people with shopping carts or strollers. This is “universal design.” By making sure that anyone can use a space, it gets easier to use for everyone!

On the web, universal design applies everywhere:

  • Optimizing a site so that it can load quickly on a slow internet connection means faster loading time for users on mobile phones.
  • Using page headings lets vision-impaired users quickly skim a page, and, when styled well, lets sighted users quickly scan a page to better understand its content.
  • Providing a transcript of audio or video improves your site’s search engine rankings (as does using appropriate headings and alt text).

As Margit Link-Rodrigue elegantly writes in her A List Apart article, “The Inclusion Principle,” ((An article to which I am deeply indebted for introducing me to this concept)) universal design and “the inclusion principle” aren’t just about making sure that those other people can use a website:

Above all, focusing on inclusion helps us understand that we do not only consider accessibility for others, but for our own good.

It takes real effort to do this, and examining privilege is a critical task for any web designer wanting to build a truly inclusive internet that works for everyone.

Talk Back

I mentioned early in this article that I write from a position of privilege. I expect, then, that I have omitted or faltered in my description of certain issues of accessibility or inclusivity. I’m writing this post to contribute to an ongoing dialogue, and I hope you will share your own thoughts and experiences with me in the comments.

Source Image: Wikimedia / National Park Service

5 thoughts on “Privilege & Web Design: Putting the Web And Accessibility in Perspective”

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Emily! I find it interesting how much people discuss “the internet” and social justice (e.g. empowerment through access to information, the democratization of knowledge-making), but rarely discuss it in the context of web design.

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. 

    I would add another design example…sports pages.  I find many of them almost violently aggressive in their visuals–I’m pretty sure the Bengals site left scars–but I can’t begin to count the number of sports fanatics I know that describe them in much more positive terms (though not in terms to be used in polite company).

    And as now have post-40-year-old eyes myself, I can attest more directly to the need for larger fonts.  Though I must admit I love browser zooms now days, some of my apps aren’t great at letting me zoom images.   

    1. Donna! I should’ve gotten to this sooner.

      I really like your example of sports. It shows the ambiguity in the term accessibility and even calls into question whether a site can truly be 100% accessible.

      Browser zooms are indeed wonderful!

  2. Just found your site when searching google for “what is a slider” and that article lead me to this one which I’m already overwhelmed with. I am trying to fancy up my blog and after changing themes I am in an ugly situation so I am trying to research help on it. Your site is giving me help even though my little mind can only take in so much tech at once.
    Thank you for explaining things in a way I can understand….

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