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Inclusive Design for a Digital World (Book Review)

A review of

Accessibility for Everyone

A Book Apart

166 pages, 7 chapters

About this book

by Laura Kalbag

Book Website

A good reference for Methods/How-To and Case Studies

Primary audience: Designers and technical roles who are new to the topic.

Writing style: Humorous/Light and Matter of fact

Text density: Equal parts of text and images

Learn more about our book review guidelines

The World Health Organization projects that by 2050, due to aging and a rise in noncommunicable diseases, more than 2.5 billion people will need one or more assistive technologies. In addition, because most of those people use multiple technologies to accomplish everyday tasks, it is critical that as designers and researchers, we understand their needs. They are likely to be using unique combinations of technologies in a wide variety of settings, which means that we must anticipate, design for, and rigorously test experiences with those complex requirements in mind.

The book does an effective job of framing the need to create inclusive websites using an approach that assumes that they must support more people than those who only use screen readers. Grounding this work in the experiences the author, Lauren Kalbag, has had alongside her brother, Sam, who has cerebral palsy, she covers strategic and tactical approaches to address the five areas of disability that affect the use of the web: visual, auditory, cognitive, fine motor impairments as well as vestibular disorders and seizures.

This focus is the most attractive aspect of the book; it serves as a compelling model for change to the many teams who are engaged in improving the accessibility of their websites who focus exclusively on the needs of people who use screen readers. Many organizations perceive that this is the area of greatest risk for legal and regulatory reasons. Instead, according to recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, mobility and cognition represent the highest frequency areas of disability in the United States. While improving the experience for those who require a screen reader is important, creating processes, products, and services that anticipate the needs of those who may only interact with an organization digitally due to being homebound can be even more significant.

In my recent experience, a growing number of organizations understand that their audiences include people who might be using a combination of technologies and strategies to access websites. This quick read is a solid introduction to how one might effectively develop an approach to promote accessibility across all five areas considered by Kalbag.

As is true of all of the A Book Apart volumes, the intended audience is people who require a quick reference as they are engaged in creating content, code, and design solutions for digital experiences. To that end, Kalbag provides a variety of tips and tricks that take combinations of needs and technologies into account at once. For example, by reinforcing the need to separate content from styling to take advantage of the native accessibility of HTML, she reminds us that leveraging consistent design patterns that guide people who might be using both screen readers and keyboard navigation to navigate through a web page is an effective and consistent way to ensure accessibility using minimal effort.

In another example, she speaks to the complementary strategies of progressive enhancement and graceful degradation as a means of accommodating a broad range of devices and browsers and ensuring that those who are using assistive technology can have as rich an experience as possible. By showing side-by-side examples of how subtle differences in code might render an experience more effectively, it becomes easier to see how simple techniques might result in a more accessible site.

Kalbag frames the book by starting with a quick overview of the social model of disability, noting “There are many nuances in the language around disability… Using “disability” as a noun changes the focus: Same has a disability, but he is not defined by that disability. Others with disabilities prefer the adjective “disabled” for the opposite reason: the world disables them when it forces them to interact in environments that aren’t designed to consider their needs”. Centering this mode of thinking ensures that the reader is introduced to the mindset that disability is a systems design issue rather than a medical condition that can be cured. She then transitions to how to systematically approach inclusive design by surfacing needs and goals through user research.

Much of the book focuses on the how-to of creating an accessible website. There are a number of case studies and examples as well as tactical advice that provide details around how to create accessible code and content. For example, she provides guidance on how to ensure a website supports navigation and wayfinding by recommending that a brief snapshot of critical navigational elements that are descriptive and concise should be how designers execute global navigation. Kalbag then provides screenshots of examples from the United Nations and a games industry interview archive to explain how this might work for large and complete websites (p. 55-56).  Chapter six is especially useful; in it, Kalbag focuses on evaluation and testing. Her advice on how to execute on accessibility from the start of a project by framing a plan, evaluation, and leveraging a testing matrix to ensure that the team systematically covers the key inputs and outputs of the website, serves as a practical guide to prevent the launch of an inaccessible experience.

Finally, she provides an overview of the guidelines, legal, and regulatory frameworks that are commonly used across the world to ensure accessibility. WCAG 2.2 was released in October of 2023 after the book was published. It includes several updates that acknowledge the growing complexity of digital experiences. However, rather than getting too far into the weeds on WCAG 2.0, Kalbag notes some of its key features and recommends several hypertext resources that ensure that readers have access to the most recent best practices. 

As with most books and other resources in this space, Accessibility for Everyone serves as a call to action for those who design and build websites to ensure that everyone can move through the world easily. While more organizations are starting to invest in this work for both ethical and business reasons, a significant opportunity exists to develop additional products and services as well as refine what currently exists to enable everyone to move through the work efficiently and effectively.

Assistive technology, World Health Organization, accessed 14 February 2024

 Disability Impacts all of Us, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed 15 February 2024,

 p. 20, Accessibility for Everyone, Laura Kalbag, A Book Apart, New York, New York, 2017.

Whereas accessible design creates products that are usable by those with disabilities, universal design creates products for the widest possible audience, which includes, but isn’t limited to, people with disabilities. Good universal architectural design is elegant, considerate of all its users, and effortlessly suits the space.

Lija Hogan

Lija Hogan partners with people who use empathy and data to create compelling and inclusive products and user experiences. She is a UX consultant, researcher and educator at UserTesting, a lecturer at the University of Michigan School of Information, and an instructor on Coursera. Twitter: @lijahogan

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