Creating Accessible Websites


Motivating Example: Developing a Website

Design for People Like You

Imagine you are a software developer creating a new website. When you browse the web, you:

  • Use a laptop computer.

  • Enter text into forms with a keyboard.

  • Click on buttons and scroll with a trackpad.

  • Consume web content visually.

  • Are adept at reading and understanding lots of text.

When you create the website, you’ll probably most naturally design for users like you–users who browse the web the same way you do. I know I probably would. After all, I understand my own experience better than I can understand anyone else’s.

Design for People Unlike You

If you want other people to use your website, though, you’ll have to design it for people who browse the web differently. Thankfully, web technology supports this. For example, most major website you view today will be compatible with the smaller screen sizes of mobile devices. If you are viewing this guide online with a desktop or laptop computer, try making your browser window narrower and watch the site adjust.

While most developers hear about designing websites for mobile devices, designing websites for disabled users is much less prominent. Far too many websites today are inaccessible for users with disabilities. This may be why only 54% of disabled Americans use the internet, compared with 81% of Americans without a disability, according to the Pew Research Center.

If your website isn’t accessible, disabled people might be forced to look for alternative websites. According to the World Bank, 15% of the world have a disability. That’s a billion people who your website might not serve effectively if it isn’t accessible.


Don’t let your website be one that is unusable for the many people with disabilities.

Just as you can design for people who use mobile devices, you can also design for people with disabilities. For example, you can support:

  • People with auditory disabilities by including transcriptions and captions for audio.

  • People with cognitive or learning disabilities by clearly structuring your content and replacing long blocks of instructions with form labels.

  • People with physical disabilities by letting users navigate with just a mouse or just a keyboard.

  • People with speech disabilities by supporting text-based interactions as an alternative for any voice interactions.

  • People with visual disabilities by providing text descriptions of visual content and ensuring your content is clear based on the text alone.

For more examples of barriers people face when using the web, see the Diverse Abilities and Barriers page of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

Theories of Disability

There are many theories of disability, but here we’ll focus on two common ones:

  • The medical model treats disability as a condition disabled people suffer from. Disabilities then are problems to be cured, often with adaptive technology. For example, the medical model would view blindness from a cataract as a medical problem to be fixed with cataract surgery.

  • On the other hand, the social model treats disabilities as equally valid ways of being. From this perspective, the difficulties a blind person experiences interacting with the world are not because of any medical condition but rather a built environment that is not designed to accommodate them.

In this guide we’ll focus on the social model and designing websites to accommodate people who interact with the web in many different ways. However, you should be aware that this is not the only way to think about disabilities.

A Small Reflection

I had been hearing argumenets from both the medical and social model perspectives for years before writing this guide, but I didn’t have a good mental model for those ideas until I took COMM 230A. There I came to see the medical and social models as two prominent lenses through which one can view disability. I also came to appreciate how societies in different places and at different times have accepted one of these models more.


If you’re a Stanford student, I highly recommend COMM 230A: Digital Civil Society. It discusses the very broad intersection between digital technologies and the civil society discourse around social change. I think that it’s important for all of us to understand the social implications of our work, and this is especially true of software development work since technology can scale to affect so many people.

Check out this Mixtape podcast, which includes a discussion on disability theories if you’re interested in learning more. It includes strong arguments for both lenses, which illustrates how important it is for us all to be able to see the world through both.

Universal Design

Once we accept the social model, our goal in designing accessible website becomes that of universal design. That is, we want to create a website that is universally accessible no matter how someone browses the web. This may seem like a tall order, but disability rights advocates have worked hard to facilitate accessible design. Because of their work, you can make your website much more accessible using features already built into internet standards like HTML. The WAI has a fantastic guide for developing accessible websites that you should definitely take a look at.

This guide is far from a substitute for the full Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), but it will highlight some best practices.

Examples of Accessibile Web Design

Alternative Text for Images

Whenever you include an image in your website, include alternative text for users who access your page with a sreen reader. HTML supports alternative text like this:

<img src="_images/gui_filesystem.png"
     alt="A screenshot of a Mac Finder window showing some file icons within a folder.">

This image will be displayed like this:

A screenshot of a Mac Finder window showing some file icons within a folder.

If you use your browser’s HTML inspection feature (e.g. right-click and choose Inspect Element in Firefox), you can see the alternative text.

You can find more guidance for alternative text on images in the WAI Images tutorial.

Form Labels

HTML includes a lot of features to help make your website accessible, but you have to use them! For example, you can use for and id atributes in label and input elements to help people navigate your forms. For example:

<label for="phone">Phone Number</label>
<input id="phone" type="text" pattern="^[0-9-() ]*$" name="phone">

Here’s what that looks like once the HTML is rendered:


The rendered HTML above might not appear if you are viewing an offline version of this guide. When rendered, the HTML creates an input box next to a Phone Number label. If you type letters into the box, the border turns red to indicate invalid text was entered.

The for and id link the label to the input element to help tell people which label goes with which element. As an added bonus, the pattern attribute lets you warn the user if they enter something invalid. This can help users with cognitive or learning disabilities fill out your forms correctly.

See the WAI Labels tutorial for more guidance.


The standards that underpin the web include many features to make it accessible to disabled people, but it’s up to us as developers to actually use them. I hope you leave this guide inspired and empowered to make your websites accessible for everyone.


Licensing and Attribution

Copyright (c) 2021 U8N WXD

This guide was informed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Developing for Web Accessibility guide and Diverse Abilities and Barriers page.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

This work was initially created for a workshop at Stanford Code the Change and as a project for COMM 230A at Stanford University.