Create More Accessible Websites with Abilities Design

April 27, 2022

Key Takeaway

By using Universal Design, Universal Design for Learning, and Inclusive Design methodologies and principles in combination, websites can be designed to be accessible for all people. Innovative solutions to website design must be done in conjunction with people with disabilities, in order to ensure accessibility. This will allow all citizens to have access to information without barriers, especially during a pandemic. —Tanya Farrol 

The Need for More Accessible Websites

The pandemic has caused more and more people to rely on the internet to gain access to basic services, like food, education, healthcare, and legal services. This has led to the glaring realization of how inaccessible websites are for people with disabilities and how they can pose a barrier. In 2019 and 2020, over 1 million US websites were tested by WebAim, and 98.1% were found to be non-compliant to legal accessibility standards.1

This article explores the various disability models to the design process, and examines how Universal Design, Universal Design for Learning, and Inclusive Design methodologies and principles can work in combination to design accessible websites for all people.

Over 1 billion people today (15%) of the population have a disability.2 The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) classifies disability as “impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions” and takes into consideration “body functions, body structures, activities, participation and the environment” in the design thinking process.3 The ICF is concerned with providing insight into the “human experience when accessing information online.”

With the creation of the Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit for the business and technology sectors, it “redefines what disabilities are and how they happen” (O’Neill, 2021). The toolkit uses a Persona Spectrum Model and explains that there are three types of disabilities—permanent, temporary, and situational.4 For example, the big buttons on an Xbox Adaptive Controller works for someone in a cast (temporary disability), a parent holding a child (situational disability), and a person with one arm (permanent disability).

Ableism is prevalent in our society. We continually devalue disabilities by using a medical model to “fix” the disability. This ableism has led to the lack of accessibility for people with disabilities to participate in our society. Web designers have ability biases where they design based on their own perceptions of the needs and wants of people with disabilities. Instead, we need to invite people with a variety of disabilities to be part of the design process, in order to innovate and improve web accessibility. 

Abilities Design is an umbrella term for the three design disciplines that design for accessibility and for people’s various abilities: Universal Design, Universal Design for Learning, and Inclusive Design. They are outlined briefly below. 

Universal Design

“Universal Design focuses on developing solutions that can be used by everyone without any alterations” (O’Neill, 2021). It is commonly known as Design for One—Design for All. It has 7 principles: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach to use.5

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

UDL is founded on the earlier work of Universal Design and is a framework to improve teaching methodologies based on how people learn. It has three principles:

  • Engagement—motivating students to learn—the why of learning
  • Representation—presenting information in different ways—the what of learning
  • Action and Expression—differentiated ways to express learners knowledge—the how of learning6

Inclusive Design

Inclusive Design is a methodology that provides adaptive solutions in their designs for various people. The framework centers around:

  • recognizing that the design must take into account each person’s ability and uniqueness;
  • using  “open and transparent processes” and co-designing with the people “who will be most affected by the design solution;”7
  • designing in a “complex adaptive system” that “suits the needs of different people.”8

Case Study: Two Judicial Websites

O’Neill (2021) performed a case study into the accessibility of two judicial websites, the US Southern District of Mississippi and the Sixth Judicial District of Minnesota, used the three disciplines of Abilities Design. For Universal Design, there were too many drop-down menus, which made it difficult for people with sight impairments or learning disabilities to find information. For UDL, there was too much written text, making it challenging for people with dyslexia or those whose first language was not English. In the Inclusive Design, there was a strong need to adapt the website and put in an accessibility panel that would give people greater control over the website, e.g. adjusting color contrast or changing the size of the font.

There are some great resources used by the US government to build accessible websites that adhere to the Abilities Design disciplines.

  • The US Web Design System (USWDS)—has good design principles and page templates to build accessible websites.9
  • The US General Services Administration created Accessibility for Teams—a quick, online guide for how to use inclusive design practices for accessible websites.10

Abilities Design is the way forward in using a combination of the principles and methodologies of Universal Design, UDL, and Inclusive Design to create access to digital information. By focusing on the abilities of people with disabilities and including them in the design process, we will innovate and create a more inclusive society. 

Summarized Article:

O’Neill, J. L. (2021). Accessibility for All Abilities: How Universal Design, Universal Design for Learning, and Inclusive Design Combat Inaccessibility and Ableism. J. Open Access L., 9, 1.

Summary by: Tanya Farrol – Tanya believes that the MARIO Framework is a personalized learning experience that develops skills and empowers learners to become an integral part of their learning journey.

Additional References:

  1. The WEBAIM Million: An annual accessibility analysis of the top 1,000,000 home pages. WebAIM. (2020, February). Retrieved November 1, 2021, from 
  2. World Health Organization and World Bank. (2011). World Report on Disability 2011. World Health Organization. Retrieved November 1, 2021, from 
  3. World Health Organization. (2002). Towards a Common Language for Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF). World Health Organization. Retrieved November 1, 2021, from 
  4. Microsoft. (2016). Inclusive Microsoft Design 2016. Retrieved November 1, 2021, from 
  5. The 7 principles. Centre for Excellence in Universal Design. (2020). Retrieved November 1, 2021, from 
  6. CAST. (2021, April 20). About universal design for learning. CAST. Retrieved November 1, 2021, from 
  7. Bjögvinsson, E., Ehn, P., and Hillgren, P.-A. (2012), Design Things and Design Thinking: Contemporary Participatory Design Challenges, Design Issues 2012, vol. 28, no. 3, Summer 2012, pp. 101–16.
  8. Treviranus, J. (2018, July 10). The three dimensions of inclusive design. Medium. Retrieved November 1, 2021, from 
  9. US General Services Administration. (n.d.). USWDS: The United States Web Design System. Retrieved November 1, 2021, from 
  10. US General Services Administration, Technology Transformation Services . (n.d.). Accessibility for Teams. Retrieved November 1, 2021, from 
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