I remember the first time I came across the term ‘A11y’. I had just discovered Twitter and I noticed that very often, the word accessibility was being replaced with this a11y thing. I was very confused, I mean what the heck does A11y mean and how did it come to represent accessibility?
Numeronyms are something you may not have ever heard of, but you’ve probably come across them without realizing it. I found some great examples on the A11Y Project of numeronyms we frequently use, such as Y2K, 24/7, or even 911. These all contain numbers, but are synonymous with other phrases. We generally know that Y2K refers to the year 2000, that 24/7 means 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 911, at least in the US, means help! But how does accessibility fit into this? Accessibility is a long word and this can be problematic, especially in the old days of Twitter when tweets were limited to a maximum of 140 characters. When we look at the word ‘accessibility’, we find that there are eleven letters between the ‘a’ and the ‘y’. If we remove all those letters and substitute them with the number 11, we magically have A11y, clear as mud, right? Unfortunately, it’s not always clear and for many people, including yours truly, it’s confusing when first encountered. But, where space is at a premium, changing accessibility to A11y can be very useful. On Twitter — yeah I’m kind of addicted to Twitter — A11y is often used as a hashtag, a method for quickly finding Tweets related to a particular subject.
It’s A11y, NOT Ally!
I remember the first time I heard the term ‘ally’ in reference to accessibility, it was my first day at Deque Systems. I was super excited and honored to be part of Deque’s awesome team and even better for me, I joined just before Deque’s annual meeting and so I got to meet my co-workers in person. At that meeting, my boss at the time was distributing these ‘Ally’ stickers that we could proudly display on our laptops. I had no idea what ‘ally’ meant, but being the new guy, I didn’t want to ask what seemed like a really stupid question. Besides, I really wanted the sticker, I mean who doesn’t want a really cool shiny laptop sticker? And so I got my sticker, I put it on my laptop, and six months later, I finally figured out the mystery. Apparently, the number 1 looks like a lower case ‘l’. Having never read print though, this was totally not obvious to me. Once I understood that the number 1 and lower case ‘l’ look similar, this made total sense, but only because someone explained to this non-print reader that the number 1 and lower case ‘l’ look similar. Making this even more confusing, screen readers don’t pronounce the word ‘ally’ the same way. They probably should, but sometimes, they pronounce ‘ally’ as ‘alley’ as in a path between two buildings, and those are two very different words indeed. The point is, while A11y may be confusing, using the word ‘ally’ could exacerbate that confusion, especially for non-print readers. As an aside, I still have that sticker and think fondly of my wonderful time at Deque whenever I come across it. 🙂
So, that’s the big mystery of how A11y came to represent accessibility. A11y is just one of many numeronyms, it’s just not one that people use every day and so it’s not readily apparent what it means. If you use ‘A11y, especially in presentations, try whenever possible to also use the word accessibility, so that others make the association. And if you use the word ‘ally’ for ‘A11y’, just know that this may be confusing for people who rely on screen readers, or who do not read print. Oh, and of course, if you use ‘ally’, be sure to follow it up with a shiny sticker, because laptop stickers are just awesome.