I was invited to give a presentation on web accessibility for a university Business Information Systems class last week. During the presentation a student asked a fantastic question – “Is it possible for a web page to be overly accessible?”

I’ve been working in the accessibility field for a very long time, but had never been asked or really considered this. I had to pause and consider this question before responding. I later decided to pose this same question on Twitter. Some people responded “yes” and others “no” to this question, but I noticed a particular theme in the disparate responses.

“Yes” responses

Here’s a sampling of responses indicating that pages can be overly accessible.

In the sense that you could load it down with too much metadata, totally. Especially if you think you're helping.

— Matt May (@mattmay) February 23, 2018

I feel the same way. We often see situations where devs mean well, and just go overboard with aria and explanations through off screen text no one really needs.

Too much of a good thing can easily turn into a bad thing.

— Denis Boudreau (@dboudreau) February 23, 2018

I think it can if there's too many invisible things just for screen reader users only like many skip links, hidden headings everywhere.

— Paul J. Adam (@pauljadam) February 23, 2018

Yes. When the accessibility design gets in the way of productivity by providing too much information, I'd consider that to be too much accessibility. Extra (and often unnecessary) verbiage and way too much use of ARIA are a few examples. #accessibility #a11y

— Pratik Patel (@ppatel) February 23, 2018

“No” responses

Here are some of the responses that indicated that a page cannot be overly accessible:

No! Accessible essentially means "equal", something cannot be "too equal"

— holistica11y (@dylanbarrell) February 23, 2018

No. I’d define overly accessible as inaccessible. You can make the experience worse by implementing accessibility features incorrectly, which is the antithesis of accessibility as a practice / design philosophy.

— caitlynmayers (@caitlynmayers) February 23, 2018

Most of the examples given here are examples of bad web page design and badly applied #a11y – not “too much accessibility”. They’re reducing #a11y, not too much #a11y.

— Joe Ortenzi (@wheelyweb) February 24, 2018

No, this is binary: either all users can get at the information they need/want, or not. Noone said accessible meant "good", or "pretty" after all.

— Tina Holmboe (@TinaHolmboe) February 23, 2018

What is “accessibility”?

The differences in these responses highlights an important distinction about how we view and represent the concept of accessibility. The “yes” respondents viewed accessibility as the process, techniques, and code aspects of what we build online. These can clearly can be overdone, thus making a page “overly accessible”.

The “no” respondents viewed accessibility as an equivalent end user experience. A page cannot be “overly equivalent”.

Both parties are correct. Accessibility is both a process and a philosophy. While our goal is “accessibility” (equivalence for end users), we do this by implementing “accessibility” (techniques and code). For those of us in the accessibility field, I think it’s important to consider these different meanings and to be careful with how we present them.

And that is why this question from the student caused me to pause and really consider my response, which was essentially “Yes, if you think of accessibility as code practices and techniques, then these can be overdone resulting in a less than optimal end user experience. But if you think of accessibility as being that end user experience, then no, you can’t make a site overly accessible because those accessibility improvements would inherently benefit everyone.”