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a11y and a brief numeronyms primer

If you're unfamiliar with the term "numeronym", you may not have realized that a11y isn't just a hash tag, nor is it a hip way to spell ally. Rather a11y is a shorthand for accessibility.

You may have seen "a11y" used as a hash tag on Twitter, or used in a comment, article, used in a comment thread, or written in an article. Since you're reading this right now, you've likely seen it in the name of a certain website about accessibility. Ahem...

How numeronyms work

Unlike abbreviations like FYI (for your information), and PC (personal computer), or acronyms like HTML (hypertext markup language), and JAWS (Job Access With Speech), numeronyms are number-based words. And while you may not be familiar with the term "numeronym" itself, you've likely used them throughout your life.

For instance, "9-1-1" is synonymous with "help", "24/7" means "24 hours a day, 7 days a week", and Y2K is for "year 2000" or "the year 2000 problem." These are all examples of numeronyms.

As illustrated by the previous numeronyms, sometimes they're used to replace entire words with numbers, or they use a combination of letters and numbers to combine words. In the case of a11y, Adrian Roselli explains:

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Other numeronyms

The following is a short list of numeronyms you may have seen, or even used, but didn't know what they were called.

World Wide Web
Web Development
World Wide Web Consortium

Back to a11y

While numeronyms have been around for quite some time, they're not always immediately understandable. As a defining trait of accessibility is about being inclusive, one should keep the following in mind when using a11y:

  1. If you can say or write "accessibility", do so! A11y (often pronounced "A-one-one-Y", "A-eleven-Y", and liberally as "ally") is meant as shorthand for "accessibility". So whenever possible, say "accessibility", even if written as a11y. The best place to use the numeronym are platforms like Twitter where space is limited and every character counts.
  2. A numeronym will be easier to understand the more it is used in context with its true spelling. So if writing, or giving a presentation, be sure to make your audience aware a11y = accessibility as soon as it's introduced. Sure, people will likely be able to piece it together over time, but no reason not to make it immediately clear.
  3. Typefaces can exacerbate the a11y/ally confusion if 1 looks like a lower-case l. Much like "I11l" (a series of Ls?) and "I10n" (lion?). These are other numeronyms that may not be visually optimal with certain typefaces.
  4. Spell checkers and auto-correctors may not know what a11y is and may try to autocorrect it, while mobile keyboards will require switching between alpha and numeric keys to type it out. All minor obstacles, but things to keep in mind when typing it out. Don't want an accidental auto correct or incorrect key press to further muddy the waters.

With all that said, I wouldn't lose any sleep over mispronouncing a11y, or using it as a hash tag without prefacing it with "when I say a11y, I mean accessibility." As mentioned, using "#a11y" to increase awareness on platforms like Twitter, is a good thing!

There are a lot of projects and sites out that that use "a11y" in their name. Obviously there's The A11Y Project, but also Pa11y, Tota11y, and A11ycasts, among many others. All of these different projects don't overtly say "accessibility" in their names, but they make it immediately clear that accessibility is their focus, thus indirectly connecting the numeronym to the concept.

As long as we do our best to make people aware of what numeronyms stand for, and use them appropriately, then their usage and accepted understanding will only grow.

Further reading