Situational terminology

From Education & Outreach

Important Note: This page provides information about terminology, including notes from EOWG discussions.

See Shared Web Experiences: Barriers Common to Mobile Device Users and People with Disabilities for info on the overlap between accessible design and mobile design.

See the Web Accessibility Benefits People With and Without Disabilities section of How People with Disabilities Use the Web for info on how accessibility benefits others.



Sometimes people are in situations that limit their ability to hear, see, use their hands, concentrate, understand instructions, etc., and sometimes they are using devices that have limitations in size, input interface, etc. — for example, a person using the Web on a small mobile phone in bright sunlight with one hand because he's holding a sleeping baby (who will be woken up by noise) with his other arm. These limitations are sometimes mentioned as an example of how accessible design helps everyone, including people without disabilities.

EOWG suggests using the term "situational limitations" to refer such environmental and device limitations, and is also comfortable with "environmental limitations" and "device limitations". To specifically refer to things like broken arms, EOWG suggests "temporary limitations" or "temporary functional limitations". Several EOWG participants object to the terminology "situational disabilities" and "situational impairments" in most cases. While some recognize that it could be used very carefully in ways that would not be objectionable, there are concerns with how it is often used.

Therefore, our documents should not use "disabilities" or "impairments" to refer to such environmental, device, or temporary situations (e.g., not situational disability).


Thoughts about "situational disability" as opposed to something like "situational limitation" in situations that limit their ability to hear, see, use their hands, concentrate, understand instructions, etc. — including device limitations and environmental limitations. Related terms that are sometimes used:

  • situational limitation
  • situational disability
  • situational impairment, environmental impairment
  • temporary disability or temporary limitation - for temporary functional limitations like broken arm


  • EOWG tele 14 Feb 2014
  • EOWG tele 7 Feb 2014
  • uncomfortable with "situational disabilities" — I am uncomfortable with "situational disabilities" and think it should be avoided to maintain the important distinction of "disabilities" as referring to people's functional limitations (auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual impairments). Disabilities generally cannot be avoided, whereas situational limitations can more so. Also, the solutions for real disabilities are often different than for situational limitations — for example, design for drivers to perform some tasks with a device without looking at it is not as robust as design for people who are blind to access all functionality of the device all the time. (I need to figure out how to express my problems with that terminology...) {Shawn}
    • +1 to Shawn {Jan - 14 February}
  • advantages to raising disability awareness — on the other hand, it makes disabilities more mainstream - "everyone is disabled sometimes" - which makes it more important to code accessibly because it applies to everyone. It adds an economic incentive to provide accessibility. It increases possibility of mainstream developers looking to accessibility for tested solutions to situational problems. {jeanne}
    • Well, you can promote the benefits of accessibility to people in "situational limitations" without calling them disabilities. {Shawn}
  • it really depends — For example, an injury that limits you for a long duration seems different than "forgetting my glasses at home". It is also quite subjective. Some may perceive "we're all disabled at times" to be condescending and trivializing of what is often a reason for discrimination. Others feel that drawing a fictional border around oneself is self-discrimination. {shadi}
  • Situational limitations preferred — I can see the advantages of broadening the scope of accessibility, but don't feel comfortable about using the term disability for situations that might only last as long as it takes to listen to, as opposed to sight read, a text message while driving. {Bim}
    • I'm with Bim - these are not disabilities per se, just temporary limitations on a person's use of their technology due to their current situation or environment; they shouldn't be confused with true disabilities through the use of that term {Andrew}
    • +1 to Bim & Andrew - I think it is important to protect the term "disability" so that it applies to permanent conditions. The economic benefits of meeting the access needs of people with disabilities can be made in other ways. I believe companies will make access more of a priority when they feel enough pressure from the market, but I don't necessarily think that they will respond to a more open use of the term disability.{Jan - 14 February}
  • temporary disability — a term that maybe could be used for true temporary functional limitations like a broken arm, an ear infection, etc that a person would be expected to recover from - this is very different from the 'limiting' situations a person places themselves in (usually voluntarily) while using their technology which is a situational/environmental limitation {Andrew}
    • +1 to Andrew. {Vicki} I also see 2 distinct situations:
      • a temporary disability: I prefer using this term to describe a temporary situation in which a person has a body injury of some kind e.g. a broken arm, temporary illness and so forth, and then there is:
      • an environmental/situational limitation: this would be a temporary situation which is the cause of the limited ability to hear, see, comprehend etc. which probably has a shorter time span (i.e., it is a limitation of the environment the subject is in and which can usually be changed/fixed){Vicki}
    • prefer "temporary limitation" over "temporary disability" — I think "temporary disability" should be avoided, except perhaps occasionally and carefully when trying to bring out the notion that all of us have limitations depending on the environment. But the on the whole, "temporary limitation" is my preference.{Howard}
    • +1 to Howard{Jan - 14 February}
    • +1 for temporary limitations {Sylvie, 10 February}
    • +1 for temporary limitations as well {Eric, 13 February}
  • Prefer "limitation" in this context — I hesitate to make hard and fast rules and would concur with Howard's "occasional and careful" exception (EOWG telecon). Overall, there is no risk of trivialization by using limitation and the concept remains clear so that seems the best choice. {Sharron, 13 February}
  • Situational Impairment — is my preference. Notice that in new book A Web for Everyone, the terminology "situational impairment" is used. I find this phrasing appropriate and effective {Howard, 13 February}
    • I think "impairment" is often used interchangeably with "disability", and thus has the same issues. {Shawn}
  • Situational Limitation — is the most descriptive term for situations where people are temporarily unable to access information (e.g. a noisy environment). I also think it is important to possibly further define "environmental limitations" or "environmental impairments" as a separate term because I think this could help us speak to the man-made barriers that people with and without disabilities are subjected to by lack of appropriate considerations for access and usability. I also agree with Shawn's point that "disability" and "impairment" EOWG telecon often mean the same thing and are used interchangeably.{Jan - 14 February}

References & Background

Moved to Situational Limitations References.