Barriers to Independent Living: Digital Accessibility

Published January 26, 2022

We live in a digital world. With assistive tech like the first Braille stopwatch and useful apps that help guide blind and visually impaired people, technology has proven to be a great unifier. But even in the digital age, digital designs also create significant barriers for many people with disabilities. Digital accessibility is the process of making digital products like the internet, mobile apps, and other tools accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, we’re not quite living in a digitally accessible world just yet.

As of 2021, more than half of the globe was an active internet user. A 2018 United States census revealed that of all households, 92% had at least one type of computer. But statistics also show important disparities. People with disabilities are less likely to own computers, laptops, or mobile devices than non-disabled people. Only a quarter of people with disabilities have high-speed internet at home compared to almost half for those who report no disability. Plus, hard-to-use mobile apps and websites that don’t meet ADA standards make gathering information difficult for many. Inaccessible designs affect employment, social interactions, societal inclusion, and access to information everyone should be able to maintain. Let’s discuss some of the areas in digital accessibility that could be improved.

The internet problem

The internet has come a long way since its inception in the early 1960s. Today many people use the web on a daily basis to work, play, socialize, shop, and facilitate other activities once only possible in person. But not everyone has access to the many benefits of the internet. In fact, about 15% of the world’s population who is disabled doesn’t experience the best the internet has to offer. Furthermore, for particular populations like the vision impaired, 70 percent of websites in certain industries are totally inaccessible.

Some inequities on the web include complicated navigation links, missing or inaccurate alt text that helps blind or visually impaired internet users, and even simple features like gifs that can be problematic for those who experience epileptic seizures.

Fortunately, years of disability activism have helped make digital accessibility a legal requirement according to the ADA and Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Currently, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the most referenced on websites. However, many websites fail to meet WCAG standards. Over the years at least ten major companies including Netflix, Amazon, and Nike were sued over website accessibility.

Ironically though, earlier forms of the internet were created with accessibility at the forefront of design. Named one of the “fathers of the internet,” scientist with both a hearing impairment and color blindness Vinton Cerf, shared his view on the state of internet accessibility:

It’s a crime that the most versatile device on the planet—the computer—has not adapted well to people who need help. Web developers aren’t typically trained to think about disabled populations, but they should be.

Cerf explains that his original internet designs were created to be equalizers for everyone regardless of their disability. But over time, accessibility became less of a priority for designers in place of sleeker, more simplified design styles.

Inaccessible apps

Over a decade after the release of the first iPhone, many apps are still failing to meet the needs of disabled users. In fact, a recent study by Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RiDC) found that one in four disabled people with apps on their phones have difficulties accessing or managing them. Of this group, 44% opt to uninstall those applications altogether.

While it is true that mobile devices are more accessible than ever before, it is a misconception that mobile device accessibility features make mobile apps more accessible as well.

The CEO of RiDC makes an important distinction between the two:

Despite increased accessibility features on mobile devices, apps do not always integrate with these functions, so it can be a challenge to find an app that will adequately meet differing needs.

App users with disabilities are given limited options when it comes to accessibly-designed apps. Mobile application issues vary in their oversights, often excluding necessary features like voice-to-text which is helpful for people with learning disabilities, and metadata. A far-reaching Washington University analysis found that over 25% of all mobile applications fail to provide metadata, making their service inaccessible for those using screen readers.

The future of digital accessibility

The disability community is very diverse, from those with visual impairments, neurological conditions, learning disabilities, and motor limitations. This means that the future of accessible digital design is also varied, as there are many features so many users can benefit from. Luckily, it seems designers are beginning to better meet the needs of their disabled users. For example, Google’s Android Accessibility Suite continues to expand its assistive features. The same is true for giant tech brands like Apple and Microsoft as they respond to the growing demand for computer and mobile phone features that specifically aid disabled people.

Apps made especially for disabled people are filling the gaps many current mobile apps are still working to meet. For example, apps like Aira, a visual interpreting device, help visually impaired users accommodate their surroundings. These supplemental apps are a useful medium as tech designs work to be more accessible. Still, disability activists are working for a new normal: Universal design.

Universal design or usable design represents an inventive approach to digital designs much like earlier internet designs that build accessibility into the foundation of a product. Universal designs consider an array of users, including users with varying disabilities so that the end result is easy to use for everyone. Products made from this approach are meant to minimize the need for assistive tech, or supplemental apps, but they also would be compatible with other designs if need be. As far as technology has come now, such a shift in how we think of digital design isn’t far-fetched. Digital accessibility may soon become the default, and finally, users with disabilities will not be left out of innovative designs.

AccessibilityPlus 2022 is proud of our role in promoting accessibility and equal access while recognizing there is much work to be done. As we welcome a new year in 2022, we have opened registration for AccessibilityPlus 2022, which will feature monthly events dedicated to promoting actionable solutions in implementing accessibility initiatives. Registration is limited. For more information about the conference, speakers, and topics, please visit our AccessibilityPlus Event Calendar.

Registration for our third annual event, Before You Spend Another Penny: Bake Accessibility into Your Procurement Process, is now available at no cost for viewers for a limited time.