The courts have struggled to regulate digital accessibility since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) signing. In 2018 the U.S. Access Board clarified the mandate for federal agencies and entities that receive federal funding by recommending the adoption of WCAG, but that's about as far as it has gone.
Digital design company Diamond regularly researches and documents the digital accessibility of the country’s most-visited websites. Their most recent report added mobile apps to their research roster.
Diamond surveyed the top free and paid apps available for iOS and Android. They found that 65% of free iOS apps and 75% of free Android apps comply with basic accessibility standards. However, it was a different story altogether for paid apps.
Only 35% of iOS and 29% of Android apps exhibited basic accessibility compliance. The difference is that paid apps likely have fewer users and thus receive less feedback on how to improve accessibility.
In this case, what app developers don’t know can hurt them. With no feedback about users’ accessibility experiences to fall back on, paid app developers must seek ways to inform themselves on common issues users with disabilities might face.
The Diamond report revealed four common failures and oversights that developers should be wary of in-app design.
Being able to switch phone orientations from portrait to landscape easily is crucial for all mobile app users, especially those with disabilities. Individuals who mount their phone on a wheelchair would require app usage in both modes. Additionally, users with mobility issues likely prefer the larger button spaces of landscape mode.
Yet only 28% of iPhone and 25% of Android apps automatically reoriented screens.
Ideally, all apps would switch orientation automatically, and when doing so, the app must have a mechanism that notifies a screen reader of the shift.
Users with disabilities generally have their phones set in the precise accessibility settings needed individually. A genuinely accessible app would transfer users' preferred visual settings to app usage.
For example, if users have their phones set to display larger text fonts, any app they enter should maintain their text preferences. Yet the Diamond report indicated that only 28% of iPhone and 52% of Android apps resize text to suit preferences.
Apple users may have more control over consistent text size in mobile apps. The iOS 15 update came with a new feature that allows users to customize text size for individual apps. But this feature still puts all the work on the user and does not address concerns for Android users.
Alternative text for images
About 82% of free iOS apps and 77% of free Android apps offered alternative text (alt-text) descriptions of the contents of images that facilitate a more equitable user experience for those with vision impairments.
Unfortunately, about 50% of paid iOS and 75% of paid Android apps lacked alt text features. For an app to be truly accessible, it must label images with image descriptions so that visually impaired users can comprehend the content. The same goes for adding captions and descriptions to videos found in-app.
Headings for screen readers
A screen reader is an assistive device used by users with visual impairments to access the internet. It processes and reads information aloud to the user. For screen readers to know what they’re reading, they rely on website and app coding cues.
Some screen elements in mobile apps were mislabeled, according to the report. Specifically, the report found that headings for navigation menus and headers that would indicate a user needs to register or sign in were not correctly labeled.
The report found that 97.5% of free iOS apps and 95% of free Android apps had proper headings for screen readers, while only 50% of paid iOS and 10% of Android apps had accessible headers.
One failing in this category was that “Log In” pages were not distinguishable from “Register” pages. Additionally, headers that asked users to fill out form boxes were not clear. Many apps also lacked options for navigating CAPTCHA requirements accessible to people with disabilities.
Just the beginning
It’s important to understand that this list is not exhaustive. While addressing these fundamental failures is an excellent start to ensuring a baseline of accessibility for all mobile apps, these steps are just a starting point for developers when considering the overall accessibility of mobile apps.
In other words: Start here. But keep going!