Who Does Digital Accessibility Help? The Diversity of Web Users and the Digital Barriers They Face

03/01/2021

By Lily Clark

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03/01/2021

By Lily Clark

If you’ve heard of digital accessibility, you might know that incorporating it into your business will provide essential web access and support to users who are blind. However, it’s important to recognize all of the individuals who benefit from digital accessibility. 

Web users are diverse in every regard — they are a mixture of races, cultures, interests, and beyond. It’s only natural that digital accessibility supports a diverse range of web users, too. If we can recognize the broad scope and variety of people who benefit from digital accessibility, we’ll have a much better understanding of why it’s essential that businesses include it. 

 

So…who does benefit from digital accessibility, exactly? (Trick question — stay tuned). 

Impairments vs. Disabilities

Digital accessibility offers essential support to both users who have impairments and users who have disabilities. You might be surprised to learn that they’re not the same thing, and they’re not always interchangeable terms, either. 

An impairment is when a person has a loss of structure or function in some part of their body.

A disability is when a person’s lack of ability hinders or prevents them from performing a task, creating a limitation in comparison to others. 

It may seem like a very slight differentiation, at first. Oftentimes, a disability is directly linked to an impairment, too — but an impairment can also be a separate condition. Digital accessibility helps people who have a wide variety of impairments and disabilities, and even supports people who wouldn’t consider themselves disabled at all. 

Addressing the distinction between impairments and disabilities allows us to understand impairments as parts of a broader spectrum, instead of just addressing extremes. 

Here’s an example: A person who experiences vision problems would have a loss of sight, which is an impairment — but they may see well enough that they don’t consider themself to be disabled. In regards to digital accessibility, even though that person may not be fully blind, they could still benefit from a website that has various digital accessibility options, such as a higher color contrast or a screen magnifier. 

On the other hand, an inability to see may cause a severe limitation for that person, which would be considered a disability. A person with a disability would also benefit from digital accessibility options throughout a website, such as proper headings for their screen reader and tab navigation capabilities (we’ll go over different accessibility barriers later on). 

Let’s change our example and consider web users who are deaf, instead. Digital accessibility is just as important for any person who falls on the auditory spectrum as well — whether they’re partially deaf, can’t hear certain pitches, or are fully deaf. Users who have any sort of hearing loss would benefit from closed captions on videos, for example, even if they still have partial hearing. 

The main takeaway: digital accessibility doesn’t solely help people who experience the extremes — it helps all people across the entire spectrum of ability. 

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**Please note: Some people tend to use the words “impairment” and “disability” interchangeably — but not everyone does, especially since they have different technical meanings. You should always use the term that a person is most comfortable with when referencing someone directly.**

Degrees of Impairment

The severity of an impairment and/or the period of time in which a person experiences their impairment also affects a web user’s ability to navigate and engage with a website. Since web users are so diverse, understanding this distinction is another way to showcase just how far reaching digital accessibility is. 

The standard degrees of impairment are: 

Either from birth or injury, a permanent impairment or disability won’t go away over time. Permanent impairments can be broken down into two further types of impairments, depending on how much a single function has been affected or compromised. 

  • Total – Total impairments correspond to a complete loss of function in a certain part of the body. Permanent and total impairments / disabilities make the individual unable to complete certain tasks without some sort of assistance. Since it is lifelong, individuals with a permanent and total impairment must learn different — and often more complex and time consuming — ways to complete various tasks and activities. Examples of permanent impairments / disabilities include:
    • Being born completely deaf
    • Having a spinal injury that leaves you unable to move your legs
  • Partial – A disability or impairment that lessens certain functions but does not stop/make a function go away completely. A permanent and partial impairment or disability results in a lessened ability to complete certain tasks — or at the very least, increases the difficulty of completing those tasks. Partial impairments do not always make tasks impossible, although they typically make the task more difficult. Examples of partial impairments / disabilities include: 
    • Blindness in one eye
    • Being born with dyslexia

When certain functions do not work correctly for a certain period of time, impairments would be considered either temporary or episodic. After that period, those movements or capabilities will return. Temporary or episodic impairments have a very broad range, and include both less severe impairments and episodic disabilities — Temporary impairments will heal or go away after a length of time, but episodic impairments are typically lifelong. It is encouraged to refrain from calling a temporary limitation or impairment a “temporary disability,” as it can be considered disingenuous, insulting, or rude to others who experience more permanent conditions.

Examples of temporary or episodic impairments / disabilities include:

  • Breaking your dominant hand (temporary)
  • Having seizures in response to certain stimuli (episodic)

While not considered a disability, any individual can experience situational limitations. Situational limitations are when a person is unable to interact in certain ways due to their surroundings, but they do not have a particular disability or impairment to hinder that action. Including web users with situational limitations when considering digital accessibility will help ensure that you are reaching the widest audience possible. 

Examples of situational limitations include:

  • Being in a room that’s too loud to hear a video, so a person uses the video’s closed captions.
  • Trying to use a phone in bright sunlight but the screen is too dark to see, so a person adjusts their screen’s color contrast and brightness in order to see the page.

Types of Impairments & Individual Conditions

It might sound slightly repetitive when we say, again, that web users are diverse — but they are! And since learning just how diverse your users are will benefit both your company and your site visitors themselves, it’s necessary to highlight the diverse types of impairments your web users have, too. Each type of impairment boasts a multitude of web users who rely on digital accessibility to receive the information they need. 

Impairments are sorted into various categories dependent on what system or function of the body has been impaired.

Each specific condition falls within one of the following types of impairments

Visual impairments include focusing issues, low vision, color blindness, complete blindness, etc. 

Auditory impairments include low hearing, being unable to hear certain frequencies, complete deafness, etc. 

Speech impairments include stuttering, muscle weakness that makes it difficult to produce speech (dysarthria), muteness, etc. 

Cognitive / Intellectual / Learning impairments include seizures, autism, ADHD, down syndrome, dyslexia, etc. 

Mobility impairments include tremors, losing a limb, muscular dystrophy, restrictions due to cerebral palsy, paraplegia, quadriplegia, etc. 

Keep in mind that impairments and disabilities are not only part of a spectrum, but that some impairments and disabilities can also be invisible — just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. 

When applied to digital accessibility: 

Just because you can’t see who your site visitors are doesn’t mean they aren’t there trying to engage with your content!

Types of Assistive Technology Devices Used for Digital Spaces

Some web users who have an impairment or disability use assistive technology to help them access digital content. Assistive technology refers to any equipment, whether a physical tool or software, that a person can use to assist them in the completion of a task. Just like a wheelchair will help a person who has a mobility problem, there are specific kinds of assistive technology to help web users access digital content. 

Here are a few examples of digital assistive tech and what they’re used for: 

One of the more commonly known assistive technology devices for using a computer. They read content off of a screen to the user, which is particularly useful for people who have vision impairments.

Examples of screen readers include: 

  • Jaws
  • NVDA
  • VoiceOver

Speech recognition software is software that recognizes a person’s speech and turns it into text. Individuals use them to speak commands to the device, and the device then completes the actions on a computer for them, such as clicking a button or filling out a form. They are particularly useful for people who have mobility issues and are unable to use a traditional keyboard or mouse.

Examples of speech recognition software includes: 

  • Dragon Naturally Speaking
  • Windows Speech Recognition

A Braille translation display will interpret the text on a computer screen and systematically display it in Braille on a tactile, refreshable keyboard. Users who are both blind and deaf — and are subsequently unable to use screen readers — use Braille translation displays. 

Examples of Braille translation displays include:

  • Duxbury Braille Translator
  • BrailleMaster

Magnifying softwares or programs allow users to zoom the screen in or out in order to better see information on a computer screen. They are particularly useful for individuals with vision impairments. 

Examples of magnifiers include: 

  • Magnifying Glass Pro
  • Zoomtext
  • iMax for Mac

There are various types of alternative input devices, but they all share the same concept: allowing a web user to use some other action besides using a traditional mouse or keyboard to move around a computer screen and give commands. Different input devices rely on actions like blinking, moving a joystick, or a using a specialty keyboard with larger keys. Alternative input devices benefit a wide range of people, especially those with mobility or cognitive impairments. 

Examples of alternative input devices include: 

  • Brando’s Triple Foot Switch
  • Cadan Assistive Technology’s Eye Blink Switch
  • Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller

Closed Captioning, transcripts, and ASL translations aren’t technically an assitive device — but they are essential accessibility components that web users rely on to engage with digital content. The main difference about these audio alternatives in comparison to the assistive tech listed above is that they must be supplied by the site owner, not operated by the users themselves. No matter what kind of assistive technology a person with a hearing impairment may have, if there isn’t text associated with a video, then that person can’t access the information. 

Assistive technology is absolutely crucial in allowing an individual with an impairment to have access to digital content…but using those devices will only get someone so far if the website they’re trying to navigate is inaccessible in the first place. 

Digital accessibility allows assistive technology devices to work correctly. 

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**Please note:  The assistive technology devices that are listed above as examples are solely references to give the reader an idea of what devices are available. Online ADA was not paid to promote those devices and is in no way affiliated with those devices. **

Digital Barriers on Inaccessible Websites

So what types of barriers can inaccessible websites pose to users who have an impairment or disability? And what needs to change in order to fix it? 

Digital accessibility covers a lot of ground, and with that there’s bound to be questions. Below are five examples — broken down into the five categories of impairments — in order to elaborate on what barriers people may face and what accessibility components a website needs to include in order to address them. 

  • Impairment: This person is colorblind. She has trouble seeing the difference between blue and green particularly, although other colors are challenging too.
  • Barrier: Sometimes websites like to use several colors in the same color scheme, which might look good but doesn’t offer much contrast for text, images, and backgrounds. If the words and backgrounds don’t have good enough contrast, this person will just see a blank area. She even misses some important prompts and actions, like buttons telling her what to click or do next, because she simply can’t see them. Websites are getting better about having good color contrast…but individual images, graphs, and PDFs on a website? Not so much.
  • What to include in a website: It’s always best to follow the widely accepted WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) standard — the rules are specific and go into exact detail of how to make a website accessible. For this person specifically though, make sure that your website meets minimum WCAG contrast requirements, which is usually a 4:5:1 ratio. Allowing site visitors to change the contrast to low or high is also good, and offering a dark mode is recommended. Including proper color contrast in all components of your business is important, even your creative content like graphs and PDFs. 
  • Impairment: This person lost his hearing over the years from going to loud concerts. He is barely able to hear and is considered mostly deaf. He uses hearing aids, but they only help him hear louder sounds.
  • Barrier: Although websites have been getting better about this, some of them have videos without closed captioning. This person finds that super frustrating, because that means he won’t be able to fully understand the video. He also really hates it when websites only have a phone number to call for customer support, instead of a form to fill out. He has even more difficulty hearing voices over a phone than he does in person — especially softer, higher pitched voices. Options that are only provided as voice-based interactions are a huge problem.
  • What to include in a website: Offering closed captions on all video content is essential. Consider offering a transcript of the video, as well; just make sure that the transcript itself or a link to the transcript is positioned near the video for people to find. Businesses should make sure that web users or customers have multiple ways to contact them, particularly through both verbal and written means. 
  • Impairment: This person found out they had throat cancer last year and is now unable to talk. On top of that, one of the side effects of their chemo treatment makes them weaker than usual, and they are unable to stay mentally focused for long periods of time. They rely on their spouse for a lot of assistance.
  • Barrier: Similarly to the person who has an auditory impairment above, this person gets frustrated when businesses only offer a phone number to call in order to complete certain transactions or get customer support. If it’s an automated call and they can punch in numbers on the keypad, this person can usually make it through — as long as they can concentrate long enough. Most of the time they feel defeated, especially when they try to complete a simple task and the business asks them to verbally confirm something or talk to a representative. Longer forms also pose a problem, as they can be too exhausting to fill out in one sitting.
  • What to include in a website: Make all forms that a person needs to fill out short and to the point — discard any information or questions that aren’t absolutely essential to what you are trying to achieve. As stated above, you should also ensure that web visitors have multiple ways to contact your business in order to best suit their needs. Including site navigation that is simple and obvious will also help make it clear where users need to go in order to get the information they need, which is great for someone who suffers from extreme fatigue.
  • Impairment: This person has dyslexia and has struggled to read since he was young. He gets frustrated with how long it takes him to read, but he needs to read slowly in order to catch a lot of words. He tries to stay calm, but can sometimes lose his patience. He prefers to listen to audiobooks and watch videos over reading actual text.
  • Barrier: Some websites use a small font size or a font that has little space between the individual letters, which jumbles up the words even easier while he reads. On top of that, he has trouble reading long or complex pages on a website, making reading directions particularly difficult when it’s a longer process. One of his biggest pet peeves is a long list of directions or a long form to fill out — the first, which can be too complex to read, and the second, which can be too hard and time consuming to submit. His dyslexia is bad enough that he’s started using a screen reader at times, even though he can see — the problem is, some websites don’t have proper labels associated with focusable elements for his screen reader to read, so he can miss entire sections of essential content. When that happens, he’s forced to struggle through and try to read it.
  • What to include in a website: Always make your fonts on your website large enough for people to read with ease — and keep your fonts at least size 16pt on the mobile version, particularly. Keep forms short, simple, and to the point. Offering a screen magnifier would be beneficial to make the words even bigger, and consider adding a component to customize the font and letter spacing. Include proper labels on your website too so a screen reader can navigate through it easily. 
  • Impairment: This person has Parkinson’s disease, which affects her ability to move. Her body is stiff, especially in the mornings, and she has tremors in both her hands — but her dominant hand is worse. Because of her stiffness and tremors, she moves more slowly than most people. She also experiences severe fatigue and sometimes gets dizzy or feels like she will fall.
  • Barrier: People may typically be able to navigate a website by using a mouse, but that’s hard for someone with fatigue and tremors like this person. She doesn’t have a specialty mouse to stabilize her tremors yet, so she mostly relies on voice commands and a keyboard with larger buttons to navigate websites. The problem is, she’s noticing a lot of websites aren’t keyboard accessible — when she tries to get to buttons and form fields with the keyboard, not all of them are in the right order. Sometimes they don’t even show up at all. Another big problem she has is when there are time limits on forms — fatigue and tremors cause her to move slowly, so forms that time out only cause more frustration and more unnecessary fatigue.
  • What to include in a website:  It is especially important to make sure your website is tab navigable for people who use a keyboard. Every part of the user interface that can be accessed and operated with a mouse should also be able to be accessed and operated solely using a keyboard. The structure of the website should follow the correct hierarchy so all the content goes in the right order as someone moves down the page. As a rule of thumb, don’t use time limits on any forms. 

The detailed examples above illustrate several problems that web users can encounter when trying to navigate through a website. Of course, there are more than five barriers people can encounter on a website — much more. Always consult the WCAG for detailed recommendations and best practices. 

By incorporating digital accessibility into as many websites as possible, web users will have increased (and hopefully complete) access to all digital content and information regardless of impairment or disability. 

Digital Accessibility is Beneficial for Everyone

At the beginning of this article we asked, “Who exactly benefits from digital accessibility?”

It was a bit of a trick question, because the answer is…everyone.

Accessibility benefits people with: 

  1. Impairments, disabilities, or both
  2. Permanent, total, partial, temporary, or episodic impairments/disabilities
  3. Situational limitations
  4. Visual, auditory, speech, cognitive, or mobility impairments/disabilities
  5. Assistive technology devices (and those without)
  6. No impairment or disability at all

Now, you might be thinking, “…wait. People without an impairment or disability benefit from digital accessibility too?”

And yes, they most definitely do. 

Digital accessibility benefits all web users because it enhances a website’s overall usability. Essentially, that means that by making specific components within your website accessible — such as creating explanatory text for buttons and links or proper hierarchical structure of your menu options and headings — all of your site visitors will have a better, easier, and quicker time gathering information. An accessible and usable website will lower people’s chances of getting frustrated, encountering problems, or being unable to accomplish an essential action like purchasing a product. 

Another reason why digital accessibility is beneficial for everyone is a little simpler: the probability of a person developing some form of impairment increases with age. And while the likelihood increases with age, there are people with disabilities and impairments of every age: the World Bank Organization states that there are roughly 1 billion people in the world who have some form of disability. Odds are, digital accessibility will affect you or someone you know at one point or another in your life. 

If you make necessary accessibility changes to your website, all users will benefit.

How to Become Digitally Accessible

In today’s day and age, everyday life is intertwined with online access — we work, learn, connect, engage, stream, and purchase online. Because of improved access and technology, web users today are more diverse than ever before, too — a trend that will only continue to grow as technology continues to advance. When digital use has become as intertwined with daily life as it is today, the last thing people should have to worry about, struggle to do, or be forced to advocate for is the ability to complete normal, daily tasks. 

Too often, companies emphasize how digital accessibility helps blind users, only to gloss over all of the other individuals who benefit from — and rely on — accessible content. It’s extremely important to recognize how digital accessibility helps blind users, but it’s just as crucial to recognize the very wide and diverse range of people who are unable to access essential content. By understanding the variety of people who rely on accessible content, more businesses will be pushed to recognize them — and their right to equal treatment and access to public information — as essential. Without implementing digital accessibility, unequal access and a lack of inclusion will continue. 

So how do we fix it? 

The responsibility to provide all individuals with equal digital access — and subsequently incorporating digital accessibility into their practices — typically falls upon businesses themselves. To do that, a business must ensure that all parts of its website are carefully scanned and that all problematic elements they find are fixed. 

The best way to make your website accessible is to go through the digital accessibility certification process, which will typically involve both automatic and manual auditing in order to find all of the inaccessible points in a website. While other solutions — particularly ones that rely solely on automated remediation — can find a percentage of accessibility issues, they will never be able to find them all. Manual, human auditing and remediation is the only way to guarantee that your website is accessible, which is what sets the certification process apart. After your website has been scanned and remediated, you will receive a certification of accessibility — giving your web users the essential access they need and cementing your position as a supporter of inclusion, to boot. 

Not only will improving your accessibility make everyone’s experience easier and more efficient — you’ll also be including essential support for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to interact with your website at all. 

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Why trust Online ADA’s certification process?

  • We’re members of the W3C, the organization that wrote the go-to accessibility standards across the globe: the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
  • We’re also members of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP). 
  • We’re a leader in digital accessibility and have years of experience working with companies large and small — all while supporting digital accessibility and advocating for equal access and inclusion for all users. 
  • We not only identify accessibility issues for other companies — we also cheer on, support, and teach affiliated companies about digital accessibility standards and strategies, too.

Learn more about Online ADA’s certification process or book a free strategy call to discuss your accessibility needs and options today. 

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The Author

Lily Clark

Lily Clark