The Impact of the Internet
The Internet has had a profound democratizing effect on the world. It connects people, creating a platform for discussions, and sharing knowledge, that is almost universally accessible. The Internet entertains us, keeps us up to date with the news, helps us manage our health and finances, and allows us to form communities and build genuine connections.
We can clearly see the benefits of having access to the Internet — we are living with them every single day. It is also our job to protect and expand access to the Internet and its benefits. Whether for education, banking, shopping, researching, government, streaming videos, booking vacations, keeping in touch with family, or managing appointments: content should be accessible to everyone, regardless of disability.
Accessing the Internet with a Disability
With nearly 300 million users navigating the Web, it’s clear that no two experiences will be alike. For many, using the Internet is an everyday challenge, simply because it is not designed to fit their needs.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 56 million people in the United States are living with a disability. Even in 2018, the digital divide between those who have a disability and those who don’t remains significant.
Research performed in 2016 by the Pew Research Center shows that disabled Americans are three times less likely to go online than those without a disability — that’s 23 percent of a population that isn’t accessing the Internet because something is inhibiting them from doing so.
The study also found that, when compared with those who do not have a disability, disabled adults are roughly 20 percent less likely to subscribe to home broadband Internet and own a traditional computer, a smartphone, or a tablet. Adults who report having a disability are also less likely to have multiple devices that give them Internet access.
Disabled American are less likely to have home broadband, tech devices:
Users with a disability use a desktop or laptop at 61% where as non-disabled users are at 81%. Smartphone use among the disabled is at 58% while non-disabled users are at 80%. Home broadband among the disabled is at 57% while non disabled is at 76%. Tablets are used at a rate among the disabled of 36% and non disabled 54%.
Source: Survey conducted Sept 29-Nov 6, 2016. Pew Research Center.
Regardless of age, disabled Americans are adopting tech at lower rates.
Ages 65+: Desktop/Laptop: Any Disability 50%, No disability 66%, Difference of -16%. Smarthphone: Any disability 32%, No Disability 45%, Difference of 013%. Home Broadband: Any Disability 36%, No Disability 57%, Difference of -21%. Tablet: Any Disability 21%, No Disability 36%, Difference of -15%.
Ages 18-64: Desktop/Laptop:Any Disability 67%, No Disability 84%, Difference of -17%. Smartphone: Any Disability 70%, No Disability 87%, Difference of 17%. Home Broadband: Any Disability 66%, No Disability 80%, Difference of -14%. Tablet: Any Disability 44%, No Disability 57%, Difference of -13%.
Source: Survery conducted Sept. 29- Nov . 6, 2016. Pew Research Center.
Closing the Gap
Improving the web experience for the disabled community is critical in the effort to close the digital gap. Web accessibility (Universal Design) means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so everyone — including those with disabilities — can use them. It means those who are disabled are not excluded from the right and ability to understand, navigate, and contribute to the Web.
Everyone should have the opportunity to interact and communicate using the Internet, from any device. Working towards an inclusive web and user experience helps us achieve that goal.
How Disabilities Affect the Web User Experience
The most commonly discussed disabilities affecting website accessibility are vision and hearing. More than 25 million American adults are visually impaired, which equates to 10 percent of the population. Many need the text size increased, or require screen readers to read text out loud. Nearly 40 million American adults, or 15 percent of the population, report loss of hearing. A recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that hearing loss is the fifth leading cause of disability around the world. Those with a hearing impairment can’t listen to audio or video content, and require both captions and graphics.
These aren’t the only disabilities that make it hard to use the Internet. Here are a few more of the many examples of accessibility challenges that a user might face: add a section on cognitive disabilities as this is an area of disability that is being more heavily focused on in the industry. You can include dyslexia and processing disorders under that larger category.
- Color Blindness — users may not be able to distinguish between text and a background color
- Fine Motor Coordination Challenges — users might not be able to easily click on small navigation items or links. Some may not even be able to use a keyboard or mouse.
- Reading Difficulties — some people have other impairments like dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it hard to read and spell.
Many of these people cannot access all the information a website offers without help, which ranges from relying on braille or screen readers to needing a color-blind-friendly palette. Individuals living with a disability use assistive technologies to enable and assist web browsing, such as:
- Screen Reader Software that uses synthesized speech to read out what is being displayed on the monitor (helpful for users with reading or learning difficulties), or which can read out everything that is happening on the computer (used by visually impaired and low vision users).
- Braille Terminals consist of a refreshable braille display which renders text as Braille characters, and either a mainstream keyboard or a braille keyboard.
- Screen Magnification Software enlarges what is displayed on the computer monitor, making it easier to read for vision impaired users.
- Speech Recognition Software can accept spoken commands to the computer, or turn dictation into grammatically correct text. This is useful for those who have difficulty using a mouse or a keyboard.
- Keyboard Overlays can make typing easier or more accurate for those who have motor control difficulties.
- Subtitles or Sign Language for videos assist those who are deaf.
Why Inclusive Web Design is Good for Business
Disabled users are potential customers who use the web just like anyone else, and it’s important for them to have the ability to access your website. Customers with disabilities are more likely to buy a service or product from a company with an accessible website that removes any barriers that make it hard for them to navigate. Every company should include a commitment to social responsibility as part of their mission.
Simply put: an accessible website provides a more equal user experience, reaches a broader base, and will put a company ahead of competitors whose sites are hard to navigate for customers with disabilities.
Web accessibility is also beneficial for users without disabilities.
- People using mobile phones, computers, smart watches and TVs, any devices with small screens, and different input modes
- Older people with changing abilities due to aging
- People with “temporary disabilities,” such as a broken arm or lost glasses
- People with situational limitations, such as sensitivity to bright light and audio
- People with a slow Internet connection, or those who have limited or expensive bandwidth
Accessibility is Good for Usability and SEO
Usability and accessibility go hand-in-hand, and serve the same purpose: creating a website or app experience that is easy to use for all customers. However, it is important to note that accessibility is not one-dimensional; but rather, it is a variety of factors. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Usability Evaluation Basics are a useful set of guidelines that are perfectly aligned with accessibility and inclusive web design ideas:
- Intuitive Design: users quickly understand the site structure and navigation.
- Ease of Learning: users quickly understand what the site is about and complete the main tasks of the site.
- Efficiency of Use: tasks are fast to complete.
- Memorability: users can easily do the same tasks again when they come back.
- Error Frequency and Severity: do users make errors while navigating the site, and if so, how severe are the errors?
- Subjective Satisfaction: users like your website!
Search engines are blind, so there is some overlapping in SEO and accessibility, such as:
- Semantic HTML
- Headings and page structure
- Image alternative text
- Link anchor text
- Page titles
- Video and audio transcripts
Web Accessibility Legislation
The Internet continues to grow, and its importance in everyday life is more significant than ever. As a result, countries around the world are addressing digital access issues through legislation. Some are using existing human rights or civil rights legislation to protect access to websites for people with disabilities, while other countries, like the U.S., protect access for people with disabilities through the technology procurement process. It is common for nations to support and adopt the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, by referring to the guidelines in their legislation. Failure to comply with these regulations can result in expensive and time-consuming lawsuits.
Fulfilling Our Civic Internet Duty
Everyone benefits from a website being usable. Access to the Internet is a right, not a privilege, and we must continue to fight for those rights the best we can.
We also must understand that 100 percent accessible website is a very rare thing on the Internet. There will always be facets of a page that may not be accessible to every person, no matter how much time and effort is spent overhauling a website.
Web accessibility is ongoing process rather than a one-time project. We must teach programmers and developers to understand how to build a site that is 100 percent usable without being 100 percent accessible — because yes, it can be done.
As a business owner or corporate executive, it’s important to be proactive with web accessibility, by beginning to incorporate it into every level of your planning, training, hierarchy, and culture. As we continue to make these improvements, more and more disabled Americans will have Internet access and user experience they deserve.