Most Frustrating Digital Accessibility Issues for People with Disabilities

Frustrated man wearing sunglasses and upset over accessibility issues on his smartphone

People with disabilities have a love-hate relationship with digital content. For many, it is the best way to access information. Reading print for some people with disabilities is difficult or impossible, and for some turning pages is difficult. For many people who are blind, Braille is their preferred medium. And we all agree, we like having information at our fingertips through our smartphones. Having content available digitally means it’s portable and easy to access for everyone, but only if it is usable with assistive technology. And that isn’t always the case. For people who use assistive technology (AT) like screen readers or Braille displays to read digital content, that content must be encoded to work with their AT. 

In a New York Times article, blind disability rights advocate Janni Lehrer-Stein explained her frustration over a lack of accessibility, “…access [to Facebook] during those first years remained very limited. I could hear only that my newsfeed contained “photos.” There was no way for me to understand what the pictures were about. My time on Facebook was both enticing and frustrating. I wanted to understand and appreciate everything that my Facebook friends shared, but I couldn’t.” 

Lack of accessibility is excluding and frustrating. According to people with disabilities, the following are some of the most frustrating issues and barriers that people with disabilities face when dealing with digital content on websites, within mobile apps, via email, and in the workplace.


Lack of Closed Captioning

Videos without captioning are one of the most common issues. If you’ve ever tried to watch a video on social media with your phone muted but without captioning, you know this frustration. People who are deaf or hard of hearing will get no value from an uncaptioned video. Beware of auto-captioning functions such as those available on YouTube. They provide a good starting place using speech-to-text but some editing is usually necessary to ensure accuracy, particularly for unfamiliar words or transcribing speech from people who speak with an accent or pronounce words differently. Check for punctuation and capitalization errors as well. 

In an article in the Guardian, a person who is deaf shared, “I find my deafness incredibly isolating at times,” says DG. “You miss out on jokes on social media videos, viral clips don’t mean anything, and you can’t follow the latest news that’s being live-tweeted. Subtitles being universal would change that massively.”


Untagged PDFs

Many organizations present important information to customers as PDFs. Documents that impact a person’s physical and financial well-being, such as bank statements, invoices, explanations of benefits, physician directories, and more are shared as PDFs because they are easily updated and formatting is easily maintained. However, without proper digital coding (called “tagging” when applied to PDFs), people with disabilities who use assistive technology cannot access the information. Without any tags, a person using assistive technology would hear “empty document” or “graphic” on a page where their monthly bank statement should be. Another common problem is incorrectly tagged PDFs. Documents like physician directories are often formatted in columns, and if the reading order is not set correctly, assistive technology would read the text straight across the page–every top line– instead of down one column at a time. 

According to a recent survey by Equidox in cooperation with the National Foundation of the Blind, 67% of PDFs are either partially or entirely inaccessible due to no tagging or incorrect tagging. More than half of the participants struggled to read inaccessible bank statements, utilities and other billing statements, and insurance documents in PDF format. With further research, Equidox also discovered that half of all insurance physician directories are inaccessible, making it difficult for people with disabilities to find in-network care. When describing the impact that inaccessible PDFs can have, one user explains, “Many PDF documents are forms I cannot fill out like my sighted peers can… They are missing the ability for me to do so with a screen reader. This extends to divorce documents in Iowa. Yes, I had to let my divorce default to my husband due to accessibility of PDF files.”


Lack of alt-text 

Imagine going through your social media feed and instead of cute cats and pictures of family doing fun things, all you get is “image,” “image,” “image…” with mysterious comments from your friends below. Without alt text, people who are blind or have low vision have no idea what is being shared. In a study of online issues that frustrate blind users, lack of alt text was the number one reported source of frustration. They cannot get information from articles containing charts and graphs without alt text describing the data being shown. Be sure to describe all images on your website, within documents, and on social media so everyone can benefit from the content. Sadly, artificial intelligence has not come far enough to be used to produce alt text. It’s simply not specific or accurate enough. “Having alt-text that says ‘image may contain child’ doesn’t help me participate in the conversation,” said a Facebook user who is blind. 


Lack of Headings

Nearly all documents should have headings. Nobody wants to have to plow through paragraph after paragraph of text with no divisions. Use headings liberally to break up your content and help everyone, including assistive technology users, quickly navigate to the content they need. Just like sighted people skim newspaper headlines and content headings to find what they want to read, assistive technology users set their technology to read only the headings to navigate quickly through webpages and documents. Be sure you use only ONE Heading level one (for your title) and keep the subsequent headings properly nested in outline format. 

Describing how long it would take to learn a new webpage, a blind user in a college study on blind library users said, “[T]he better a site is laid out, if it has proper headings and heading levels, and if everything is labeled well, and it’s laid out logically, it doesn’t take me long at all. I mean I don’t think it’d take me any longer than a typical person. But the more quirks a site has—that’s like improper headings, or like buttons that don’t work very well, or inconsistencies from one page to another …the longer it’ll take.”


Font size, contrast, and choice

Larger font sizes (14-16pt are recommended as minimums) and sans serif fonts are best for nearly everyone. They are more readable for people with low vision and dyslexia, in addition to being easier to read for people reading screens in low light, or outdoors. 

Be sure you are using proper color contrast. Try to avoid light colors on light backgrounds, and dark colors on dark backgrounds. There are a number of free contrast checkers available to help with this. Using both colors and underlining to indicate links in your content is also helpful.  Having the ability to alter the contrast and the zoom is beneficial for some low-vision users. Additionally, it’s helpful to space your lines properly and try not to cram text into tight formats.


No keyboard-only access

Many people with disabilities cannot use a mouse. Blind or low-vision users and people with mobility issues often rely solely on the keyboard to navigate digital content. Check your pages and documents to ensure that everyone can reach all aspects of your content and applications using the keyboard. Beware of keyboard “traps” that will not allow them to tab out of an area without using the mouse, such as popup boxes. 


Other considerations

It’s very difficult for people to focus on the important content on webpages with flashing icons, and moving targets (think of people with mobility issues trying to click moving items). Pages crammed with too much diverse content can be confusing as well as difficult to navigate using assistive technology. Think about how people will be led through your website and clean up your pages so they can more easily find the content they need. In a study of Institutional, Legal and Attitudinal Barriers to the Accessibility of University Digital Libraries, Sushil Oswal says, “Many times, blind screen reader users …are …busy looking for the right link or button among the clutter of numerous other links and buttons, many of which are simply promoting other products by the publisher.”

Animation is attractive and engaging for some people, but for most, it distracts from the content and can be disruptive for assistive technology users. No videos should autoplay. When a person using a screen reader lands on a page with an autoplay video, the video talks over the screen reader. Now the person doesn’t know where they are on the page, and cannot find out because they cannot hear the screen reader over the video. They can’t turn OFF the video unless they are on the right part of the page… If the video is a few minutes long, they will tab away from your content to somewhere that doesn’t talk over their screen reader. Make sure your video player is accessible for assistive technology as well. 

Pop-up menus can cause problems for all users. Often they are caught by ad blockers and stop the forward navigation of users. They can trap assistive technology users who cannot get out of the pop-up, especially if there is an ad blocker running. Avoid these. 

In in 2019, a blind social media user said, “[Using Facebook as a blind person is] a constant feeling of being devalued. It doesn’t matter about the stupid button that I can’t press in that moment. It’s that it keeps happening. … And the message that I keep receiving is that the world just doesn’t value me, and that people really don’t care.” 

Small radio buttons or click boxes can be difficult for people with mobility issues to target with the mouse. Make sure your buttons are large and can be accessed using the keyboard.

Captchas can be a major issue for people with disabilities. Sometimes they cannot be seen by the user, sometimes the sound recording cannot be heard. Make sure you choose an accessible CAPTCHA that will function properly with assistive technology. Inaccessible CAPTCHAs can completely block access to your content for people using assistive technology.  


Accessibility means impressions

These are just a sample of the more common barriers people with disabilities face when using assistive technology to access digital content. Correcting any issues will mean all users can access your content, allowing you to capture as much of your market as possible. Making your digital content accessible, including emails, webpages, online documents, and social media, means more impressions, more clicks, and more business. Additionally, people with temporary disabilities will benefit from your content as well. 

Now that Facebook has prioritized digital accessibility by adding technology like facial recognition, Janni Lehrer-Stein’s experience is very different, “A scroll through my Facebook newsfeed today identifies by name most of the people contained in the photographs. Rather than guessing who the subject of a picture is, I hear the names of my loved ones.”

“While sighted users may take these details for granted, this technology allows me to understand both context and content, the nuances of smiling faces and the brilliance of colorful sunsets, even though I cannot actually view them. Without facial recognition technology, I would never know that my daughter posted candid pictures from her wedding, or that my niece proudly displayed photos of her son’s first steps. I can now enjoy these details that make up the fabric of our lives and participate meaningfully.”

Accessibility means inclusion. It means not losing out on up to 25% of your market share. It means reaching everyone. 


Not sure how to tackle these common barriers, especially within PDFs? Contact us for more information. 



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Tammy Albee

Tammy Albee | Director of Marketing | Equidox Tammy joined Equidox after four years of experience working at the National Federation of the Blind. She firmly maintains that accessibility is about reaching everyone, regardless of ability, and boosting your market share in the process. "Nobody should be barred from accessing information. It's what drives our modern society."

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