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, but paper Braille can be cumbersome and bulky. And we would all agree that we like having information at our fingertips through our smartphone. Digital content is portable and easy to access for everyone, provided it’s usable with assistive technology. But accessibility issues often get in the way of all that digital content that is so convenient for most of us.
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 news feed 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, these are some of the most frustrating barriers they face when dealing with digital content on websites, within mobile apps, via email, and in the workplace.
Lack of Closed Captioning
Lack of video captioning is one of the most common accessibility issues. If you’ve ever tried to watch a video on social media with your phone muted… 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 do a good job with the speech-to-text, but some editing is usually necessary to ensure accuracy. This is particularly true for unfamiliar words and transcribing speech from people with an accent or who pronounce words differently.
In an article in the Guardian, a deaf person 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.”
Lack of alt-text
Imagine viewing your social media feed not seeing images of cute cats and pictures of family. Imagine 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 biggest source frustration. Charts and graphs lacking alt text provide zero usable information to someone using assistive technology.
Be sure to describe all images on your website, within documents, and on social media. 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 blind Facebook user.
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, navigate to the content they need. Just like sighted people skim newspaper headlines to find what they want to read, assistive technology users navigate content by setting their technology to read only the headings. 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
Accessibility issues are not limited to people with a complete lack of mobility, vision or hearing. They apply to people with partial or temporary disabilities as well. Larger font sizes (14-16pt are recommended as minimums) and sans serif fonts are best for nearly everyone. They are also more readable for people with low vision and dyslexia, as well as 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, 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. Being stuck with no way to move forward or backward in the process of obtaining information or conducting business digitally is one of the most frustrating accessibility issues faced by people with disabilities.
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 lead 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. Ad blockers catch them 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 Slate.com 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 your buttons large and accessible using the keyboard.
Captchas can cause major accessibility issues for people with disabilities. Sometimes they cannot be seen by the user, sometimes the sound recording cannot be heard. Avoid them. They 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 your digital content. Correcting any issues will mean all users can access your content, making sure you are capturing 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 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 in a meaningful way.”
Accessibility means inclusion. It means not losing out on up to 20% of your market share. It means reaching everyone.
Not sure how to tackle these common barriers? Contact us for more information.
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Tammy Albee | Content Marketer | Onix Tammy joined Onix after four years 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."