Accessibility Pertains to More than Vision Impairment

Author: Cathy Warren

When we hear about accessibility, many of us who work with websites assume that means making content accessible for people who are blind or have other vision impairments. But it’s more than that. To begin the journey of making our website content more accessible for more people, we need to be aware of the many types of difficulties and other factors that may affect our site visitors.

Did you know?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 4 U.S. adults – 61 million Americans – lives with a disability. The CDC measures and ranks six general types of disability among the U.S. population. Of those six, vision impairment is 5th:

  1. Mobility – Serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs = 13.7%
  2. Cognition – Serious difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions = 10.8%
  3. Independent living – Difficulty doing errands alone = 6.8%
  4. Hearing – Deafness or serious difficulty hearing = 5.9%
  5. Vision – Blindness or serious difficulty seeing = 4.6%
  6. Self-care – Difficulty dressing or bathing = 3.7%

That’s right: There are more people with hearing loss than vision loss who may be trying to use our websites, so videos without captioning or transcripts are a problem.

The most common type of disability, mobility, affects 1 in 7 adults. With age, disability becomes more common, affecting about 2 in 5 adults age 65 and older, as people may experience more than one disability as they grow older.

CDC data also show that disability is more common among women, non-Hispanic American Indians/Alaska Natives, adults with lower income, and adults living in the South.

Types of disabilities and some of the associated problems our site visitors may experience include:

  • Autism – According to the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, people with autism often have behaviors, communication patterns, and desires that are different from people who are not on the autism spectrum. For example, many people with autism have heightened sensory awareness and can be distracted by web pages that are too cluttered with elements. People with autism also tend to prefer consistency and dependability, including web pages with a predictable layout and navigation.
  • Blindness – People who cannot see at all rely on assistive technologies such as screen readers to perceive and interpret web content. If page content is not structured with H tags to distinguish headings or if images aren’t labeled with alt text, for example, a screen reader can’t interpret the content correctly.
  • Colorblindness – The two most common types of color blindness are difficulty distinguishing between red and green, and distinguishing between blue and yellow. People with colorblindness are less sensitive to colors on either end of the spectrum. Web pages that use color as the only differentiator for labels, headings, links and other elements are not perceivable for people who are colorblind because they can’t see the difference in colors.
  • Dementia, senility or Alzheimer’s disease – According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), cognitive and learning disabilities impact how people process information. For example, they can affect people’s perception, memory, language, attention, problem solving, and comprehension. Presenting web content in a variety of ways is helpful, including making sure text is clear and concise, and providing audio and video alternatives to text (and vice versa).
  • Dyslexia or other learning impairment – The Mayo Clinic defines dyslexia as a “learning disorder that involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words (decoding).” It is a problem with language, not vision. For example, people with dyslexia have difficulty interpreting text in serif fonts, small point sizes and lengthy paragraphs.
  • Hearing loss – More and more websites incorporate video, but often they don’t have captioning or a transcript. This makes it difficult or impossible for someone with hearing loss to understand.
  • Hearing sensitivity, light sensitivity and motion sensitivity – Videos set to auto play are an issue for people with a variety of difficulties such as epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They can trigger seizures, migraines or other problems. Videos should never be set to auto play; site visitors should be allowed to choose when to play them and control the settings for volume and contrast.
  • Low vision – According to the W3C, low vision refers to visual impairments other than blindness. People with low vision may have difficulty perceiving differences in color contrast and brightness, font legibility and readability, text tracking (wrapping, scrolling), among other problems.
  • Paralysis/loss of mobility – This includes people who have difficulty or inability to use their hands, including tremors, muscle slowness or loss of fine muscle control. They may rely on assistive technologies such as screen readers or audio players rather than a mouse or keyboard (or they may use a specialized keyboard or overlay). Certain web content such as complex menus, slideshows, pop-ups, and items that require a mouse-over action may be inaccessible to these visitors.

By the Numbers

~25% of U.S. adults self-identify as disabled

~2.4m have Alzheimer’s disease, senility or dementia

~7.6m Americans experience difficulty hearing, including 1.1m whose difficulty is severe

~8% of males from northern European descent are colorblind

~2.9m Americans have low vision, are blind or unable to see

~40 million American adults are dyslexic

3 Modes of Disability

Many people think of disabilities as being permanent, but that’s not true. There are actually three modes of disability:

  • Permanent – A complete disability that is constant and will not go away, such as blindness or deafness. A blind person might need a screen reader or audio player to access web content; the content must be structured appropriately for the reader or player to interpret it correctly. A deaf person needs videos to have captioning or a transcript.
  • Temporary – A physical or mental disability that hinders your ability to do things for a short period, such as a broken wrist or migraine. Someone with a broken wrist might not be able to use the mouse and keyboard the way they usually would. Someone experiencing a migraine might not be able to tolerate viewing a video that automatically plays upon display.
  • Conditional or Situational – When you are not able to do things because of your situation, such as having a slow Internet connection or limited or expensive bandwidth that prevents you from downloading or opening a large file.

Degree of Difficulty

When we consider the general types and different modes of disability – including temporary and situational disabilities – it’s possible that at any given time only about 21% of our site visitors have no difficulty at all:

16% have minimal difficulties

37% have mild difficulties

25% have severe difficulties

More than Disability

  • Accessibility pertains to more than just people with a disability, however. It includes:
  • People with low literacy
  • People whose first language is not English
  • People using mobile devices like tablets, phones and wearables
  • People using assistive technologies such as Alexa, Siri and other smart speakers that are unrelated to any disability

Why is Accessibility Important?

At some point in their lives, most people will either have a disability or know someone who does. Making web content accessible is the right thing to do.

Legal pressure is building to ensure that more people have web access as a civil right. Think about how much time you spend online doing simple tasks like checking the news or shopping; people with disabilities should have the same opportunities. In 2017, the Winn-Dixie case set the precedent that if a website can be a gateway to a brick and mortar location, it is subject to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 508 compliance. Since then, hundreds of organizations have had legal action taken against them.

But there are tangible benefits as well, including improved search engine optimization (SEO), that make web sites easier to use for any visitor.

The bottom line: Web accessibility doesn’t just benefit people with disabilities, it improves site usability for everyone.

Each disability, difficulty or situation affects the way site visitors interact with and interpret web content differently. In a future post, we’ll outline specific ways to make our sites more accessible

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