Digital accessibility is the process of making electronic resources accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities. With the current pandemic meaning that more of us are working remotely than ever before, digital accessibility has become an even more significant issue.
In this article, we will explore what digital accessibility is and why it is so important. Hopefully, you will understand how digital accessibility not only benefits people with disabilities but all of us.
Before discussing ‘what is digital accessibility,’ we will take a step back and establish what we mean by accessibility. Essentially, we are talking about the design of environments, products, and services that have no barrier to usability so that all users have equal access to them.
Let’s start with historical legal background on accessibility.
The ball was set rolling with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, leveling up the playing field by prohibiting federal agencies and government contractors from discriminating against the disabled, be it through financial assistance or employment.
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA] was passed with requirements that private and public spaces should be accessible to individuals with a disability. This meant that places of public accommodation had to meet and conform with ADA guidelines, such as providing ramps or widening doors for wheelchairs.
An important year for digital accessibility was 1998 when section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was amended, and federal agencies were required to provide equal access to digital content for disabled users.
More recently, initiatives such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) have been put in place to help make digital accessibility a better experience for those with disabilities; we will discuss WCAG shortly.
Difference Between Web vs. Digital Accessibility
Web accessibility and digital accessibility are often used interchangeably, but the two terms have different meanings.
What is Web Accessibility?
Web accessibility involves making everything online – websites, apps, documents – accessible. It can be defined as a way to ensure that the web is accessible to people with disabilities, be it auditory, cognitive, visual, or otherwise.
The World Wide Web Consortium created the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) that set out guidelines that have been widely adopted globally to ensure that best practices are in place to make the web accessible to all individuals. This set of recommendations, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), are regularly updated as new ideas come into play and technology changes.
WCAG 2, published in 2008, outlined four principles that, if followed, would ensure that online content would be accessible for all. Known as POUR, it is an acronym for perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Following the guidelines laid out by WCAG ensures that organizations are compliant with Section 508 and ADA requirements.
Digital Accessibility Defined
In contrast, digital accessibility is broader and encompasses accessible web content but also all electronics, including hardware and non-web products such as computers, kiosks, mobile apps, software, etc.
This requires designing digital products and services to be accessible to as wide a range of users as possible. If this is not feasible, then assistive technology should be able to bridge the gap.
Assistive technology helps give individuals with disabilities the ability to increase their communication, hearing, mobility, or vision capabilities using specifically designed tools and software. Assistive technology includes screen readers, screen magnifiers, speech recognition software oversize joysticks and mice, and sip and puff [SNP] devices controlled by exhaling and inhaling through a straw to send signals to a digital device.
There is a wide range of considerations to be thought about when designing digital or electronic items that can be of use to all people; a couple of examples might be:
The digital accessibility considerations for a kiosk could be if an individual can’t see the screen, are they able to access the information through a screen reader? And if they are using a screen-reader, are they offered the same amount of privacy as other users?
Web design is a significant consideration when it comes to people with disabilities using it. Many site owners understand that website images should use ‘alt text’ to provide a text alternative to be accessible to visually impaired people or even those who are having trouble loading the image on their screen. It is also essential that all website elements be activated, controlled, and reached by both mouse and keyboard.
Other best practices include providing video files that are captioned and the ability to turn off animations that can affect individuals susceptible to seizures.
What Is The Importance of Digital Accessibility?
If accessibility is not accounted for, people are left out of the digital world. There are many other compelling reasons to embrace accessibility, such as improving user experience (UX), compliance with the law, and increasing revenue opportunity but including everyone in the digital experience is by far the most important reason.
With the understanding that the internet and everything else in the digital world should be available to all, let’s look at some other reasons why accessibility is of consequence.
Even for individuals who aren’t disabled digital accessibility has a wide range of benefits; for instance, if we are watching videos in a crowded and noisy place, we can use closed captions to understand the information. An English language student would also likely benefit from the same closed captions.
By implementing best practices for accessible web design, you can reach a wider audience with your business. The American Institutes for Research estimates that Americans of working-age with disabilities have a yearly disposable income of around $490 billion. Optimizing your website for accessibility can also boost your position in the search results as Google rewards those sites that offer a good user experience.
By ensuring that your digital content is ADA compliant, you could be saving yourself legal fees. If web users find your site non-compliant, preventing them from accessing your digital content, they can file a lawsuit against you.
Who is affected?
Digital accessibility positively impacts people with all types of disabilities, including:
- motor skills impairments
- visual impairments
- cognitive impairments
- hearing impairments
- those susceptible to seizures
With new technologies changing the way we spend our time at work and in leisure, it is crucial that we set our standards high so that all people get the same equal opportunities in both the physical and digital world. Organizations and businesses need to be proactive in designing electronic devices, tools, and digital media that is all-inclusive to every user.