Accessibility 101

Learn the basics on various disabilities and how people use assistive technology!

Accessibility is first and foremost human centered. Digital accessibility is about making things for everyone with the idea to start from a holistic, universal design perspective and think about making things performant, usable, accessible and available to anyone.

Digital accessibility is making web and app experiences available to everyone.

It's about making stuff work with different features and technologies that people might be using.

Our goal is to make digital experiences that people actually want to use, are able to use comfortably and with confidence, will come back for more, and share with their friends, family, and colleagues.

With this mindset, it's helpful to think about disability as not being condition, necessarily, but more of a social model about how people interact with things:

  • How people might interact physically with the world around them
  • How people perceive things
  • How they interact with technology

The other part to consider when thinking about accessibility is that barriers are not caused by disability but rather as a result of the environment. The web is accessible by default. It's really on us as people who are the makers and creators of digital experiences to not create those barriers in the first place.

Disability is a social model of how people interact with the world.

Disability estimates

For some stats, if you're a numbers person, the number of people that are estimated to have disabilities are anywhere between "1 in 4" and "1 in 7" (depending on the source.) The statistic of "1 in 4" is for the US (United States) for adults, as cited by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control).

The World Bank and Canadian government statistics and others from around the world are closer to "1 in 7", but it really depends on who you ask, and what they consider as disability.

Disability is difficult to measure

Statistics on disabilities can vary for a variety of reasons. A disability might be permanent, temporary, it might happen once in awhile. It might be caused by different factors such as the environment, illness, stress, chronic illnesses or chronic conditions, or an injury.

Disabilities are not binary; there may not necessarily be an "on" or "off" state for any one disability. Symptoms might be different day to day, assistive technology may not be required all the time, and everyone's experience and self-identification is also unique.

For example, take two people who have the same diagnosis which results in something that might be considered a disability. One person might consider themselves disabled, the other person might not. Depending on who they are, their day-to-day activities and tasks, the diagnosis might affect their lives quite differently.

Types of disability

Typically, the most common types of disabilities fall into a few categories:

  • Dexterity and mobility, how you move and interact with the world around you from a technology perspective, how you interact with devices
  • Vision
  • Hearing
  • Speech, which is becoming more important as we have more devices that are speech-activated
  • Seizure and vestibular, examples include frontal lobe seizures, motion sickness or disorientation
  • Cognitive and neurological, including everything from learning disabilities like dyslexia to ADHD, the autism spectrum; anything which impacts how you perceive and process information
  • Any combination of these

Let's review some specific examples of these for more context.

Dexterity and mobility

Issues with dexterity and mobility may be caused by tremors, paralysis, missing limbs, muscular issues, pain, or any other condition that affects how people move or interact with the world around them. These often lead to difficulties using input devices, such as a mouse or trackpad, and interacting with user interfaces.

Examples include but are not limited to Paraplegia or quadriplegia, a state of paralysis of the limbs, due to spinal cord injuries, Cerebral palsy, an injury to the brain resulting in decreased muscle control, or Parkinson's disease, a disorder of the central nervous system that causes uncontrollable tremors.

Vision

Vision disability is one that can be quite variable. Some people who identify as having a vision disability don't have any vision, while most have some form of vision; they might have partial vision in one eye or part of an eye, or perhaps vague shapes of objects.

There's also disabilities like photosensitivity where your vision is okay, but it might be difficult to look at certain colors or certain combinations.

This also include color blindness where some people can't see certain colors which impacts how they can perceive information visually.

Hearing

Hearing disabilities are also variable. Some people who identify as having a hearing disability have no hearing while most have some hearing. It might be in one ear or the other, it might be certain frequencies or volumes, it might be direction and source-related. That's also just very variable.

The word, deaf, usually refers to an individual with very little or no functional hearing and who often uses sign language to communicate.

The term Hard of Hearing refers to an individual who has a mild-to-moderate hearing loss who may communicate through sign language, spoken language, or both.

Speech

For speech, some people can't speak at all while others may have issues with speaking or enunciating.

There's also a lot of variables here with accents and language. If you've ever tried to use some sort of speech activation tool that can't understand your accent, it's very frustrating which is itself am accessibility barrier when you're trying to interact with speech recognition technology.

Seizure and vestibular

For people with a Vestibular disorder, which is an issue with parts of the inner ear and brain that help control balance and eye movement, it is a common occurrence to experience feelings of dizziness or Vertigo which may be a result of animated or moving objects on the screen.

There are other folks who are susceptible to seizures which are caused by strobing, flickering, or flashing effects.

With this in mind, it's a good idea to keep animations on the web to a minimum.

Cognitive and neurological

Cognitive and neurological is really anything related to how the human brain takes in information and processes it. Once the information is acquired, how is it processed?

Neurodiversity means that people have a wide variety of needs and preferences when it comes to reading, understanding, interacting, focusing, and information processing.

For example, a person might be able to hear but have an auditory processing disorder that makes spoken language difficult to understand in some circumstances. They may have dyslexia, or other learning disabilities that affect reading. They may have issues with attention, memory, or cognitive load, based on many factors.

There are many different types of cognitive disabilities. Clinical diagnoses of cognitive disabilities including but not limited to:

  • Autism
  • Down Syndrome
  • Dementia/Alzheimer's

Less severe cognitive conditions might include:

  • Attention deficit disorder (ADD)
  • Dyslexia (difficulty reading)
  • Learning disabilities

Assistive Technology

Assistive technology, or "AT" for short, are different types of methods that people with disabilities might use to interact with content on the web. It could be either software or hardware which helps people with disabilities access goods and services online.

Assistive technology could be software built into the operating system, a browser plugin, or third party software which is installed on a computer. And there's a few different really common tools that people use. And most tools sort of behave similarly and we'll talk about that a little bit more.

Assistive technologies help people with disabilities access digital experiences.

Dexterity and mobility tools

People with dexterity and mobility issues often rely on just the keyboard, frequently the keyboard or a sort of modified keyboard is easier to use than a mouse for a lot of people.

There's also technologies like switches and eye tracking tools that let someone manage the mouse or a software keyboard with a separate device. It might be a physical button or it might be eye tracking software installed in the operating system. Different solutions are available which work best for people in various situations.

Speech recognition is another area to consider. There are many different speech recognition products are available enabling people to both dictate and control a computer or browse the web.

And some people may use game controllers as assistive technology. Microsoft released its Adaptive Controller recently that's been designed for gaming, but people can use it in a variety of ways.

  • Keyboard
  • Switch and eye tracking
  • Speech recognition
  • Game controller

Vision tools

For vision, there are many tools available which let people change the contrast, the screen magnification or the text size.

People might use a screen reader, which is a tool that reads both the content and the semantic meaning behind the content. For example, when someone is using a screen reader to read a webpage, they will hear the text read back to them, but they'll also hear other content pieces such as image alternative text, headings, lists, etc.

Transcripts and audio descriptions are very essential for people with vision disabilities, as are audio and haptic cues. If someone is using a device like a phone that has audio output or haptic feedback, this is a primary method of receiving data from the device.

  • High contrast, magnification, and text sizing
  • Screen readers
  • Transcripts and audio descriptions
  • Audio and haptic cues

Hearing tools

People with a hearing disability are going to rely heavily on captions and transcripts when consuming video and audio content. Haptic and visual cues on mobile devices can also be helpful.

  • Captions and transcripts
  • Haptic and visual cues

Seizure and vestibular tools

For people susceptible to seizures and motion issues, there's not quite as many tools, but there are a few things that we can do.

The reduced motion setting in some operating systems can be paired with browsers that allows people to turn off animations. With this, you can make sure to include ways to turn off animations or auto playing videos in pages.

There's also the "reader view" browser setting which strips out superfluous content, such as graphics, sidebar content, and ads (things that might be distracting) making the page easier to read.

  • Reduce motion settings
  • Turning off animations and auto-playing
  • "Reader" browser mode to remove visual distractions

Cognitive and neurological tools

Some of the tools mentioned previously are also quite helpful for people with cognitive issues. Readability tools, captions and transcripts, screen readers, etc. Anything that lets the reader focus on the content that provides a comfortable user experience is going to be helpful for someone with different types of cognitive issues.

  • Readability tools
  • Captions and transcripts
  • Guided access settings
  • Screen readers

Resources:

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