Let’s Talk About Digital Accessibility

A refreshable braille display connected to a laptop computer.

After my year in JVC, I wanted another experience of living in community, so I became a live-in assistant at L’Arche Heartland, a community of adults with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities. I ended up working in disability services for over four years, both with L’Arche and elsewhere, and in early 2022, I switched to working in the related field of digital accessibility. I currently work as a digital accessibility consultant, testing websites and apps to make sure they work well for people with disabilities and people who use assistive technologies.

Digital accessibility is a justice issue that often doesn’t get the attention it deserves, so let me introduce you to it.

Assistive Technologies

What type of assistive technologies are people likely to use when interacting with computers?

People who are blind or have low vision are likely to use screen readers. Screen readers read aloud what is on your screen. They will announce links, buttons, and other controls as such so that you can understand what is on the screen and what you can do with it. For example, a screen reader will announce the earlier L’Arche Heartland link as, “L’Arche Heartland, link.” Screen reader users can easily jump between different headings and regions on a page and thereby skim a page or document similar to how sighted users might. Although screen readers are typically used by people with visual disabilities, other people may use or benefit from screen readers as well, such as people with dyslexia. Screen readers can even help people who are deafblind by outputting text to refreshable braille displays instead of announcing content aurally.

Personally, I think everyone who can hear should learn how to use screen readers — they can be really helpful when reading long pages of text. I’m sighted, but I’ve started using screen readers to help me read long articles and edit my own writing. These days, most devices come with a free, built-in screen reader. Android devices come with one called TalkBack, and Apple devices come with one called VoiceOver. Windows comes with a screen reader called Narrator, although Windows users are more likely to use either NVDA or JAWS, and many Linux distributions come with a screen reader called Orca.

Meanwhile, people with limited mobility or dexterity may struggle to use a keyboard, mouse, or touchscreen effectively or even at all, but there are several assistive technologies that can help out. Voice access software can let you control your computers using your voice alone. Switch access can allow you to control your devices just by pressing an easy-to-trigger button or even with your breath (via a sip-and-puff switch). Some people with mobility disabilities may also use eye tracking tools to operate their devices. Additionally, some people with dexterity challenges may be keyboard-only users or may use specially designed adaptive keyboards or mouses.

Accessible Digital Content

A wheelchair is a piece of assistive technology: it helps people with certain types of disabilities do things they otherwise might not be able to do. However, a wheelchair won’t do you much good if a building only has stairs — a building still has to be built accessibly in order for wheelchair users to access it.

Similarly, in the digital world, we need to create documents, websites, and apps accessibly so that people with disabilities and people who use assistive technologies can actually access them. All too often, documents, websites, and apps are not accessible, either blocking access entirely or creating a terrible, inequitable user experience for people with disabilities. An inaccessible website is like a building without stairs: your assistive technology won’t do you much good.

If digital content is not accessible, assistive technologies might not function properly. Screen reader users will not be able to understand and submit forms or to quickly scan a page by jumping between different headings. Keyboard-only users and switch access users might not be able to navigate across a page or to activate certain controls.

If digital content is not accessible, people with disabilities who don’t use assistive technology can also be excluded. People who are colorblind may not be able to understand a chart or graph if it uses color alone to communicate certain information. People with low vision may not be able to read text if there isn’t enough contrast between the foreground text and the background color. (For example, many people struggle to read light gray text against a white background.) People who are deaf or hard of hearing may not be able to understand videos without captions.

So how do you create accessible digital content? That’s a bigger topic than we have time for in this post, but I have included some resources below. There are, however, technical standards that set a baseline for accessible digital content. The primary standard for digital accessibility is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Although WCAG was written specifically for the web, it can be applied to other types of digital content as well. WCAG breaks down into four principles, which form the acronym POUR: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

  1. Perceivable: Web content and interfaces must be presentable in ways that users can perceive through sight, hearing, or touch. For example, you should provide text alternatives for images and audio descriptions for videos so that people with visual disabilities can still perceive that content.
  2. Operable: The components of the user interface must be operable through a variety of input methods. If your website or app only works for mouse users or touchscreen users, that’s bad. You also need to support keyboard-only users and assistive technology users.
  3. Understandable: Users should be able to understand and comprehend content and interfaces. This means that content should be readable, user interfaces should be predictable, and labels need to be clearly provided for forms.
  4. Robust: Content should be compatible with as many different types of devices and assistive technologies as possible.

The current version of WCAG is 2.1, and it has three different levels of conformance: A, AA, and AAA. Level A is the minimum level of conformance, level AA is the de facto standard and norm, and level AAA is the optimal or ideal level of conformance, going “above and beyond” in certain respects. If your website conforms to WCAG 2.1 level AA, people with disabilities and people who use assistive technology will likely be able to use your website without significant issues.

You should think of WCAG 2.1 level AA as a baseline. If your content conforms to this standard, you can consider it accessible, but that doesn’t mean users with disabilities will necessarily have a good experience. It is still a good idea to conduct usability testing with people with disabilities to ensure everyone has a good and equitable experience.

Accessibility as a Justice Issue

Accessibility benefits everyone. If you don’t have a disability, you may still have situational limitations or temporary impairments. For example, hearing individuals may want to use captions if they are at a noisy concert, have an ear infection, or just find that captions help them concentrate. Businesses benefit from accessibility as well. When they practice accessibility, businesses can hire from a larger talent pool, reach a larger audience, and create more innovative products.

But accessibility is particularly essential for people with disabilities. Accessible documents, websites, and apps can allow us all to read the news, learn something new, connect with others, shop, or bank on our own. When digital content is not accessible, people with disabilities will have frustrating, inequitable experiences or just be cut out entirely from these essential activities.

When we fail to practice accessibility, we don’t just exclude people with disabilities — we violate their civil rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not explicitly reference digital accessibility, but courts have ruled that the ADA can apply to websites. For example, in Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, the court held that because Domino’s website was not accessible to a blind customer, it violated the ADA as well as California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act.

Unfortunately, inaccessible digital content is far too common. Many people don’t know much about digital accessibility, or they choose not to prioritize it. WebAIM tested the home pages of the top one million websites and detected “50,829,406 distinct accessibility errors […]—an average of 50.8 errors per page.” See the WebAIM Million report for more details.

Remember that accessibility is only one part of a larger issue: disability justice. Our society excludes and marginalizes people with disabilities in many ways that don’t directly relate to accessibility. For example, adults with disabilities are often excluded from the workplace due to prejudice or ignorance, and disability services are critically underfunded. Digital accessibility is a serious justice concern, but it is only one part of a larger struggle.

What Can We Do?

First, take some time to learn more about digital accessibility. Check out the links below. Search YouTube for videos about assistive technologies. Learn the basics of using a screen reader. Research the principles of digital accessibility.

Second, if you create digital content of any sort, do what you can to make it accessible. When you’re just starting out, it doesn’t need to be perfect — just do what you can. Small changes can make a big impact. If you write Word documents, run the built-in accessibility checker. If you design posters or presentations, make sure there is strong color contrast and all text is readable. If you make videos, add captions and audio description. If you contribute to a website, add alternative text for images and make sure your headings are properly marked up as headings. Digital accessibility can get complicated, but the fundamentals are simple, and they can make a big difference.

Third, if you are part of an organization, make a proactive, ongoing effort to address accessibility. Accessibility can be expensive, hard work — if you wait to address it. If you address accessibility as a proactive program rather than a reactive project, it will go much better. As put by Cordelia McGee-Tubb, accessibility is like a blueberry muffin: you don’t want to add the blueberries after the fact.

Learn More

  • The A11y Project is the best one-stop-shop for accessibility resources that I can offer. The A11y Project features a blog, lists a ton of resources, and has a helpful web accessibility checklist.
  • The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers a free course on accessibility through Coursera: An Introduction to Accessibility and Inclusive Design. I took this course when I was first learning about digital accessibility, and I found it to be interesting and informative.
  • When I was first getting into digital accessibility, I read Laura Kalbag’s book Accessibility for Everyone, and I found it to be an approachable and well-written introduction.
  • As the name implies, the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) is a professional association for accessibility professionals. They offer certification, networking, and educational resources.
  • When I was studying to become a Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies (CPACC), I blogged my way through the certification’s body of knowledge. That blog series, 100 Days of Accessibility, is a good place to start if you are looking for a deeper dive into the fundamentals of accessibility.

Featured Image: A refreshable braille display connected to a laptop computer, by Elizabeth Woolner on Unsplash.

“Let’s Talk About Digital Accessibility” by Cam Coulter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

About Cam Coulter

Cam Coulter is a writer and accessibility nerd, among other things. After their year in JVC, Cam spent two years as a live-in assistant at L'Arche Heartland and one year in China through the Maryknoll China Teachers Program. They currently work as a digital accessibility consultant, and they think incessantly about ethical technology, speculative fiction, and intentional community. Cam also blogs on their personal website, where you can find more information about them: www.camcoulter.com.