Reports indicate that at least 2.1 million of the estimated 54.4 million Americans with disabilities use the Internet. For people with disabilities, accessing and fully experiencing materials presented on the Internet can often be difficult.
According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), “not all…disabilities affect access to the Web, but problems with vision, hearing, dexterity and short-term memory can have a significant impact on a person's ability to use online information and services.” For individuals with motor impairments, low vision or blindness, low hearing or deafness, and/or language or cognitive disabilities, assistive technologies or other accommodations can make it possible to access information online that would otherwise not be available to them.
Step 1: Motor Impairments and Disabilities
Despite the wide range of motor disabilities that might impact an individual's ability to use a computer and access the Internet, there are a few assistive technologies and devices that are frequently employed. Which device is most useful depends on the severity of the individual's disability, as well as their personal preference and what they find most helpful.
- For individuals with limited movement, tools like mouth sticks or headwands may be useful. Mouthsticks tend to be inexpensive as well as being easy to use for most individuals, making them quite common.
- These devices might be used in conjunction with adaptive keyboards, keyboard auto-completion software, or oversized ball mice.
- If movement is even more limited, individuals may chose to use eye-tracking software to allow them to control mouse movement by following the movement of their eyes, or voice recognition software.
Step 2: Low Vision and Blindness
- Individuals with blindness may use screen readers to access information online, but many screen readers are difficult to use since they rely in large part on alternative text (ALT text) and HTML tags to provide descriptions of images and other information.
- Some individuals with low-vision may employ the use of software that allows them to zoom in on portions of a website and/or change font sizes to make them easier to read. Websites have also been created specifically to suit the needs of individuals with low vision (e.g., Accessible Twitter - which is not associated with Twitter, but provides tweets in large-font format).
- For individuals with color blindness, information presented online can be difficult to understand. It is important for web designers to understand the importance of not relying on color to convey meaning, and providing other information cues whenever possible (e.g., using patterns to separate areas of graphs or graphics as well as colors).
Step 3: Low Hearing and Deafness
- Closed captioning for audio content online is helpful not only to individuals with low hearing and deafness, but also individuals accessing materials online. Now available on YouTube, closed captioning is quickly becoming more common but frequently relies on the individual uploading material to add the captions.
Step 4: Language or Cognitive Disabilities
Because of the wide variance among language and cognitive disabilities, it is very difficult to develop websites specifically designed to be easy to use by these groups. Some adaptions can be made to help a portion of individuals with language and cognitive disabilities, but content will always be too complex for some individuals.
- If individuals must complete a series of steps, each step should be labeled to indicate the individual's progress (e.g., "Step 2 of 4").
- Error messages should be written plainly and simply, and when possible designers should include tool tips and interactive help options to guide the user.
- Visual cues should be used to highlight portions of text or content that is particularly important. This can help to guide users who may have attention deficit-related disabilities. These may include bulleted lists, headings, indented quotes, etc.
Step 5: General Accessibility
- The online tool WAVE can be used to evaluate the level of accessibility of a website.
- WebAIM features an online tool to show users how dyslexic individuals might view material presented online. The tool also provides suggestions for how to improve web designs to make them more accessible.
- World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) guidelines are available online. These include web design guidelines to help make sites as accessible as possible.
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