Accessibility 101

What is accessibility  

“Accessible” means a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. The person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally and independently as a person without a disability. 

What is Digital Accessibility 

Digital accessibility is the process of making digital products, such as websites, mobile apps, learning management systems, administrative software and other online tools, services accessible to everyone. It is about ensuring all users can access the same information, regardless of the impairments they may have. 
 
Whether a visually impaired person uses a screen reader to access a webpage or someone has a cognitive disability that requires straightforward content and navigation,‌ there‌ ‌are‌ ‌many‌ ‌reasons‌ ‌to‌ ‌make‌ ‌all‌ ‌digital‌ ‌content‌ ‌accessible. 

Accessibility in Higher Education Institutions 

Passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a landmark civil rights law that addresses discrimination based on disability. The ADA represents bipartisan support for disability inclusion in multiple aspects of public life by allowing individuals with disabilities to challenge discrimination in the realms of employment, public services, and places of public use. The overarching goal of the ADA is to promote equal opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for Americans with disabilities. 

With the ADA in effect for almost three decades, there is a growing number of students with disabilities going to college. In fact, estimates show that 19% of undergraduate students and 12% of graduate students have disabilities. Access to higher education is a vital part of the ADA’s broader social promise to promote equal access and full participation in all aspects of US society; especially considering that postsecondary education is often a pre-requisite for many jobs in the U.S. 

Institutions of higher education are responsible for fulfilling the social and legal promise of disability rights laws. The promises entail providing accommodations, creating accessible learning environments, and complying with laws such as the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504). Both the ADA and Section 504 prohibit universities from discriminating against students and staff/faculty with disabilities, and requires institutions to provide accommodations and auxiliary aids, which are devices or services that assist with communication. 

Creating accessible content is the responsibility of all who create or publish digital content. Faculty, staff, content creators, designers, and developers all share a role in accessibility. Efforts should be made to keep accessibility in mind at the start of creating digital content. 

How people with disabilities use computers & technology 

Many disabled people access and use computers in various ways. Some of them use assistive technologies to do so. This depends on their individual needs and preferences. Assistive technology (AT) includes devices, equipment and software. Examples of assistive technology include screen readers, braille displays and screen magnifiers. But they can also include equipment like mobility aids, walkers and wheelchairs. It’s important that web and software developers and designers learn how assistive technologies work. Doing so can help create a better user experience for people using them.

Impact of accessibility 

One in four adults in the U.S. have some type of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That number is only growing. 

If we don’t work diligently to make the web accessible, we risk barring in some capacity a quarter of the adult population from participating in the world online. That means people with disabilities won’t be able to do things like take classes online, easily keep up with friends who move far away, or access important information about their own healthcare. 

Simply put, web accessibility is important because so many people rely on the web to do critical day-to-day life activities. Not to mention, creating an accessible web is the moral and just thing to do! 

How and why accessibility matters 

  • Curb-cut effect: This effect happens when something that was originally designed for a specific disability ends up helping others as well. The term “curb-cut” comes from the cutouts that were added to sidewalks to help people in wheelchairs move between street and sidewalk, which ended up helping everyone. People pushing strollers, customers using shopping carts, and travelers pulling luggage all benefit from curb-cuts to sidewalks. (The Curb Cut Effect: How universal design makes things better for everyone). 

When it comes to digital engagement, the curb cut effect can be seen in multiple ways: 

  • Captions help many groups of people participate in and enjoy digital experiences. For example, in the United Kingdom, 80% of TV caption users are not deaf or hard of hearing. Many people browse social media with the sound off. Others may be in a noisy environment or using devices where audio isn’t working. Captions help all of these groups participate in and enjoy the digital experience. 

  • Accessibility efforts intended to support those with visual disabilities also help people who may not be familiar with their device, people who interact with digital programs on a small screen, and people with internet connectivity issues. 

  • Everyone experiences temporary or long-lasting cognitive impairments at one point or another. Such impairments include stress, fatigue, the demands of multitasking, or the effects of being in a distracting environment. These users benefit from accessibility intended for people with cognitive disabilities too.  

  • Accessibility designed for people with mobility disabilities benefits anyone who may have an injury, who may not have an input device (such as a mouse for a computer) available, or in situations when the input device to access a digital program doesn’t work. 

  • Anyone can become impaired or disabled at any time: People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world. With demographic increases in longevity, there’s a greater likelihood a person will have a disability at some point in their lifetime. One can experience a temporary impairment (e.g., a broken bone) or situational impairment (e.g., poor lighting when trying to read) at any time. 

  • Reverse accessibility (also known as accidental accessibility): This is an outcome when a product that wasn’t created with accessibility in mind ends up providing accessibility benefits in its use. One example is speech-recognition technology such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. They were initially designed as virtual assistants. Siri and Alexa eased many users’ experiences with Apple and Amazon’s devices, especially people with mobility and vision disabilities. 

  • The disability market controls $13 trillion of annual disposable income. According to the Global Economics of Disabilities report, 73% of people are touched by disabilities in some way, such as through a family member. Addressing the needs of this group has a positive potential impact on shareholder and social value. For more on this topic, refer to the W3C’s The Business Case for Digital Accessibility