As COVID precautions pushed work, school, medical appointments, and other interactions to virtual, they shone a spotlight on problems with digital accessibility. In many cases, being able to work and participate in other activities from home made life more accessible to people with disabilities. But when platform and website owners fail to plan for digital accessibility, they prevent many people from participating in what should be an easy, convenient experience. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, better known as the “father of the World Wide Web,” wrote, “The power of the World Wide Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”
Websites still aren’t prioritizing accessibility
Using assistive technology to navigate the internet provides increased independence when website and platform creators plan for digital accessibility. Ian Macrae has a visual impairment and uses assistive technology to do things like shopping online. He describes his experience this way, “I use Amazon every day to find Kindle Daily Deals. To do that I have to go through every heading before I reach what I want, then I have to go through each element within that heading to get to the list of books. The whole process of navigating a website is a long and complicated process.” Despite this, Macrae still describes using the internet as a “liberating experience.” It’s easier than shopping in person and he can do it more independently.
This online experience works only if the website is coded for accessibility. The problem people using assistive technology face is that many websites, even government websites, which are required by law to be accessible, simply aren’t. Assistive technology users struggled to find updated, reliable information on COVID because the information was not presented in an accessible way. Attorney Scott LaBarre of Colorado is blind and the president of the Colorado chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. She had a difficult time finding information on government websites regarding COVID because they were not compatible with his screen reader. LaBarre says, “The Americans with Disabilities Act has required the state and other public entities to make websites accessible. Over the years it just hasn’t happened.”
Heath Thompson, a wheelchair-user and chief executive officer of AudioEye, says, “Right now, the world has just been scrambling to survive COVID-19. I believe the pandemic has also created an opportunity for worldwide empathy towards the need for digital access, as we’ve all now been able to experience what it’s like not to be able to do basic things every day that we all took for granted just a few short months ago.”
Virtual platforms don’t always offer digital accessibility
This past year has seen an explosion of virtual interactions. Many virtual meeting platforms offer digital accessibility options such as live captions. However, many event or meeting hosts fail to engage auto-captions, leaving out as many as 48 million Americans. Others require meeting participants to have their cameras on and be engaged the whole time. That causes other issues for those with neurological disabilities like autism.
Camisha Jones is a managing editor at a poetry organization who has a hearing impairment. For years she was unable to attend poetry readings because of her hearing impairment. She was glad when many of those readings turned virtual during the pandemic. However, despite the wide availability of auto-captioning, many poetry reading organizers failed to engage that feature and she was once again left out. Jones says, “I find myself opting out of events because very little effort is being made to provide accessibility services for [people who need] them.”
Jones had similar experiences with telehealth virtual appointments. While many HIPAA-compliant options do offer auto-captioning, the ones her health care providers chose to use did not. Without captions, she had trouble understanding them. “None of the platforms for these appointments have included captions,” she explains. Jones describes these issues as “infuriating.”
Alaina Lavoi is a Boston social media manager with autism who struggles with overstimulation caused by video calls [where her camera is required to be on]. Because she has autism, Lavoi struggles with the constant challenge of figuring out where or which person to look at on the screen, and when it’s appropriate to speak. She says, “I have to focus and spend a lot more energy on video calls than I would on meeting in person or an audio call with no video component…I think it increases accessibility if events are available to watch later, especially since with a virtual event it’s so easy to record it and upload it.”
COVID and vaccine info and more
While many inaccessible websites are inconvenient and frustrating, some are life-or-death. Vaccines and other COVID information communicated by government agencies has been difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to access. Scheduling vaccine appointments on hastily-assembled websites was hard enough for sighted individuals but was often completely impossible for those using assistive technology.
Doris Ray, a Virginia resident and outreach director at an advocacy center for people with disabilities, was unable to register to receive the vaccine for two weeks, despite being qualified due to her in-person work with clients. Ray is blind and has a hearing impairment. Some of the required registration fields in the CDC’s scheduling system did not work with her assistive technology. That prevented her from registering until a sighted colleague could help her. Ray expresses her frustration, “This is outrageous in the time of a public health emergency, that blind people aren’t able to access something to get vaccinated.”
Bryan Bashin, the Chief Executive Officer of the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired of San Francisco had a similar experience in California. Bashin tried to find workarounds to register to get vaccinated using his assistive technology. However, the signup process took so long that the appointment times quickly filled up before he could complete the process. Eventually he had to ask a sighted relative to register for the appointment for him. He describes this experience, “It’s an awful bit of discrimination, one as stinging as anything I’ve experienced.”
National Federation of the Blind spokesperson Chris Danielson says, “I should have the same options that anyone else has”… “Booking a shot is frustrating for everybody, with most people trying several times. We’re not asking for special treatment — we just want the same barriers, not more.”
Education: Braille left out of virtual testing
As schools and other educational institutions moved classes and testing online, some students were left behind. Mitchell Smedley and several other students with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) recently filed a civil rights complaint against the College Board with the United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The students had registered to take the May 2020 advanced placement (AP) test, administered by the College Board. Because the test would be administered digitally that year, the College Board would not provide them with Braille and other tactile alternatives that they are entitled to receive as part of their approved accommodations. Mitchell Smedley says, “College Board needs to give the option for Braille and tactile diagrams, like we would have had before the pandemic. [Without them] it’s like asking the sighted students to turn off their screens.”
Kaleigh Brendle spearheaded the complaint and has this to say about it: “My fellow blind and deafblind AP scholars and I only desire a chance to be successful. We have contacted Braille transcription companies, which have expressed their willingness and ability to produce the material if the College Board were to provide it. We desire to compromise, but every time we attempt to do so, our efforts are dismissed by this organization. We are not blind to injustice.”
Mark Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind, also expressed his frustration, “By propounding a false choice between equal access and security, the College Board seeks to force a one-size-fits-all accommodation on these students, in clear violation of applicable federal law. Furthermore, the College Board is denying them the right to use Braille, the globally recognized reading and writing method for blind and deafblind people. The National Federation of the Blind is America’s civil rights organization of the blind and the nation’s leading champion of Braille. We have tried to work with the College Board in the past but significant systemic change has not happened. We will not stand for the College Board’s discrimination and are proud to fight alongside these students.”
What can website owners do to improve digital accessibility?
Many companies may fail to address digital accessibility because of the unclear standards. However, failure to act can lead to lawsuits and reduce your market share. If you’re not sure where to start, ask an expert. Former Rep. Tony Coelho has epilepsy and was the ADA’s primary sponsor when it passed in 1990. He suggests, “We [disabled people] stand to benefit greatly, alongside everyone else in this economy, if we make digital accessibility a priority. My recommendation for leaders who are trying to figure out what to do and how to do it is to build relationships with disability leaders in their communities. They are your best assets.”