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Digital services are making isolation easier – unless you have a disability

Too many entrepreneurs care more about growing their audience at all costs than improving their ability to serve all sectors of their existing audience.

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  • While many people have been able to muddle through the lockdown, albeit with more stress or boredom than they're used to, people with disabilities have been more profoundly affected than other groups.
  • People with disabilities are often not considered by developers of websites and other online services. This can make life very difficult for someone who's visually impaired, stuck at home without assistance, and dependent on an online service for which they can barely read the screen.
  • Many of the adaptations required to make sites accessible are surprisingly easy to achieve, which makes it all the more infuriating how little of the web is up to standard.

Digital services have been a lifeline for many of us throughout the periods of social distancing and involuntary isolation imposed as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

Videoconferencing app Zoom saw a 20-fold increase in its user base in March compared to December. One survey found that 89 percent of people using Zoom do so for work, while 63 percent also use it for calling friends and family. Meanwhile, Netflix reduced its European network traffic by 25 percent to manage the surge in millions of people streaming movies and TV shows to their homes.

Elsewhere, with restaurants and cafes closed, people are increasingly ordering food at home. Grubhub reported record revenues of $363 million for the first quarter of this year. Even Amazon was forced to close its Prime Pantry food delivery service due to demand exceeding capacity.

People have even increased their use of "telemedical" services, opting to obtain virtual diagnoses in a bid to avoid overburdened health facilities.

While many people have been able to muddle through the lockdown, albeit with more stress or boredom than they're used to, people with disabilities have been more profoundly affected than other groups.

A large percentage of people with disabilities are more vulnerable to the virus than people without disabilities. In fact, a UN report states that as much as 42 percent of the disabled population suffers from general ill-health, compared to 6 percent in general. As such, they've had to tolerate periods of isolation that are longer and stricter, often unable to even shop for groceries outside their homes. This comes at a time when many of the able-bodied people who would usually assist them have been instructed to stay at home to avoid spreading the virus.

Therefore, the lockdowns in many areas create an even heavier dependency than usual on online services for people with disabilities.

However, it's an unfortunate fact that people with disabilities are often not considered by developers of websites and other online services. Simple factors such as making a screen readable with blocks of white space, clean fonts, and contrasting colors are overlooked more frequently than you'd imagine. This can make life very difficult for someone who's visually impaired, stuck at home without assistance, and dependent on an online service for which they can barely read the screen.

Enhancing accessibility isn’t rocket science

Many of the adaptations required to make sites accessible are surprisingly easy to achieve, which makes it all the more infuriating how little of the web is up to standard.

Shir Ekerling is the CEO of accessiBe, a company that produces an AI-enabled web accessibility solution aiming to bring online services up to WCAG's standards. The service was developed alongside users with disabilities to test for accessibility against a wide range of impairments.

Ekerling highlighted the stark reality that many people with disabilities are now facing during the pandemic. "During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have relied heavily on digital media outlets and government sites in order to get the most recent updates," he wrote to me in an email. "But a lot of these sites aren't accessible to people with disabilities, which prevents them from getting the information they need. For example, those with various cognitive disorders, like the elderly and people who have sustained brain injuries, often read web pages but don't understand many of the connections, phrases and wording. This makes it difficult for them to browse these sites effectively."

Along with accessiBe, there are other tools that can help website managers make their sites more accessible. Yoast is predominantly known as an SEO tool for publishers, but its free WordPress plugin offers many features that can help make a site more accessible. For example, Yoast prompts content creators to insert regular headings to make the text more friendly to the eye. It also offers a readability checker to make sure the language is easy to understand.

The fight for accessibility

The Americans with Disabilities Act Title III legislation and other comparable standards, such as the global Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), aim to overcome the online accessibility challenges for disabled people. However, many webmasters, entrepreneurs, designers, and developers care more about growing their audiences at all costs than improving their ability to serve all sectors of their existing audiences.

The problem appears to be systemic, too, as the digital commerce industry as a whole incentivizes entrepreneurs to report impressive spikes in usership, as opposed to creating experiences that are inclusive.

Features such as "alt text" on images, designed to be a tool describing the picture for visually impaired people, instead became hijacked by SEO specialists as a hotspot for keywords, often rendering the description unintelligible. It's estimated that a staggering 98 percent of websites have detectable WCAG errors. Disabled users are likely to encounter a problem with one in every 13 elements of a webpage. These issues range from unhelpful use of colors to a failure of screen readers, to large blocks of complex text.

Many product leads and website operators may not even be aware, but with the relevant legislation in place, they could be facing a lawsuit if their sites aren't compliant. Even the mighty are failing in this regard – both MIT and Harvard have faced lawsuits due to their websites failing accessibility tests.

From the perspective of someone with a disability, it can be incredibly frustrating. Particularly considering there are plenty of tools and platforms available that can help website operators bring their services up to standard.

Writing in the scientific journal Nature, Ashley Shew, a member of the faculty at Virginia Tech's Department of Science, Technology, and Society, pointed out that when this happens, everyone can benefit. "The disability community creates and lobbies for technologies and infrastructure that work better for all," she wrote. "Deaf and disabled people fought hard for things such as captioning on television, which has since become ubiquitous in sports bars and airports and can now be appreciated by people streaming media while those they live with rest or work."

Remote working, fresh challenges

If there are any benefits to the current crisis for users with disabilities, then the fact that employers are becoming more friendly to remote work policies is often cited as one of them.

Ekerling asserted that this too can be fraught with issues for some people. "The current shift to remote working means that people are relying on emails and web-based documentation more," he said. "However, for someone who is visually impaired, elements such as contrast ratios, color or font choices can make this content more difficult to decipher than a face-to-face discussion or a phone call."

Again, simple solutions do exist. Services such as NoCoffee can detect if any design you unleash it on is too heavily dependent on colors, making it unfriendly to people with visual impairments.

The business case

As daunting as the potential for lawsuits and fines can be, webmasters should avoid falling into the trap of thinking that these actions are simply a compliance risk. Operating a site that's accessible for everyone comes with its own benefits, such as expanded audience reach and improved sales conversions. And with the current state of accessibility on the web, improving in this area provides an easy opportunity to shine among the disabled community.

"Nothing less than system change is going to contribute to the resolution of the disability inequality crisis that exists, Caroline Casey, an activist and authority on diversity and inclusion, recently told the BBC. "Disabled people are not just vulnerable – we are valuable."

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