Though substantial progress has been made to ensure that all individuals with disabilities are afforded the same opportunities as those without, some barriers still remain. While millions of individuals with disabilities currently utilize the Internet to some degree, gaining access to and fully experiencing materials presented on the Internet can be problematic for individuals with certain types of disabilities. Those with motor impairments, low vision or blindness, low hearing or deafness, and/or language or cognitive disabilities often require assistive technologies or devices to access websites. A report from the Disability Statistics Center of the Institute for Health and Aging indicates that at least 2.1 million of the reported 54.4 million Americans with disabilities use the Internet from their homes or on another computer. The American Federation for the Blind states that around 1.5 million of the 7.8 million Americans who experience vision loss use computers, with just under one million reporting regular computer use. Additionally, an estimated 7.8 million people over the age of 15 experience some form of hearing loss, and a report in the American Annals of the Deaf indicates that 63 percent of those who took part in a recent study reported regular computer use. New legislative measures may help to make the web more accessible to any individual with a disability.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) states “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.” Individuals with disabilities frequently employ assistive technologies or make other accommodations to access information online. These may include screen readers, software utilized by individuals with visual impairments which converts information on screen into speech; alternative text (ALT text), HTML tags which provide descriptions of images for blind individuals; and closed captioning, the display of text coinciding with audio content for individuals with low hearing or deafness.
The majority of websites are still primarily inaccessible to individuals with disabilities, and the efforts by others to ensure that they are accessible to people with disabilities have been minimal. A number of “mainstream” websites have instituted accessibility features, including Facebook and YouTube, which have begun implementing changes that will improve the browsing experience of individuals with disabilities. These adaptations include the following:
- Facebook provides an audio captcha alternative to for those using screen readers, as well as an HTML-only version of the website and instructions for increasing font size in a number of web browsers.
- YouTube provides closed captioning options for users with low-hearing or who may not be able to hear or understand the audio portions of videos. However, captions must be added to the video by the individual who uploads it.
- Twitter has not yet addressed the issues that prevent its use by many individuals with disabilities. However, AccessibleTwitter offers “a simple, consistent layout and navigation,” “assures that all links are keyboard accessible,” and “uses large default text size and high color contrast.” In addition, the recently introduced service TweetCall allows users to speak their tweets, which are then transcribed to text. For individuals who may have difficulty typing or using a computer, this creates an opportunity for the utilization of Twitter.
To further improve the accessibility of the Internet, Congress recently approved legislation that would set federal standards for the telecommunications industry , including online delivery of information. These new regulations coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark legislation that helped to ensure equal opportunities and accessibility. Though the ADA has led to vast improvements in many areas, as Representative Edward Markey, D-Mass, noted “The ADA mandated physical ramps into buildings, today, individuals with disabilities need online ramps to the Internet so that they can get to the Web from wherever they happen to be.”
You can evaluate the level of accessibility of a website using the online tool WAVE.