Understanding How People with Disabilities Use the Web
One of the wildest myths I've heard about people with disabilities is that "they can't use the internet." As if we've somehow managed to get toasters to tell us the weather to solve whatever problem that was, but when it comes to navigating a website without the use of sight, it's all shrugs. Obviously none of that is true. People with various disabilities use the web every day, just in a way that's different than people without disabilities would.
Okay, there was some sass in my first few sentences, but during my second internship as a developer I was asked to remediate a litany of accessibility issues on a banking website, and it was then that I was informed that people with disabilities who use my websites don't just "figure it out". They utilize assistive technologies that depend on me building software properly so that in turn it can convey the necessary information to users. Assistive technology (AT) is any device or piece of equipment that can be used to help improve one's capabilities: wheelchairs, canes, screen readers, and much more, but in this post we're only going to focus on the ones that help with navigating software.
Types of Disabilities
Since there are a broad range of disabilities, it stands to reason that different users have different ways of using websites. So let's talk about some of them:
This is probably the most common type of disability people think of when it comes to web accessibility. Blindness refers to a significant and uncorrectable loss of vision. Since they usually can't see the elements on a web page, people with this type of disability often rely on screen readers like NVDA, JAWS, and VoiceOver to read aloud the information displayed on screens. Users who use a screen reader often use a keyboard to sequentially navigate through the elements on a page. When a document is properly structured, more advanced users are able to quickly navigate by headers, sections, images, links, etc. Since screen readers rely on textual information, it's important that any meaningful images and icons also have a programmatic text alternative.
People with low vision do have some sight, but that sight may be restricted, blurry, or dim. Some choose to be aided by the use of screen readers, but most often users with low vision still rely on their sight. To assist with this users may simply zoom up to 200% of the default web page size, or there's magnification software that allows user to zoom in on the part of their screen where the mouse pointer is. Users are also able to customize and enlarge the text size from their OS settings to adjust the display on websites and app. People with low vision also rely on inclusive designs to ensure that text and elements have enough contrast against their backgrounds.
View this poster in a larger format, or the text that this poster displays on Gov.UK's accessibility blog (Opens in new window)
Color-blindness often isn't considered a disability by some, but when information is conveyed using only color as the means, a barrier is created that prevents people with color-blindess from accessing. Often people with this type of disability do not use or have any corrective means and rely on inclusive design to obtain the information they need (e.g. a line graph differentiated by colors could also use different line strokes or differently-shaped point markers).
Deafness refers to the complete loss of hearing, and users with this type of disability often rely on sight to experience the world. Barriers largely comes into play in regards to media with audio. People without hearing rely on captions, transcripts, and even sign language to convey the spoken word. While some screen readers also have speech to text capabilities, most of the time users rely on proper captioning when it comes to time-based media.
Deaf-blindness is a good example of how users can have multiple or compounding disabilities. Those without sight or hearing rely on braille devices to convert the text on a website to braille that they can feel. Braille devices work in a similar manner to screen readers, where as long as there is text that the technology can consume, there is information that the device can produce for the user. When it comes to multiple disabilities, usually making your website accessible for each individual disability will also help those with multiple disabilities. One exception here for those with deaf-blindness is that they can only consume time-based media via transcripts, and not captions.
Example of a braille device
Motor disabilities is a broad term to group different kinds of impairments such as loss of limbs, mobility and muscular limitations, and even just sensations of pain when moving. There are a variety of assistive technologies available to help users navigate websites such as specialized mice and keyboards to accommodate limb differences, mouth-sticks, eye-gaze systems, voice-command systems, sip-and-puff devices, switches, and so on. The most famous example of some with a motor disability would be Stephen Hawking, who used a cheek-device that would move the element focus across the screen, and when it was focused on the desired element, he would trigger an action based on the slightest movement of the muscle under his eye. (Or instead of trying to interpret my bad explanation, you can watch a video of Hawking using the device (Opens in new window).) Devices like specialized mice, voice-command, and eye-gaze systems depend on being able to use a website with solely the use of mouse pointers. The other mentioned devices depend on websites being navigable using solely a keyboard.
Speech disabilities can include difficulty producing speech that is recognizable by some voice recognition software, either in terms of loudness or clarity. Someone with a speech disability needs to be able to use an alternate input mode such as text entered via a keyboard.
This is probably the broadest group, ranging from learning disabilities to memory impairments to seizure disorders. There's no one assistive technology this group uses to navigate websites, but there are a range of element and functionalities that a website can utilize to help make websites accessible to a wide variety of users.
The end (of this post)
For more about these posters, view these posters in a larger size, or to access the text of these posters, check out Gov.UK's accessibility blog (Opens in a new window)
Honestly this was me trying to keep it short when talking about users with disabilities and the web. There's much more to consider like the technical difficulties and barriers they encounter on the daily, how to ensure that your website can accommodate a variety of assistive technologies, the differences between technological barriers and best practices, and a lot more. But those are for another post and hopefully this provides a good start to your accessibility journey. Thanks!