Whether we’re working, shopping, or social networking, most of us now manage our personal and professional lives largely online. In fact, 2021 data from the Pew Research Center shows that 93 percent of American adults—including 75 percent of seniors—use the web. That includes the one in four American adults living with a disability.

Nearly all of us rely on the internet to meet our day-to-day responsibilities. But we don’t all engage with digital experiences in the same way. Many people with disabilities don’t use a mouse, or they leverage assistive technology like screen readers to browse and interact with web content. And in today’s digital world, understanding different users’ needs is essential for recognizing the material impact that investing in digital accessibility—or failing to do so—has on peoples’ lives. Let’s explore a few of the ways in which people with disabilities access the internet, along with common barriers they encounter.

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Using keyboard navigation

Individuals with some types of disabilities navigate websites exclusively through a keyboard, as an alternative to a mouse or touchpad. People use keyboard navigation for a variety of reasons. Blind individuals and those with low vision may not be able to see a cursor’s position on the screen, while some people with motor disabilities find it easier to type than to manipulate a mouse.

Keyboard-only users typically move through different elements on a web page with the “tab” key. So, for web content to be accessible, it needs to incorporate logical tab order. That means that when a user hits “tab,” they should progress to the next link, button, or form control on a given page. Notably, web developers don’t need to explicitly script tab order using tabindex attributes—they just need to write clean, semantic code.

If tab order is not considered, keyboard-only users may be unable to complete critical tasks. For example, if pressing the “tab” key after completing the “name” field in a check-out form brings a user to a completely different form—rather than to the next line—their purchase process will be interrupted. Radio buttons or checkboxes that can’t be intuitively selected via the keyboard also pose significant accessibility barriers.

Quick tip from our experts: Always check the keyboard operability of radio buttons and checkboxes, particularly those with animated styling.

Using a screen reader

No, not everyone in the meeting can “see your screen”—but if you share your deck, screen reader users can interact with it by listening to synthesized speech or reading it on a braille display. Instead of visually processing digital information, people who are blind or have low vision often use screen readers: a type of assistive technology that communicates the contents of a computer, tablet, or mobile phone display in an audio or braille format. Desktop screen readers are typically operable via keyboard commands, while screen readers for mobile devices (like smartphones and tablets) are operable through touch gestures.

On an accessible website, screen reader users can easily navigate to any element on a page with their keyboard or mobile touch screen. They’ll then receive an accessible description of that element’s purpose, including whether it’s a heading, a button, or an editable field. Inaccessible websites, however, can cause immense frustration. For instance, if form fields aren’t properly labelled, a screen reader user may input information in the wrong place—triggering a barrage of error messages with no guidance on how to resolve them.

Quick tip from our experts: Clearly and accurately label all interactive elements of a page, including form fields and call-to-action buttons, paying particular attention to those “learn more” links.

Using magnification software

Some people with low vision opt to access web content using magnification software, assistive technology that enlarges the elements on a web page. Navigating the resulting zoomed-in version of a website should be intuitive. But when elements are spaced illogically or too far apart, users of magnification software can get lost in blank space, resulting in wasted time and confusion. Additionally, poor color contrast between the text on a page and its background can render information illegible.

Quick tip from our experts: Choose text and background colors that meet the color contrast requirements outlined in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Using dictation

Rather than navigating a website via the keyboard or mouse, people with certain types of disabilities, including quadriplegia, may use dictation software: programs that allow individuals to interact with digital experiences through voice commands. Many dictation users verbally deliver keyboard commands, like “tab,” to efficiently move through websites, making keyboard navigability a critical accessibility consideration even for those who don’t use a literal keyboard.

To meet the needs of dictation users, all buttons on a page must have accessible names (that is, the names read aloud by a screen reader) that match their on-screen content. If the visible text on a button reads “yes,” but its accessible name reads “accept,” dictation users won’t be able to select it—at least, not without a lengthy trial-and-error process. It’s also best practice to programmatically associate other interactive form elements, like radio buttons, with their on-screen labels so dictation users can quickly make selections.

Quick tip from our experts: Always check that the accessible names that are assigned to buttons match these buttons’ on-screen labels.

Can people with disabilities access your website?

Inaccessible websites don’t just disrupt the experiences of users with disabilities. They also leave organizations vulnerable to legal, reputational, and financial risks.

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Make your website accessible for everyone

As the market-leading digital accessibility solution provider, Level Access equips organizations with the advanced software and expert support required to create and maintain inclusive digital experiences. Our automated testing tools allow teams to rapidly surface web accessibility barriers and track and manage remediation efforts directly on our platform. Additionally, we provide actionable manual evaluations by digital accessibility experts, including functional accessibility testing by people with disabilities, so you can ensure your website and other digital products remain barrier-free for all. Ready to learn more? Engage with our team today.


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