Awareness of the digital accessibility divide: A silver lining of The COVID-19 crisis?

Most of us have adapted quickly -- perhaps seamlessly -- to increased reliance on digital devices for the day-to-day processes of life and business. For many people with disabilities however, it’s a very different picture.

Today is Global Accessibility Awareness Day, so for a few minutes let’s put ourselves in the place of a person with a visual, hearing, motor or cognitive disability. With many physical places of business now closed, essential activities like banking, shopping and working must be solely conducted online or at great personal peril.

The problem is that 70 percent of website applications or web content is not accessible to people with disabilities; meaning digital properties have not been built to be accessible by assistive technologies such as screen readers, magnifiers, or braille displays. Getting things done online can be challenging even during normal times, but increased reliance on digital channels during the pandemic exacerbates this existing digital divide.

Status of Digital Accessibility: 2020

On the device and operating system fronts, Apple, Microsoft and Google should be commended for their commitment to building accessibility into their platforms and devices. The real gaps are with websites, apps and the content within.

Our research has shown that two-thirds of internet transactions initiated by people with visual disabilities end in abandonment because the websites aren’t accessible. Most people reported that they regularly default to calling a company’s customer service to get help.

When lack of proper source code markup prevents a person with a disability from interacting or completing an essential function on a website, we call that a critical accessibility blocker. Critical blockers include issues like missing forms or button labels (making forms or checkout buttons invisible without context), inability to use the application or site without a mouse, and no description of images that convey their meaning. Another example is a "keyboard trap," where someone who uses a keyboard for navigation is stuck in content or a window while performing an action -- like accessing a login screen to view a bank statement -- and can’t get back out to the other parts of the page.

Some of the most critical information and services available online, such as healthcare, retail and finances, have critical accessibility blockers. In our research, many blind people also reported being unable to access public government websites.

QA Financial ‘s Digital Accessibility Study showed that most financial services firms are not adequately ensuring that their websites, mobile sites and apps are accessible to people with disabilities. Only 25 percent are embedding accessibility testing into their software development processes, and much of that is reactive and driven by lawsuits or customer complaints.  Furthermore, the sites tend to regress even after an initial reactionary change is made.

COVID-19 Crisis Shines Spotlight on Accessibility

Given that COVID-19 has drastically increased our reliance on the internet to perform basic tasks, we at Deque were curious to know if awareness of digital accessibility -- and possibly action -- was happening at organizations. To determine this, we partnered with the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) and G3ict Research in March and April to survey accessibility practitioners around the world. Highlighted findings include:

  • Most survey respondents agreed that COVID-19 has raised the importance of their digital channels, while 62 percent said it has also increased awareness of the impact of accessibility on digital channels.
  • More than one-third of respondents have heard reports that users with disabilities are having increased difficulty accessing their services during this time of crisis.
  • When asked how employees with disabilities are able to work remotely with digital platforms, 63 percent said they’d had some or great difficulties doing so.

Survey respondents were mostly senior-level, U.S.-based accessibility practitioners working in education, financial services, government, healthcare, pharmaceutical services and other sectors.

Will Awareness Lead to Action?

The survey also showed that 90 percent of all respondents expect the volume of their digital channel work to increase or stay the same in the next three months. An encouraging sign, though how much of that will apply specifically to accessibility is unclear.

Over the last few years, lawsuits related to the ADA have increased. Additionally, we know that people with disabilities represent billions of dollars in buying power, a huge missed market opportunity for companies that are not accessible.

But if COVID-19 and this new reality are showing us anything, it’s the need to focus on the human side of the equation. That’s why this survey is giving me some hope that awareness leading to action on accessibility is a silver lining of this crisis.

A little bit of hope goes a long way in these times.

Image Credit: Negro Elkha / Shutterstock

Preety Kumar is CEO and co-founder, Deque Systems.

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