We already spend most of our lives online, but COVID-19 has increased this tendency even more. This is because governments and businesses are advising people to work from home if they can. The number of people who are staying in isolation is expanding every day, and the internet is the only place they can go to.
Replacing in-person events with virtual conferences, office discussions with online collaboration, and business meetings with distance conferencing have caused us all to live our lives virtually.
Many medical centers and hospitals are advising anyone who might have been exposed to COVID-19 not to come in person, but to check online or call a helpline or use a patient portal to discuss their symptoms with their doctor.
One thing has been made clear: we rely wholeheartedly on the Internet. But for internet users with disabilities, moving their lives online can be stressful and restrictive.
Moving online restricts people with disabilities
Although the last few years have made it clear that accessibility legislation like ADA Title III applies to the website and online spaces as well as physical spaces, most of the internet is still not accessible to the 61 million American internet users with disabilities. This is restrictive at the best of times, but at times of a crisis such as Coronavirus, the restrictions become even more obvious.
Maintaining basic needs in isolation
Just like able-bodied individuals, users with disabilities who are in isolation rely on the internet to meet their basic needs, but there are obstacles in their path. This is because most of the internet still doesn’t meet the requirements for accessibility. Online grocery services, food deliveries, even pharmacies that deliver vital medicines might be closed to some people with disabilities.
Today, the most up-to-date information about the spread of Coronavirus can only be found online. Advice from health departments, government information about self-quarantine rules, emergency updates from disaster planning authorities, even which sporting events have been canceled — the internet is the place where all these details are shared.
Unfortunately, many media outlets and even governmental sites are not fully accessible. People with cognitive disabilities, who make up 10.8% of the population, struggle with websites that have confusing layouts and use a lot of high-level jargon. Health sites that use a lot of medicalese are serious offenders here. When they’re stressed and anxious, trying to find information in a hurry, it gets even harder.
Media outlets are also the most likely to feature flashing GIFs or animations that can trigger seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy, but if there’s no way to turn them off then they don’t dare to venture onto those sites.
Blind internet users who rely on screen readers to surf the internet can’t use sites that don’t support their technology, for example. People with motor disabilities or weak muscles use the keyboard to navigate online, but many sites and patient portals have confusing navigation hierarchies that make it impossible to click on links or move through menus without a mouse.
People with disabilities can’t access the healthcare they need. Clinics are directing patients online to get diagnostic information, check lab test results, and send their doctor information about their symptoms.
Working from home
35% of people with disabilities are employed, and like everyone else, many of them are currently working from home, but they don’t always receive the accessible resources they need to complete their tasks.
More emails and documents are sent instead of face-to-face conversations, but contrast ratios, color and font choices, and text spacing and sizing can prevent people with low vision from consuming the content.
Someone sending a video recording of a recent meeting as a project resource might not think to add captions or a transcript, closing out deaf colleagues. For someone who is deaf or hearing impaired, a virtual conference with blurry visuals and unclear sound can be much harder to follow than an in-person meeting where they can read lips and follow the thread of conversation more easily.
Coronavirus highlights how far web accessibility still has to go
One of the many side effects of COVID-19 has been to emphasize that full web accessibility is still a long way off. With isolation on the rise, more people working from home, and information, healthcare, and basic services that are only available online, it’s more evident than ever that web accessibility is a vital social issue. At accessiBe, our vision is to make the entire internet accessible by 2025. We still have a long way to go.