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The Pandemic Revealed the Importance of Digital Accessibility

June 5, 2020
Source: Fast Company

A full one-third of the globe is currently sheltering in place at home, a number so staggering that it’s hard to truly comprehend. As COVID-19 rips through our healthcare systems, upends our social connections, and transforms our economies, there’s a significant, fascinating, and long-overdue side effect at play. The world, at last, is understanding the critical role played by digital accessibility.

In a matter of weeks, hundreds of millions of us have turned to the internet as our sole source of commerce and communication. Working from home and sheltering in place, we now order our groceries online, we fill our prescriptions online, we speak to our colleagues and our bosses online, we socialize online, and we seek out entertainment online. But imagine if we couldn’t log on and click to order milk or bread, if we couldn’t read the text of an online coursebook, or if the flashing video of a film or commercial caused us physical harm?

This is the crisis that the nearly 61 million Americans who live with a disability have to be prepared for every day. With the coronavirus, as online access becomes the single most important form of connection and survival in our lives, that grave challenge is at last apparent.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 30 years ago this July, and it laid out strict regulations and guidelines for providing equal access to public spaces for all Americans, including those with disabilities. But public spaces are not limited to just buildings and sidewalks; they also exist on the internet and in the digital realm. And while our nation has done commendable work installing and adapting to the physical needs of access, it still lags behind significantly when it comes to accessibility online.

In a Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, standards set forth by the Worldwide Web Consortium, which are considered the gold standard for determining accessibility.

These include low contrast text, missing text alternatives for images, buttons without text, and empty links. For web users with auditory and visual disabilities, these amount to online dead ends. They block navigation and they serve as a barrier to access and vital services.

For many people with disabilities, leaving home is difficult. Digital accessibility allows those with disabilities to telecommute. And it’s good business, too. It opens up employment opportunities and guarantees livelihoods. It allows those who cannot drive to a doctor’s office to speak to their doctor on the phone or via video chat. Sound familiar? Suddenly, we are all homebound, and we are all in need of access to goods and services online. Suddenly, we all understand the reality that Americans with disabilities have been grappling with for decades.

And solid accessibility online doesn’t only serve those with auditory or visual challenges. The most critically at-risk sector during this global population is our elderly population, for whom staying home can literally mean the difference between life and death. But older Americans struggle in navigating the internet in their own ways. Tiny text, unclear links, and auditory input that is overwhelming or unclear can also block their access. Good digital accessibility will serve them as well, and it’s vital we ensure that it’s a priority for all websites.

Before COVID-19, online accessibility was moving forward, but at a crawl. The pandemic has shifted it into higher gear, which is an ironic and a welcome silver lining. Telecommuting, once an occasional option, has proven itself to be a potential long-term solution for many global companies. Online commerce, once an alternative to brick-and-mortar retail, has revealed itself, through its convenience and scope, to be a preferred way of shopping for millions of Americans, and it will likely only continue to expand after shelter-in-place laws are lifted.

So, for nearly every business, digital transformation is moving faster, and for those who had not yet taken the time to perform a full accounting of their website’s accessibility level and begin a design overhaul, it’s now a do-or-die topic.

And most critically, there is a new empathy in play for the need for digital access. Before COVID-19, it was easy to understand why a person in a wheelchair might need a ramp to enter a building, but the reality of a homebound person struggling to click through a government site to pay taxes felt obscure and out of reach.

Now, that struggle — which is just as difficult, important, and pertinent in our society — hits closer to home. We’ve all been able to experience what it feels like to not be able to do the basic things that, only a few short months ago, we all took for granted. Let’s take those lessons as we recover from this pandemic and apply them as building blocks to the better, healthier, and more accessible society we will build moving forward.

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