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Improving Accessibility & Digital Inclusion for Those With Physical Disabilities

Incorporating WCAG compliance and input from people with physical disabilities into website designs expands an organization’s reach while improving digital accessibility and inclusion for those otherwise facing significant barriers.

Jul 19, 2021

Awareness around diversity, equity, and inclusion is on the rise, but how much thought has your organization given to what that looks like in digital spaces? 

While the annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) celebrated its 10-year anniversary in May, co-founder Joe Devon knows much work remains. He has an ambitious goal of making accessibility as ubiquitous among software developers as Agile methodology—an approach characterized by constant stakeholder feedback, collaboration, evaluation, and improvements.

“It's not as much about standing up above the competition as it is just doing it the right way,” he tells InclusionHub.

To many businesses, people with disabilities are seemingly invisible, as manifested by the countless websites and digital platforms designed without the disabled community in mind. 

That needs to change—and it starts with web developers, content writers, and decision makers at every business utilizing the internet

In addition to removing digital barriers for people with learning disabilities and the blind and low-vision community, how does one improve accessibility and digital inclusion for people with physical disabilities? 

 

What Is Accessibility & Digital Inclusion?

Accessibility and digital inclusion mean providing equal opportunities and access to everyone,  regardless of disability or background. It entails designing websites with a wider range of experiences and perspectives in mind. 

Designing digital experiences to better meet the needs of people with physical disabilities, hearing impairments, speech difficulties, blindness or low vision, and cognitive impairments benefits everyone

Not only is creating digital content that’s inclusive of traditionally marginalized people the right thing to do, but it helps any organization to expand its reach.

 

Barriers for People With Physical Disabilities

People with physical disabilities encounter numerous barriers that prevent them from participating fully in many common daily activities. 

Stereotyping frequently means other people presume they have a lower quality of life or are less healthy. Such communities consequently face the routine stigma their disability must be a personal tragedy or something to be cured. 

People with physical disabilities may have loss of mobility, dexterity, or control over some bodily functions. They may have acquired a brain injury, damaging their physical, cognitive, sensory, or emotional functions. Physical disabilities can be acquired—such as through an accident, disease or infection, or side effect of a medical condition—inherited at birth, or develop later in life due to hereditary or genetic reasons. 

Here are just a few physical disabilities.

Epilepsy

This neurological condition triggering involuntary seizures—including loss of awareness and convulsions—may result in additional physical disabilities, brain damage, and even death. In many cases, epilepsy can be managed with medication and lifestyle changes. 

Cerebral Palsy

While typically not life-threatening, cerebral palsy affects a person’s fine motor skills and their ability to control muscles, making speech and movement difficult. 

Cystic Fibrosis

A hereditary genetic condition, cystic fibrosis impacts the respiratory, reproductive, and digestive systems. Mucus and sweat glands don’t function properly, and mucus builds up, causing recurring infections to vital organs. 

Dwarfism

Abnormal skeletal growth means an adult with dwarfism grows to a height of 4 feet 10 inches or shorter. Children with dwarfism may also have difficulty with motor skills. 

Multiple Sclerosis

An autoimmune disorder commonly referred to as MS, it damages nerve cells. Reduced spinal cord and brain functioning can manifest as fatigue, vision loss, and even paralysis. 

Spina Bifida

A developmental birth condition affecting the spinal cord, spina bifida actually refers to several conditions that leave nerves extra susceptible to damage. This can lead to paralysis, mobility challenges, muscular dystrophy, and learning difficulties. 

Prader-Willi Syndrome

This rare, non-hereditary genetic condition impacts growth and development, and can result in eye problems, emotional instability, chronic overeating and obesity, intellectual impairment, and learning disabilities.

Many of these physical disabilities can make entering and exiting, navigating, and using buildings, classrooms, or other physical spaces difficult to access. It can also hinder one’s ability to access the internet, because devices aren’t designed with their needs in mind. For example, computer desks at a library may not be spaced far enough apart to allow for wheelchair access, or somebody with muscular dystrophy may find a smartphone is too heavy for them to handle. 

Social barriers result in a higher unemployment rate among people with disabilities. According to the “2018 Annual Report on People with Disabilities in America” conducted by the University of New Hampshire, members of the disabled community are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to the general population.

These obstacles also carry over into the digital world, as well.

 

Obstacles in Digital Spaces

Turning to the digital space, people with physical disabilities often rely on assistive technologies to help them access websites and other online platforms. 

Writing utensils, keyboards, or a mouse can also be barriers to digital access for people with physical disabilities, however. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can help level the playing field, enabling them to interact through various modes including voice, text, gestures, and even eye movement. 

Even with these tools, poor digital layout and content design remains an exclusionary practice—and far too common.

Many websites simply lack useful information. Susan LoTempio, an advisory board member for the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ) at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, and someone who uses a wheelchair, tells InclusionHub:

“For example, I click on a department store website to shop for a new dress to wear to a wedding. I see several outfits I’m interested in, and read the accompanying content boxes that include sizes, colors, fabrics, and prices. But I need other information. If I’m on crutches, will the skirt trip me up? How will the skirt drape my body if I’m sitting in a wheelchair? Are there zippers, buttons, or other features that would be difficult for my hands or fingers to manipulate?”

While incredibly useful information for people with mobility impairments or other physical disabilities, providing additional views of garments would benefit everyone. LoTempio believes “all women would appreciate the added views and information about the dresses, not just women with disabilities. The extra content would help them make informed buying decisions.”

 

Digital Representation Matters

Another overlooked area in content design pertains less to functionality and more to stigma and attitudes about disability. Representation matters, and while easy to address when creating online content or experiences, the inclusion of people with physical disabilities is severely lacking. 

LoTempio asserts accessibility and digital inclusion is about more than making technical improvements to format or layout—it demands thoughtful consideration of the experiences of the disabled community and incorporation of all this into every aspect of a company’s online presence. 

“Digital inclusion also means seeing people like myself pictured on sites; content geared to my concerns and interests and taking care not to be patronizing or insensitive,” she explains. “Those are challenges I face every time I sign on.” 

It’s challenging to connect with an organization or business when it doesn’t seem to demonstrate an understanding of how you orient in the world or show much concern for the things that matter to you. This exclusion also contributes to social stigma felt by many people with physical disabilities—something LoTempio suggests is often lost on non-disabled people.

“But people without disabilities would never notice the absence of visuals or content related to the disability experience,” she says. “And that contributes to the societal invisibility of people with disabilities.”

Some organizations are becoming more inclusive with the models that appear on their websites or in marketing materials, but it’s important to feature wheelchair or crutch users, too—and not those merely posing as people with disabilities. These are employment opportunities that can help counteract the aforementioned significant unemployment gap between nondisabled and disabled people.

Ways to Improve Digital Inclusion & Accessibility

Improving accessibility and digital inclusion is a responsibility that starts with web designers and content creators. While ICTs can be a huge boon to people with disabilities, they are not cheap. And even with these devices, digital experiences can be difficult unless organizations abide by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Below is by no means an exhaustive list of recommendations, but should give designers and content creators a better idea of how they can improve digital inclusion and accessibility for people with physical disabilities.  

 

Alt Text is written copy appearing instead of an image, and also serves as a primary means for increasing accessibility because it can be read out loud by screen readers. For this reason, alt text should clearly describe what an image entails, in a way that enhances the experience for the reader. 

For example, if you’re writing an article about the severe drought in the Western United States, instead of the alt text reading “man stands in a field,” you might write “Darren Adams, a Spokane County farmer, stands in a large alfalfa field amid severe drought conditions.” 

Be specific and succinct. Don’t use alt text on more decorative images that don’t have contextual significance or fail to add meaningful information to the content. If the information in the alt text is already elsewhere on the page, then it might be redundant to include.

 

Spacing on web pages can be an issue if there isn’t enough room between text or buttons. Poor spacing can nullify the benefit of assistive technologies by making it difficult for people with disabilities to move a mouse and click precisely on what they want.

Furthermore, some readers want to override set text sizes for improved readability. Be sure to allow enough space in page layouts so that enlarged segments of text do not end up cutting off other sections when sizes change. Experiment to see how a web page’s design would be affected by resizing selected sections.

 

Background sound can make it challenging for people using a screen reader to comprehend the text at the same time. Provide a way to control the audio, should they decide to mute any background, or a video that autoplays.

Notably, audio that plays automatically when somebody lands on a page can disrupt a screen reader or interfere with how the device navigates. It is best to keep sound muted, and enable website visitors to initiate the audio at their discretion. 

 

Keyboards are actually the most universally supported and flexible input format. In other words, if all of your website functionality can be experienced using a keyboard, then a variety of assistive technologies can interface with a keyboard input. 

 

Time-dependent web functions, such as a timed form, can frustrate users with dexterity impairments. Whenever possible, remove time-dependent design elements; otherwise, many users with disabilities will have difficulty trying to access your organization’s website. 

Alternatively, provide users with the opportunity to disable and customize time limits or request more time before it expires. This will ensure all users are able to successfully accomplish what they need.

 

Dragging movements on web pages, such as drag-and-drop interfaces or sliders, can be exclusionary if a single-pointer mode of operation isn’t also available. People with dexterity impairments sometimes cannot perform dragging movements with precision. 

An alternative method must be available for utilizing the same website functionality, but with a single pointer or a keyboard input, which can interface with an assistive device. 

 

Web Accessibility Makes Business Sense

In addition to the moral imperative for being more inclusive, there’s a business case to be made. If companies design digital experiences that are responsive to the needs of people with disabilities—rather than create barriers for them—they can tap into the more than $21 billion in discretionary income held by working-age people with disabilities in the United States, according to a 2018 report from the the American Institute of Research, titled “A Hidden Market: The Purchasing Power of Working-Age Adults With Disabilities.” 

“People with disabilities present business and industry with a twofold opportunity,” it states. “First, businesses benefit from hiring people with disabilities because they provide unique abilities to enhance labor force diversity, improve productivity, and inspire innovation. 

“Second, people with disabilities represent a large consumer market for high -quality services and products,” continues the analysis. “The U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) noted that people with disabilities are ‘the third largest market segment in the United States’ (ODEP, 2012). That market size more than doubles when considering family members, caregivers, and others who prioritize goods and services that are inclusive of people with disabilities.”

These facts stand in stark contrast to the many businesses still choosing exclusionary web designs. Regarding why some companies don’t embrace accessibility and digitally inclusive design, NCDJ’s LoTempio observes: 

“They don’t perceive people with disabilities as being productive members of society who have money to spend,” she explains. “Hence, they figure: ‘Why bother to enhance their websites? Why spend the money? It won’t impact the bottom line.’ I think they’re wrong.”

Sure, it makes business sense to improve accessibility and digital inclusion, but, more importantly, doing so will greatly enhance the ways approximately 39 million Americans with physical difficulties live their lives. It brings them more fully to the conversation table, reducing a long history of barriers. 

And we absolutely need their voices. 

Convincing leadership at one’s organization or company to take accessibility and inclusion seriously—which is often necessary to implement these design changes—can be challenging. However, for those in lower management levels or even non-leadership positions, LoTempio recommends a few actions.

“Push to hire people with disabilities, offer internships, and train the existing workforce by inviting local people with disabilities and their advocates to give presentations on relevant topics,” she says.

Change requires education. So don’t underestimate the importance of including organization-wide talks or training programs in tandem with implementing more accessible design. As the writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou says, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”It is time for companies to step up and more completely include the 61 million people (1 in 4 adults) in the United States living with a disability. Now that you know better, help your company to do better.

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