Web Accessibility During COVID-19
By Stephanie Bolinger
April 24, 2020
Imagine that you cannot see the images or read the words on your computer screen. It’s actually pretty hard to imagine if you are not blind. Try this while sitting in front of your computer…
1. Close your eyes
2. Open a new browser tab or window (you may not be able to do it)
3. Type “Facebook” in the the address bar (if you can find the address bar)
4. Read the first post (even if you got to this step, you can’t see the words)
So, how’d you do? Even if you are proficient with keyboard commands, it’s nearly impossible without the right tools.
That is what using the web is like for people who cannot see the screen or mouse pointer. Visually impaired website visitors use specialized browser software to interact with the web. People who are profoundly or totally blind must use some form of screen reader software on their computer to read, or more accurately, hear web page content...that is, if the website is designed properly. They have the tools, however even with the right tools, they may still run into barriers.
This article was created to broaden the perspective of sighted persons of the barriers that individuals with visual disabilities face online while using screen reader software to navigate websites as they attempt to handle personal business during an emergency.
Now imagine that you are home alone in quarantine during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order. You get on your computer with your screen reader software installed to visit a charitable organization’s website so you can apply for financial housing assistance. However, the screen reader could not read anything on the web page other than the word “link”. Panic sets in as you desperately try to apply for housing relief because you lost your job during the pandemic and have no way to pay your housing expenses except through charitable organizations. After trying several attempts and work-arounds with no positive results, you call the organization to ask for some other reasonable accommodation since you cannot fill out their online form. You call the organization and the person on the phone tells you that “the online form is required in order for you to receive housing assistance” and offers no other option to assist you in the matter.
This happened to me.
Millions around the world are suffering due to the COVID-19 impact. Many people have been furloughed or are working significantly reduced hours. Those without savings may need outside assistance or financial relief. An entire population of visually impaired people have literally been left alone in the dark. Visually impaired users can face major barriers online, this is especially impactful considering the unprecedented restrictions during the pandemic shelter-in-place rules.
Now prepare yourself to apply for food assistance through a government organization because you are nearly out of groceries and have no way to cover the cost. After sitting at the computer for almost an hour attempting to engage with the online application form you realize that you will not be able to accomplish the task since the website was not designed to work well with your screen reader.
Plan B is to check the website to find out if there are any other accommodations, or ways to apply other than the non-accessible web form. The good news is that there are other options; request a paper application to be mailed or to call a customer service number. Thinking that the phone option will get you somewhere, you call the number and ultimately put yourself on a call-back list when you discover that your wait time is several hours. After waiting three hours, no call back. A day and a half later, still no call back. You call again. For a second time, you add your number to the call-back list. Three days later you finally receive a call where you can ask for special accommodations. It has been nearly 5 days since attempting to apply for food assistance online.
Once food and shelter support is addressed, it’s time to apply for State Unemployment in order to find a way to sustain yourself while your industry is in suspension. Frustratingly, each time you begin this online process the system is too overloaded with users, so it crashes . However you don’t know it has crashed since it does not provide a prompt that can be interpreted by a screen reader. You wonder, is this because the system is processing your request and the requests of many others or has it simply timed out? All you know is that your screen reader is no longer talking to you. After an unreasonable length of time you come to the realization that something must have gone wrong and you manually restart your computer so that it will speak to you again. You do this everyday for a week, multiple times per day. With each occurrence you try to find any other way to fill out this application, which is required to be submitted on a weekly basis to receive your unemployment benefits. Your efforts get you nowhere. You are not able to call and speak with someone nor are you able to fill out the printable paper application. The online form is your only option at this time. You give up.
Fortunately for some, they have a pair of sighted eyes in or near their home who can assist in these frustrating times. However, the mind fills with questions for those without an extra pair of eyes; what do they do? and what becomes of them if no one can or will help?
Digital accessibility issues can be resolved. Website owners and developers MUST create and maintain accessible websites. It is the law.
There are companies and non-profit organizations out there who can quickly identify web accessibility barriers for websites and organizations of any size. They can also assist website owners and decision makers to find companies that can help remediate issues and/or train their staff how to use internationally accepted Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
Here is a list of correctable web design and development barriers that this screen reader user encounter attempting to complete the tasks required when applying for financial relief during COVID-19:
• Images, controls, and structural elements do not have equivalent text alternatives
• Missing visual and non-visual orientation cues, hierarchical page structure, and other navigational aids
• Inconsistent, unpredictable, and overly complicated navigation elements
• Websites that do not provide full keyboard support
Don’t leave people in the dark. Check your website on a regular basis to make sure you have not inadvertently created a barrier for persons with disabilities.
NOTE: This article only addressed the issues of the author. Web users represent a diversity of abilities and challenges including; visual, auditory, cognitive, physical, and speech.
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About the author and editor:
Stephanie Bolinger is a completely blind Web Accessibility Analyst. She focuses on user-centered review and analysis of websites and other digital products. She is a trained JAWS screen reader software user and holds 26 international web accessibility certifications through Deque University. She is also an avid user of other screen reader software systems such as NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) and Apple VoiceOver.
P. Jay Massey is a founding partner and CVO at Coco Design. His current passion is assisting others as a digital accessibility consultant and document accessibility trainer for associations, municipalities, and county governments. He has over two decades of print, web, search, social, mobile, and accessible marketing leadership experience.