This (inaccessible) digital world

So, you’re eight months into lockdown already, and you’ve gotten into a bit of a routine. 

At first, when your organization sent everyone to work from home, things were really rough. It’s been hard for you to get information about the covid-19 pandemic. It seems that every site you visit, including that for a global leader in health policy, is designed to prevent you from getting clarity: you can’t seem to land on relevant information, and just navigating the site seems like a journey full of blind alleys and dead-ends.

Title 'This (inaccessible) digital world' with profile photo of Dr Kristen Liesch from Tidal Equality

Day-to-day practicalities are posing new challenges. When you suspect you’ve got covid-19 symptoms, getting access to testing is complicated by reduced transport, and, frankly, public transit isn’t always a safe place for you. You feel vulnerable and frustrated. And working from home has come with additional barriers. You can’t communicate and work with your peers like you used to, and you’re being excluded from team communications because your tech isn’t working the way it usually does.

Now, we're about 8 months in, and things are better, but they’re far from perfect. In fact, every day still presents a fair few struggles. 

Today, for example, you’ve been tasked with doing some research as part of a broader team project. You’re navigating a site you’ve been to a million times before (your regional health services site), but the navigation menu is practically unusable, the information is poorly organized, the fonts are small and hard to read, and by the end of it, you’re exasperated and exhausted.

These are just a few examples of how the digital world hasn’t been built for you.

Or, at least not yet.

Does this experience resonate with you? Maybe. Maybe not. 

But this is Lalita’s experience.

This kind of digital is a constant frustration for people like Lalita, who are among the 22% of Canadians - and 13.9 million people in the UK - who identify as having a disability. 

Introducing Lalita

Lalita is a vocal advocate in the disabilities community, and someone eager to “get her foot in the door” wherever she can when it comes to raising awareness about the lived experiences of people with disabilities.

She’s been working in finance for over a decade and has been passionate about accessibility rights for as long as she can remember. A young activist, she was still in high school when her persistence in advocating for a national bus line’s accessibility resulted in tangible change. Today, her advocacy focuses on healthcare, housing and employment, and will soon be serving the broader disabilities community with her forthcoming podcast, the Greatest Gimp, where she talks with guests about all sorts of topical issues through a disabilities lens.

But that’s not all, Lalita is also a board member for Supports for Artspace Independent Living (SAIL) which is a flagship entity in self-directed care. Housing at SAIL uses the homecare model, providing self-directed care to their tenants. This means they have control of their own lives, with assistance when and how they need it. Compare this to typical care homes, where tenants are given a schedule and told when to eat, when to use the washroom, when to go to bed, completely giving up their autonomy. The self-directed care model allows them to live in their own homes, have more independence and go to work or socialize. While this model has been around for 30 years, only three sites in Alberta, Canada currently adopt this method. 

Lalita also serves as co-chair on the Edmonton (Alberta) zone Patient and Family Advisory Council where she speaks out about barriers in medical care using her personal experiences as examples to push for changes. She works with the Patients and Family Advisory Council, sharing her experiences with the directors of homecare in order to advocate for reform in the healthcare sector. Lalita also visits schools and raises awareness among students about disability on behalf of Voices for Albertans with Disabilities.

And Lalita is also a person who was struck with polio as a child. She uses a wheelchair, experiences fatigue, chronic and overbearing pain, has hand mobility and dexterity challenges.

So, when Lalita is collaborating with others to advance quality of life in homecare facilities, or fighting for equitable treatment for patients and their families in the health sector, or wanting to join her colleagues in a collaborative team platform meeting, it shouldn’t. Be. This. Hard.

But it is. And taking one of the world’s leading collaborative platforms as an example, the tool is so inaccessible that the Office of Information Technology at the University of Colorado Boulder states simply: “Do not use [it] if you have a team member who uses a screen reader.”

When the digital space is invisible and impossible

For people who don’t (yet) identify as an individual with a disability - I say “yet,” because, as we age, this likelihood increases dramatically - we are not primed to understand how so much of the online world in which we shop, create, communicate, share, and ship is simply off limits or so clumsily built - like the collaborative platform mentioned above - that it might as well be, for people with disabilities. 

Kirsten Dodd of Hey Nova explains that, in February 2019 and February 2020, WebAIM conducted an accessibility evaluation of the home pages for the top 1,000,000 web sites and over 100,000 additional interior site pages. She explains select findings below:

For folks with a visual impairment, low color contrast on your site prevents accessibility. ​86.3% of sites and pages FAIL in this regard.

​​When you don’t use proper color contrast it means important areas of the website, like your “buy now” button, are invisible to your color-blind customers. Many modern designs use more muted colors that may look fantastic for anyone who isn’t color-blind, but as soon as you take that color away, important buttons and text blend completely into the background, making it impossible for anyone who is color-blind to find. If you have ever used your computer or phone in the bright sun and noticed some parts are really hard to read in the glare, that’s what it can be like all the time for those potential clients and consumers you haven’t considered in the design of your site. 

60% of sites and pages feature empty links - your “checkout” icon might be invisible!

Most ecommerce sites use a cart icon as the customer’s means of checking out. If that icon doesn’t have hidden text in the code to explain the links purpose, it could mean it’s impossible for someone who is blind to locate this button. If a customer relies on a screen reader to navigate essential sites, you need text representation of links, otherwise all your customer will know is that there is a button that can be clicked, but they will have no way of knowing where it goes or what it’s for.

89% of marketing popups are un-clickable! 

Most of us have a love-hate relationship with pop-ups already. Now, imagine it’s impossible to close that pop-up because, in order to “reach” the “X”, you need to endure physical pain! Folks with mobility challenges, chronic pain, and more, experience this on a daily basis. Do you know if your pop-up can be disabled with the “Esc” key on a keyboard? If not, you’re subjecting users to this extra effort and pain.

Most of us (still) take the digital world for granted.

But the lived experiences of people with disabilities reveal to us the extent to which their full participation in our culture(s) and spaces - both physical and virtual - is still stymied.

When the COVID-19 pandemic is only part of the problem

We’ve described elsewhere how the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating inequalities, and creating further challenges for folks in the disabilities community.

However, the problem - and opportunity - that site (in)accessibility presents is made evident when we look at an online activity that many of us are engaged in these days: online grocery shopping.

Lalita describes how, prior to the pandemic, she didn’t make use of food home delivery or online grocery shopping options, but - like many people - self-isolation precautions and shelter-in-place orders have made online shopping a necessity.

When she first attempted ordering ready-cooked meals online, what Lalita experienced was painful. Literally and figuratively. One of North America’s most popular meal delivery service, in this case, was the culprit. Lalita finds it nearly impossible to use the desktop site without added pain when her hands flare up. She can’t tab through the website effectively, meaning she can’t even log in or reach the “Need Help” button. While tabbing to options lower down on the page, the page will not scroll with the tab meaning she has no idea where she is, and if she pushes past the pain and gets to the bottom, it completely skips the “Get Started” button meaning she has to scroll all the way back up. When she does get to the menu, it then won’t let her tab to pick restaurants, because she can’t even tell where the tab is focused as there is no highlight. She tries to click on something and it takes her to a random restaurant, leaving her no clue how she got there. In the end, Lalita is frustrated and hungry. And this company has lost a consumer.

Ordering groceries is just as bad. Similar to the popular meal delivery service, she has issues using the tab to navigate the local grocery store website. She can not see where she is or even get to the items she wants to order, making shopping for groceries impossible.

Designing for accessibility is designing for everyone and designing for opportunity

Now, imagine being the owner of a food delivery service, a grocery chain, an online retailer, and functionally barring entrance to 22 percent of your potential customer base? It seems ludicrous, but that’s exactly what the vast majority of websites do. 

E-commerce sites, government sector sites, networking sites, ride-sharing apps, messenger apps… upwards of 98% fail accessibility testing, leaving billions of dollars on the table.

HeyNova is a digital services agency with a focus on building, advising, and teaching inclusive tech solutions. In collaboration with Tidal Equality, Hey Nova is in the process of designing and conducting live research into the types of accessibility challenges that folks with disabilities experience when using common apps and platforms. The beta survey was designed on a popular free online survey form. Disappointingly - an inaccessibility of note! - the form created to solicit these stories of lived experience was unreadable for at least one person who is blind, and whose screen reader isn’t compatible. Tech companies - do better!

Disability, the future of work, and your inaccessible future

The COVID-19 pandemic and the work-from-home wave has, for many, been either a blessing or a curse, or sometimes both. 

In Lalita’s case, it’s confronted her with all the added challenges described above, but there have been benefits, as well. All of a sudden, doctors are willing to conduct telehealth appointments. For Lalita, this means she doesn’t have to shop around and navigate wait-lists at the health service provider offices that are accessible to her. (That’s right. Many brick-and-mortar health service providers aren’t accessible.) She’s also pleased to see more retailers shifting to online, and those retailers whose sites are accessible are getting her business. (Instacart, you get Lalita’s vote.)

As for the workplace? As businesses are turning to increased work-from-home scenarios, Lalita notes that folks with similar mobility challenges may not have to navigate long and arduous commutes in order to show up in person. And chances are, they are more likely to secure employment in the first place. In the UK, only 53% of people with disabilities are employed, compared with 82% of people without disabilities. In Canada, 54% of folks with moderate disabilities are employed. The shift to work-from-home, accommodating for remote interviews and working opportunities, could change the employment landscape for people with disabilities.

Lalita misses the social aspect of in-person work - as many of us do - but she recognizes how the shift to work from home is promising to open the proverbial door to many people with disabilities who, until now, were perceived incompatible with the world of work. And she’s not the only one to make this astute observation.

Andrea van Vugt, founder of Disability Pride Alberta, says, “It takes support and confidence to build a workplace culture that includes disabilities. Employers can capitalize on the trend to work from home to build a strategy that supports accommodation, flexibility and interdependence. The growth of these strategies promotes capacity for a diverse workplace. When an employer has the confidence to think outside of the box they are exposed to a determined talent pool that is eager to succeed.”

And as we take so much more of our lives online - from work to book clubs to games night - online service and product providers have an opportunity to begin designing digital spaces where everyone can participate equally, where everyone has an opportunity to thrive and reach their full potential. For the people with disabilities today, and for so many of us who will experience them in the future.

Folks who are not (yet) people with disabilities: 

Think about what it will mean to your future self if we are currently designing and architecting an digital world. 

Are those of us who grew up in a digital world - (and still) play video games, engage in online spaces of all kinds, rely on e-commerce and virtual connectivity - ready to grow older only to find that we’ve locked ourselves out of these spaces?

Because the fact of the matter is that we’re headed toward that inaccessible future and so many of the people around us know what that exclusion feels like, and they feel it on a daily basis. 

The collaborative and democratic work of designing for all

This doesn’t need to be a Millenial’s dystopian future.

It doesn’t need to be the present reality for people with disabilities. 

People with disabilities have insights that could - and should - inform the re-creation of our digital world. Their lived experiences, their best ideas… if we listen to and learn from them, and also equip them to be the architects of change, we can open up new possibilities and new frontiers for innovation, for collaboration, for equality of opportunity and access in ways that will be the rising tide that lifts all boats.

What can you do to design for greater accessibility?

  • For starters, you can partner or work with an agency like HeyNova. Many people have no idea their website is not accessible because without in-depth tech knowledge, it’s just plain difficult to see the work below the surface. That’s why Hey Nova uses their technical and creative expertise paired with their extensive research into web accessibility to break down the what, whys, and hows of making your digital space more accessible to everyone, in a way that even non-technical folk can understand. Hey Nova aims to outline all possible improvements, approaching the work from an empathetic perspective. They have found this approach means you are less likely to miss things than when you are simply checking off items from a list, because when you’re considering real people and their real experiences, you see the whole picture. 
  • You can listen to and learn from the disabilities advocates in your community, market or in your organization. Open up lines of communication with your staff, your clients or your customers - don’t assume you know who identifies as a person with a disability or not - and invite them to share their stories of lived experience and any solutions or feedback they have for your organization in regards to accessibility issues.
  • Equip the people in your organization to begin asking the sorts of questions that empower them to make change for greater equity and equality. Practices like the Equity Sequence™️ can help individuals and teams identify how/where what you write, produce, ship, design and create might be biased or inequitable to people with disabilities or other marginalized and underrepresented groups.

If you would like to find out more about what you can do to become more digitally inclusive, check out our web accessibility resources - you'll find free guides, webinars and more!

About the author

Dr. Kristen Liesch is co-CEO and co-founder of Tidal Equality, a strategy firm at the intersection of social change and diversity and inclusion based in Canada. She is co-creator of the Equity Sequence™️ practice, a system for interrupting bias and increasing equity in work and decision-making. An educational designer and strategist, she is obsessed with co-designing a more equal world through curricula, candid conversations, and equitable organizational change.

Profile photo of Dr. Kristen Liesch