In today’s COVID-19 world, everything is digital. Happy hours are now 5 p.m. Zoom calls, first-time dates are on FaceTime, four-year-olds are learning the ABCs from an iPad. This is an incredibly common topic of conversation in today’s media—how do we shift our schools, our workplaces, our social lives, and more to a fully virtual structure? A vital concern here is that the more we shift to a digital age, the more chances there are for technology to become inaccessible to a disabled user.
One in four Americans lives with some type of disability. To take that one step further, this figure only includes the reported or diagnosed disabilities. In a world that’s increasingly reliant on technology, the very same technology is often times deployed for public use without proper accessibility testing. The average website has at least one noticeable accessibility error. It wasn’t until 2019 that the Supreme Court ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to private companies’ websites and mobile applications—a ruling finally made in a time where every job application, every order system, every new service is online.
Why are there so many technology accessibility issues? For government projects, technology has to meet Section 508 compliance, whereas in the private sector, companies refer to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) for information on how to develop for accessibility. However, accessibility is often included in the software lifecycle at the very end as part of the quality assurance (QA) process. This is akin to writing a twenty-page paper, then giving yourself less than an hour at the very end to check and fix any mistakes you’ve made. By the time any accessibility issues are discovered—if the company has made strides to even test for accessibility—it’s often too late in the project to fix anything before deployment.
The core issue is that accessibility is always an afterthought—a small attempt to address issues for what people believe is a very small percent of their user base. Developers and designers aren’t trained to think about accessibility from the beginning of the project, leading to snowballing issues throughout the project’s lifecycle. Accessibility specialists are rare and can be costly due to the lack of widespread education.
Even when there is instruction for the people developing our technology, it’s reduced to basic principles. UX designers—the people who dictate what the software and web pages look like—are told to keep in mind certain principles. Keep a sufficient color contrast ratio, never only use color to indicate an action or status, make sure someone can navigate the system by keyboard, add in alt text to an image. The problem? Sometimes these mean a sacrifice between visual aesthetics and accessibility, and visual aesthetics often win out.
There lies an even greater issue within technology. Technology organizations, by and large, are comprised of mostly white, abled-bodied, cisgender people. Humans are supposed to be the center of every technology project. Human-centered design, user research, user experience, customer experience, customer strategy—these are the buzzwords that are thrown around on the average software engagement. The issue is that when most of the employees are the same, they’re generally going to think that all of their users are just like them. It’s the same core issue that leads to racist algorithms and face-recognition technology. An able-bodied person will have a harder time imagining how someone uses their product by listening, instead of looking (as in the case of someone who uses a screen-reader). This underscores the need to have a diverse group of users to conduct research, to ask about their experiences, and to make sure that everyone can use the product.
Market research typically involves segmentation of personas that reach targeted populations. Let’s ask white women between the ages of thirty-five and fifty who frequent boutique fitness, for example, what they think of a new mobile application designed to match them with a new personal stylist. The issue is that including accessibility shouldn’t be a ploy to reach a certain segment of the market—it should be the benchmark for a human, not just a customer, to be able use the product. Even if all of the usability issues—that is, that all users, regardless of abilities, are able to complete required processes with minimal problems—are fixed, accessibility doesn’t stop at usability. There’s a step beyond usability, and that is accessing the technology itself.
This is a huge problem, especially for those designing government technology services. The biggest issues right now are all of the state unemployment systems that have crashed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while the federal government is one of the most diverse employers in the United States, leadership positions are still marred by a lack of diversity. In addition—oftentimes, it’s not government employees developing the technology that US citizens use. The federal contracting market is huge, and demand for IT contracting services grew 10 percent in 2018 alone. McKinsey & Company—one of the world’s most renowned consulting firms—is winning huge contracts advising the US government on the COVID-19 response. And while the federal workforce represents greater diversity, the people developing governmental technology are once again largely white and able-bodied.
By definition, government services have to be able to reach 100 percent of the population. As services move online, there’s a greater complexity required to reach all members of the population. A huge topic is how to confirm somebody’s identity online. The default method lately is two-factor authentication—e.g., when a user tries to log in, they have to confirm it’s them through another channel, such as entering in a texted code or receiving a phone call. However, what happens when somebody has to access their unemployment benefits but doesn’t have a cell phone? Or, in the case of the IRS, someone can get important documents mailed to them—but what if they don’t have a permanent address? In today’s COVID era, many states are moving their unemployment systems online; it’s difficult enough to fill out all the needed forms, but what if the site wasn’t properly screen-reader tested? Attempting to fill out forms to receive benefits while listening to jumbled instructions is a major roadblock for anybody who is visually impaired. These situations affect a large amount of the population, and again, must be designed so that everyone can both access and use this technology.
Accessibility can’t be an afterthought; the paradigm has to shift to think of it as an integral and absolutely required part of the technology development process. To do that, these tech giants have to understand that the lack of different experiences and perspectives within their own companies continue to contribute to these problems. Disabled users have to be included in the development process, accessibility specialists have to be de-facto members of teams, and accessibility needs to be one of the first hurdles a new technology project goes through. Until that happens, technology is just another human right that’s only reserved for the able-bodied.