An increasing number of employment, educational, communication, entertainment, civic participation, and government functions are moving either primarily or exclusively online. High levels of inaccessibility on the Web and Internet-enabled mobile technologies are threatening to exclude people who experience forms of disabilities from the information society. Unless a policy approach toward Internet accessibility for people with disabilities is reviewed and re-imagined to approach current technological and social realities - people with disabilities will have to deal with challenges related to every core element of society today.
People with Disabilities are America's largest minority population.
Approximately 54.4 million people, or 18.7% of the overall population, experience a form of disability in this nation. The number of people who experience a form of disability in America is expected to rapidly increase as the baby boom generation ages because 53% of people over the age of 75 have a form of disability.
People with disabilities already have to deal with notable challenges related to education and employment. We face a rate of unemployment that is more than 3 times as high as the rest of the population and experience similar gaps in educational achievement. Interestingly, 75% of people who experience a form of disability in America who are not employed want to work. Around 30% of high school graduates with disabilities enroll in a college, while 40% of the overall population does. One year after high school graduation, a mere 10% of students with disabilities enroll in two-year colleges, and a meager 5% enroll in four-year colleges.
Even though America has the world's most comprehensive policy related to Internet accessibility and clear guidance for creating accessible technologies is in existence, designers and developers of hardware technologies and Web software in academia, industry, and government many times exploit gaps in existing policies to ignore the needs of people who experience forms of disabilities. The result is that the majority of Internet-related technologies are created inaccessible and cut out some or even all users with disabilities.
People with disabilities already use the Internet and other types of technologies at levels that are below those of the rest of the population. The main reason why is not due to a lack of interest or education, but because the Internet itself is unfriendly to a people who experience various forms of disabilities. The barriers they face related to access and usage differ by type and extent of the disability a person has. Since the advent of the World Wide Web, many studies have shown the inaccessibility of web sites and additional elements of the Internet. More recent studies of accessibility concerning U.S. government web sites discovered that at least 90% of them have major barriers to access, even though they are supposed to have been accessible for almost 10 years under law. The levels of accessibility in educational and commerce setting are worse.
Challenging Internet Interfaces
People with various abilities clearly face various challenges when accessing the Internet. People who experience visual impairments may face challenges due to a lack of compatibility of Web content with the screen reader they use, a software application that provides computer-synthesized speech output of items appearing on the screen, as well as equivalent text provided in the back-end code. Screen readers usually have issues when designers fail to place appropriate text tags on links, graphics, tables, or forms.
People who experience motor impairments, such a limited or no use of their hands or fingers, may face barriers due to a cluttered layout, links and buttons that are too small, as well as other important navigability considerations such as requiring the use of a pointing device, that may make entire functions and sites unusable for them. For people who have hearing impairments, a lack of textual equivalents of audio content can many times cut out entire portions of content from a site and interactive Web chats and additional conferencing features might be entirely impossible. People who experience communication and speech impairments may also be excluded from interactive Web chats and other conferencing features. For people with cognitive impairments such as dementia, autism, or traumatic brain injury - problems with layout, design, and navigability make the difference between the ability to use a site or not. People with specific forms of learning disabilities might face the same barriers as those with visual impairments, or people with cognitive impairments. For people with seizure disorders, the flicker rates and flash may actually jeopardize their health!
A person's experiences with the Internet many times vary depending upon the form of disability they experience. The same web site often offers opportunities for one group while excluding another entirely. A student who uses a wheelchair might find that the ability to take online educational courses makes the educational process easier for them. Yet if the course web site is not designed to be accessible for students who experience limited hand mobility - participation in the course might be limited, or even impossible.
In the same way, a web-enabled mobile device with a touch screen might appear miraculous to a person with a hearing impairment, yet be a nightmare for a person with a visual impairment if it is not designed to provide alternative methods for interacting with it. The Internet and the technologies related to it present a complex series of issues for people with disabilities, not only as an overall population, but as separate populations within the whole related to the specific disabilities people experience.
While the range of potential barriers to people who experience disabilities in the online environment is extensive, there are ways to develop and implement technologies so they are included. There are known and achievable ways to address the access barriers mentioned. Many developers of web sites and related new technologies; however, just do not consider people with disabilities when they either create or update their products. Interestingly, the inaccessible web sites and technologies that are the results of this blatant disregard of accessibility run against federal civil rights laws for people with disabilities. A number of the issues of inclusion and exclusion online for people with disabilities have been considered in both policy and law, yet the conceptions of disability under the law, exemptions from compliance, limited enforcement, as well as the inability of the law to keep pace with technological development, all hinder the impact that the laws in America have had to date.
Despite the barriers people with disabilities face, the Internet has been viewed as having incredible potential related to promoting social inclusion of people with disabilities. In the year 2000, people with disabilities who were able to access and use the Internet were reporting noticeably larger benefits from the Internet in some areas than the general population. Adults with disabilities in the year 2000 were more likely to believe the Internet:
At this time, some Internet technologies are significantly benefiting people with particular forms of disabilities. Other technologies are offering potential opportunities to every person with a disability.
Smartphones, while excluding a number of people with disabilities, have helped many others who experience speech, hearing or other types of communication impairments and find themselves with the ability to use the phones to communicate face-to-face more efficiently than they had been able to previously. In the same way, using video chat, people with these forms of disabilities may now converse with others over the phone in new ways.
For a larger population of people with disabilities, the Internet has a great amount of potential to create new means of interaction and communication through online communities devoted to specific forms of disabilities. A person who may never encounter someone else who experiences a similar disability in their physical environment may now interact directly with others who have similar disabilities anywhere in the world. For people whose disabilities limit their ability to leave home, the Internet has the potential to provide them with a much larger world of interaction. People with disabilities even have the choice to live their online lives as people without disabilities if they want to.
Beyond the clear communication and social benefits, the Internet offers people with disabilities an array of new ways to pursue employment and education. For people who may find it hard or even impossible to travel to a building for work or education, the Internet provides the ability to do either right from home. The potential benefits may be the best benefits in the long term for promoting social inclusion of people with disabilities given that the current levels of employment and education of people who experience disabilities is exceptionally low when compared with the rest of the population in America.
Due to the importance of these types of engagement with technology, the lack of equal access to the Internet will become an increasingly serious issue in the future. As more activities in the areas of employment, education, communication, and civic participation move primarily and then exclusively online, people with disabilities must be included. Inaccessible online education alone might seriously erode the ability of people with forms of disabilities to have a place in modern society.
An accessible Internet presents incredible potential to increase the inclusion of people with disabilities and facilitate online education, telework, participation in e-government, as well as the ability to form relationships that overcome barriers and challenges presented by the physical world. A new approach to public policy must be created that better eliminates the virtual barriers that are in place, ensuring that people with disabilities are not marginalized.
Web Accessibility Standards
With web accessibility, people that have disabilities are not only able to work on the Web, but also are able to perceive, understand, navigate and interact with the Web - and even contribute to it.
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Accessibility on the Internet
Accessibility means providing flexibility to accommodate each user's needs and preferences. In an Internet context, accessibility is making computer technology and Internet resources useful to more people than would otherwise be the case.
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