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Is accessibility only for the legally disabled?

Jill Power, 6 minute read

Many app builders approach accessibility with the goal of making accommodations for disabled users. Some may even approach this as an afterthought, assuming accessibility concerns only a small percentage of their users. However, according to the CDC, in the U.S. alone, one in four adults live with a disability, or about 64 million people. And this number doesn’t even account for all those who need accommodations but have not been diagnosed with a legal disability. 

Accessibility laws and regulations were designed around legal disabilities. The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were created to level the playing field for using the web for those with disabilities. Profiles usually focus on people with permanent disabilities such as those who are blind, deaf, deaf-blind, have low vision, color deficiencies, or mobility and cognitive disabilities. However, there are many others who benefit from the W3C guidelines and the creative solutions that evolve when application development teams think upfront about accessibility and inclusive design. 

Temporary impairments are still impairments 

Most individuals have suffered from a temporary impairment at some point in their lives. Some people may consider a temporary impairment a minor inconvenience, but others may struggle to complete basic day-to-day responsibilities. Today, everything we do involves being online — work, education, and personal activities. Anything that impedes us from quickly getting the information we need or completing a task is frustrating. What are some examples of temporary impairments? 

Impairments due to a physical injury 

Mild impairments include a broken arm or hand, an ear infection, cataract or other eye surgery, dental surgery, repetitive-use injury, tennis/golf elbow, or a pulled muscle in the neck, arm, or shoulder. More debilitating impairments that may require rehabilitation from an accident include head trauma, arm/hand injury, and back injury. 

Impairments due to medication side effects 

Common medication side effects include tremors/shakiness, dizziness, light sensitivity, blurred vision, double vision, difficulty focusing, drowsiness, anxiety, and tinnitus (ringing in ears). 

Situational circumstances can create additional complexity 

We live in a social and mobile world where people conduct their personal, business, and learning on-the-go. Therefore, they may not be in their perfectly-constructed work environment and must deal with external influences that can impede their work.  

Noise restrictions 

Many individuals work in locations with noise restrictions, such as indoor public environments where people gather — for instance, libraries, coffee houses, or doctor’s offices. Sound or voice-based technology could be disturbing to other people around, even when using a headset.    

Visual restrictions 

There are daily activities, such driving, walking, running, or other physical activity where individuals may still want to consume content or conduct business. They may to do so by using non-visual means. Additionally, challenges occur in locations with bright sun, or environments where glare makes it difficult to read a screen or distinguish colors. Device and monitor size may also provide challenges, depending on the task at hand. 

Many conditions need assistance — even if they are not seen 

Many individuals experience challenges in their daily life that aren’t always obvious to people around them. Often the challenges have stigmas attached to them, so people are more likely to keep them private and make their own adjustments to their work environment. These challenges can be related to chronic illnesses or common age-related issues.  

Chronic illness 

Chronic illness effects about 133 million people in the U.S. These illnesses include carpal tunnel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, anxiety, arthritis, attention deficit disorder, epilepsy, migraines, and many others. 

Age-related issues 

As a person ages, natural decline of some modalities is common. Issues like glaucoma or other visual impairments, Presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss, mild tremor/shaky hands and cognitive degeneration are often found with people over 65. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2024, 13 million people over 65 will be part of the U.S. workforce. 

Designing for accessibility means broadening impact  

The W3C created standard accessibility guidelines to help organizations better meet the needs for those with disabilities. Yet, the impact is far greater than just those with permanent legal disabilities. Every day, people face a variety of personal challenges – whether temporary, situational, chronic, or age-related. Designing for accessibility not only allows you to meet your compliance requirements, but also introduces creative solutions that increase customer satisfaction as well as productivity for all your users, regardless of their own personal situation and environment.

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About the Author

Jill Power is the Senior Program Manager for the Accessibility Experience at Pegasystems. Jill has worked with various government entities and industry leaders to address accessibility and compliance challenges. She has also worked with populations of varying abilities throughout her career and is passionate about bringing the online world to those often left outside of it.

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