Denial of Service: Issues with Digital Accessibility

By Oriana Ott, Staff Writer
Monday, April 2, 2012

Accessibility as an issue extends beyond the physical spaces we inhabit. Consider how much of your own time is spent using technology or even just the Internet. For most of us, it is a critical part of our social and working lives.

The Internet has been praised as a means of accessing information in more egalitarian ways than has ever previously been possible, removing historic barriers of financial and social accessibility. It is fundamentally a network of public spaces. However, for people with certain physical disabilities, new barriers make it difficult to navigate an increasingly Internet-dependent world.

We use public spaces on the Internet to work, communicate, learn, and participate in communities and the market. As long as people with disabilities are not recognized as equal participants in these spaces, they will continue to experience discrimination.

Businesses lose customers without even knowing they existed, and public resources become privileged. Websites are frequently designed in ways that are often difficult to navigate and impossible for screen viewers to read. If you’ve ever visited a government website, for instance, you have probably felt frustrated by its poor design.

Speaking of visual features, websites often lack basic readability. Using color contrasts in background and font can render contents invisible to people with atypical color vision and neurological disabilities. The annoying flashing gifs that people pepper across their websites can be dangerous to users with seizure conditions. For example, an attack by the hacktivist group Anonymous sent many people to the hospital with seizures by posting triggering files on a forum for people with epilepsy.

Another major problem you may have encountered is the CAPTCHA system that most websites use to distinguish human users from automated spammers. Unfortunately, this tool is often unusable for people with visual impairments.

Designs that contain multiple side buttons with alternatives cannot be navigated via keyboard, making these alternatives inaccessible as well.

The sound alternatives that some sites use are heavily garbled and obscured by background noise, to the point where the vast majority of users cannot distinguish correct information. Yet CAPTCHAs are a gateway to all kinds of public spaces—from online pharmacies to social networking sites.

When it comes to individual differences, software and hardware exists to modify the way computers can be used. For people with severe motor impairments, a mouth-operated mouse and programs that use voice commands to operate a computer or take dictation can circumvent inaccessible keyboards. Programs that can read the contents of a screen aloud help people for whom screens are inaccessible.

Unfortunately, many of these programs are limited in capability and are very expensive, partly because their development is supported by a niche market of people who tend not to have a great deal of disposable income. Voice recognition is still limited in its functionality, but since it has been recognized as commercially useful, a lot more research has been directed to this area. Logistics matter, but often businesses neglect to realize the diverse implementations that accessibility software can have. Ergonomic keyboards, for example, are becoming increasingly common as more people spend more time using keyboards and begin to feel the strain they can put on vulnerable joints.

Many modifications are very easy to implement, but are not commonly used. Adding descriptive text to images and transcripts to videos has become increasingly simple. For example, YouTube allows users to add closed captions by uploading a transcript. It can automatically add appropriate time stamps that link these captions to appropriate times in the video. These features help users who cannot hear or watch the video, making it accessible to a much wider audience, including people on mobile devices and in public spaces.

Alternatives exist, and projects such as the Web Accessibility Initiative provide information on how to increase accessibility. Software used to test website functions can also scan for accessibility features. Especially as Internet-dependent generations grow older, these features become increasingly important to more people. It might not seem that pressing now, but these features may eventually dictate whether you will continue to be able to use the Internet.

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