The Internet Is for Everyone, Right? Not With a Screen Reader

Blind users have been fighting for a more inclusive web for over 20 years. Are lawsuits like the one against Dominos going to make a difference?

A few weeks ago, Lucy Greco heard a story on NPR about more clothing retailers shuttering their stores and moving online. Oh, great, she thought, recalling some of her past experiences with online shopping: Youre clicking on something that says, graphic graphic graphic, or some numbered file name, or some gibberish like that.

The internet can be like this for Greco, who is blind and uses a screen reader to wayfind online. Screen readers convert display text into synthesized speech or refreshable Braille, giving visual displays an audio equivalent. But many websites have features that make them impossible for her to useunlabeled graphics, forms with missing field labels, links mysteriously named link. Greco says she runs into issues like this 90 percent of the time that she spends online. When she does, entire chunks of the internet disappear.

Since the 1990s, the popular narrative of the internet has been one of progress: More people are online than ever and the web is increasingly open. But today, the internet is far from fully accessible. By some measures, its gotten even worse.

There are around 7 million people with a visual disability in the United States, according to the National Federation of the Blind. Many of them may, like Greco, find the modern web to be lacking. One study by an accessibility software company this August found that 70 percent of the websites it surveyed, ranging from ecommerce to news to government services, contain accessibility blocks, or quirks in the design that make them unreadable with assistive technology. Another accessibility report analyzing the top million homepages on the web estimates that just 1 percent meet the most widely used accessibility standards. People who use screen readers are regularly confronted with readouts like unlabeled button or image1.jpg in place of the descriptive information they need to navigate.

As a self-proclaimed web accessibility evangelist, Greco has worked to solve these problems since she first started using a computer in 1985. That was five years before the Americans with Disabilities Act afforded protections to people like her, and 15 years before the first web accessibility lawsuit made the case that those protections should extend to the internet. By the late 90s, hoards of Americans were rushing online for the first time, and AOL had begun to reshape modern life with email, instant messaging, and 500 hours of free internet for all. But on a screen reader, all of that vanished. AOL was littered with unlabeled graphics, forms with missing field labels, and commands that couldnt be performed with a keyboard.

In 1999, the National Federation of the Blind sued AOL, making the case that online accessibility was a civil rights issue. The company eventually settled, spruced up its software, and even hired its first Director of Accessibilitymoves that Curtis Chong, then the NFBs Director of Technology, called the first major step down the long road of getting full access to electronic information. Just like public buildings were required to add wheelchair ramps, web developers were now expected to add features like alt text, a word or phrase that identifies the content of an image.

The same year as the lawsuit, the World Wide Web Consortium developed its first set of Web Accessibility Guidelines. It contained 14 recommendations for accessible design: offer alternatives to audio or visual content, provide clear navigation mechanisms, use markup and style sheets. These guidelines were meant to create a foundation on which web developers and designers could build a more inclusive internet.

Its not that highly visual websites cant be accessible to the blind. Plenty of them are, and video-first platforms like YouTube and Twitch have active communities of blind users. To make those websites work with assistive technology, though, someone has to ensure the code includes things like alt text, properly labeling each of the graphical elements on the page. This stuff isnt just tidying up for blind and low-vision usersits good web practice, says Whitney Quesenbery, a UX researcher and the coauthor of A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences.

When websites dont contain good coding on the backend, it makes those unlabeled images, links, or buttons completely uninterpretable. To understand how maddening this is, watch this YouTube video demonstrating how a screen reader parses The New York Times homepage from 2014.(opens in new window/tab) The “Subscribe Now” button is read as list 1 item; the sections for world news, US news, and opinion each come out as link, link, and link. Research from Deque Systems, which makes digital accessibility software, found most websites contained these accessibility blockers, like unlabeled buy buttons on ecommerce websites. Captchas, meant to be an obstacle for bots, can also keep out blind people.

And site updates can sometimes make the problem worse, especially when the designs favor new widgets. One blind Reddit user, who asked to be referred to by his handle, @blindlyplayinggames, says the site became harder to navigate on a screen reader after its redesign last year. Modals on Twitch, which recently added a new dashboard, dont render on his screen reader, either.

A growing number of people have sought to fix the issue by going to court. Tech companies like Apple, Amazon, and eHarmony have each been sued for web designs that weren’t fully compatible with screen readers, whether because of popup forms or lack of alt text. (All of those cases reached settlements.) Earlier this year, BeyoncĂ© was sued for the design of, which was highly visual but had no collectible text. And this month the Supreme Court declined to intervene in a case against Domino’s, which was brought by a blind man who says he was unable to order a pizza through the company’s website or its mobile app using his screen-reading software. Domino has argued that it offers other accessible options for ordering, such as over the phone, and that the ADA, as currently written, should not apply online. With the Justices’ decision, widely seen as a victory for disability advocates, the lawsuit can now move forward.

What’s at stake, advocates say, is not just being able to order a pizza online, or shop for clothes, or getting to participate in the discussions on Reddit, although those things are all important. Accessible design is also a matter of privacy and security.

Security has been wrapped up with accessibility since the beginning, says Lainey Feingold, a disability rights lawyer and author. Feingold negotiated the first legal settlement about digital accessibility in 2000, just after the National Federation of the Blinds lawsuit against AOL. That case pushed for better access to ATMs and online banking, which couldnt be used without the help of a sighted person. Relying on someone else compromised the security of the blind persons bank account, leaving them vulnerable to the person assisting them. So, its a security issue, says Feingold. Same with medical records, or online dating. Anything you do online, would you want to have to ask someone for help?

Twenty years later, Feingold says she still sees plenty of cases where security is compromised. Last year, three blind Marylanders sued Walmart over the stores self-check-out kiosks, which cannot be used independently by the blind. One plaintiff alleges that when she asked for assistance at the self-check-out kiosk, the store employee selected the option for cash back from her debit card, withdrew $40, and then pocketed it. (Walmart responded apologetically, but says it believes its checkout procedures comply with the law. The case is ongoing.)

The number of lawsuits around digital accessibility has spiked in recent years. In 2015, there were 57 digital accessibility lawsuits, says Feingold. In 2018, there were close to 3,000. That has raised some eyebrows among attorneys like Feingold, who says some of those lawsuits have created an environment where people are afraid of accessibility. Mark Shapiro, the president of the Bureau of Internet Accessibilitya consultancy for companies to make their websites ADA compliantsays hes consulted with companies that each have the same notice from the same law firm, which can inspire some annoyance. He calls the lawyers behind these cases ambulance chasers.

But the net effect, Shapiro adds, is that these websites shouldve been accessible 20 years ago.

One problem is that there still exists some confusion around the standards for accessibility. Courts have interpreted the ADA to apply to web properties, but rulings have not always been consistent and the Justice Department has not offered specific guidance about what is legally required. The W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which have been updated twice since 1999, are only mandatory for federal agencies, under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. For everyone else, they still largely function as voluntary guidelines. Not that more regulation would automatically make things better. Quesenbery, the UX researcher, says theres a misconception that following an accessibility checklist alone is the answer.

Look, theres plenty of evidence that ticking the boxes on 508 doesnt get you a great design, says Quesenbery. Instead, she advises teams to include people with disabilities in the design process. We know that having diverse people at the table changes outcomes, she says. So, is your team diverse?

Greco has been pushing for this too. In 2016, she cofounded a group called the Blind Accessibility Testers Society, or BATS, that functions as an online community to trade information about accessibility tools, point out when things dont work, and make suggestions to tech companies about how to improve their platforms. Members of the group include developers from companies like Mozilla and Google, which have updated their accessibility browsers based on suggestions from the BATS testers.

Greco says that in the past five years, shes seen some companies make an aggressive effort toward accessibility. One of them is Google, which has a centralized accessibility team that works to codify inclusion into every product. Thats led to some meaningful changes, especially around Google products that used to suck. Greco says that Google Docs, for example, was completely unusable with a screen reader just a few years ago. And today, its my preferred method for writing something, she says.

Other companies, like Microsoft, have worked to build accessibility earlier into the design process, rather than as a compliance checklist at the end. Microsoft has seen some real innovations out of this process, like its adaptive controller for Xbox or a browser plug-in that uses AI to write alt text. This kind of work speaks to the goal of BATS, which isnt just to fix websites or platforms when theres a bug. Its to build accessibility into these platforms in a way that really upgrades them.

Greco and others call these electronic curb cuts. The term calls back to the 1990s, when the ADA’s passage led to building more curb cutsthose small ramps or dips that ease the otherwise abrupt transition between sidewalk and street. Well, who started using those? Mothers with baby carriages, people pushing grocery carts, says Greco. Curb cuts were meant to help people with wheelchairs but now they help everybody.

On the internet, there’s a similar story. Closed captions, originally intended to help deaf viewers, are now the norm on televisions in loud bars or just to parse difficult accents. And making web content easy to decipher on a screen reader also makes that content easier for any machine to read, which means it gets better search engine optimization and will have compounding benefits in the age of machine intelligence. Making a website more accessible to people with disabilities doesnt just prevent a company from being sued. It makes the internet better for everyone.

Disclosure: WIRED takes ADA compliance seriously, and we’re working continuously to improve how the site works for all readers.

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