- Work, healthcare, and shopping have shifted online, where disabled users face issues.
- Zoom works with screen readers, but many e-commerce websites don’t work well.
- Courts have ruled that the Americans With Disabilities Act may not cover some sites and apps.
Sam Seavey runs a YouTube channel to review software and tools meant to help blind people. But when Seavey, who has a blind spot in the center of his vision and relies on magnification and audio screen-reading technology, tried to add his biographical information and links to his TikTok account, he couldn’t make out the text.
“TikTok’s app is not fully accessible,” Seavey said. “Some of the buttons aren’t labeled for screen readers. The text is incredibly small.”
The Americans With Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, was meant to give people with disabilities access to public life. But the Justice Department, which makes ADA regulations, has not definitively said what standards businesses must meet online. In two recent cases, federal appeals courts have said that some apps and websites don’t need to be fully accessible since Congress didn’t specifically include them in the ADA.
This gap in the law has left many disabled users behind. As the pandemic moved interactions online, many of the 7.7 million blind people in the US were unable to use the apps and websites needed to book flights, hotels, and even COVID-19 vaccinations.
Thirty-nine percent of screen-reader users, most of them blind, said the web has gotten more accessible over the past year; 42% said there was no change; and 19% said things have gotten worse, indicated new data from WebAIM, an organization at Utah State University.
Kyra Sweeney, a blind law student who uses a popular screen reader called JAWS, said job boards such as LinkedIn are a repeat source of frustration. She said she’s had to contact employers about issues with their hiring portals, alerting them to her disability in the process. That opens the door to discrimination, she said.
Zoom is accessible, but vaccine booking is buggy
“So many websites do not work effectively with screen readers,” Sweeney said. “Maybe they meet the bare minimum of accessibility guidelines, but they’ve never been tested out by someone with a screen reader.”
LinkedIn said it regularly tests its website with screen readers and aims to meet a high standard of accessibility. TikTok did not respond to requests for comment.
The pandemic cast the online access gap into stark relief. Kaiser Health News reported in February that “nearly all” of the 94 government vaccine websites that it tested had accessibility problems. Phone lines, where available, featured long wait times or limited hours.
With retail stores closed during the pandemic, millions of Americans did more shopping online. But many retail websites don’t work well with screen readers, which read code to help blind users navigate. More than three-fourths of the 3,550 businesses sued over website accessibility in 2020 were retailers, found a survey by UsableNet, an accessibility-compliance company.
Doug Flood, the president of Deque Systems, which makes online compliance tools, said companies could make more money if they built accessibility into their digital products. Some popular services, such as
, are accessible, he said. But his company estimated that 70% of websites have major accessibility blockers.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are becoming standard
Over the past decade or so, the Web Accessibility Initiative, a project of the web-standards group known as W3C, has tried to rally web developers around accessibility standards.
W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are the closest thing to a standard that exists when it comes to digital content. When the Justice Department settles lawsuits over accessibility barriers, it often requires companies to meet WCAG standards. But those are implemented in a piecemeal way.
A federal judge recently ordered Domino’s to follow WCAG standards in a case brought by a blind customer who said he was unable to order pizza online, after the 9th Circuit said businesses with physical storefronts must comply with the ADA in person and online.
In April, an 11th Circuit panel ruled that Winn-Dixie hadn’t violated the ADA with an inaccessible website because a visually impaired customer could still use its brick-and-mortar stores. One judge dissented, saying Winn-Dixie had treated the man as a “second-class customer.” The ruling is being appealed.