The “Other” Digital Divide – Accessibility in the Covid-19 Shutdown

25 May 2020

Search the topic of the digital divide and you will see article after article emphasizing how the COVID 19 pandemic put a spotlight on the millions of people (including students and others) who don’t have Internet access at home or the financial resources needed to obtain it. 

However, the pandemic also put a spotlight on the “other” digital divide, the proliferation of websites, work-related softwares, and consumer applications that exclude people with disabilities from accessing information in the way that non-disabled users can.

This has been an issue since long before the pandemic but it has become even more noticeable with the acceleration in the shift to digital and online “everything” brought about by the pandemic. 

Simply put, digital accessibility is essential. The Covid-19 pandemic, in some ways, has become a forcing function for website owners and software developers to consider how they can do their part to close this digital divide.


What do we mean by digital accessibility?

Visit a website and you may intuitively know how to navigate it; you look for the menu, peruse the different drop-down options and how to get what you want or need from the experience. It isn’t intuitive at all…the modern website is a carefully designed space with user experience at its design core.

For people with disabilities, however, navigation is not always as easy and many digital assets are not designed with accessibility in mind. If you have a website or web-based business that has not taken accessibility to heart, you are effectively blocking access to a large segment of the public. They will be unable to use your apps, access your articles, blogs, images, and any other digital assets so crucial to your success.

It may come as a surprise to many that failing to consider digital accessibility is a potential violation of civil rights laws. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was initially designed for physical access to commercial entities. Today, it also has a digital component to ensure that people with disabilities have the same access to information, services, and goods through digital portals.


Beyond goods and services

As journalist Sarah Katz explained in her May 2020 article: “Few organizations are using real-time automatic captioning for their livestreamed events, though the feature is available for free on platforms like Facebook and YouTube. While auto captions are less accurate than human transcribers, the technology has improved over the years. In choosing not to use it, event organizers are shutting out more than 48 million deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans.”

Socializing, schooling, working, and communication, even medical care are all becoming web-based and digitally focused. One in four adults in the U.S. has a disability, and that represents a substantial need for businesses to facilitate accessibility that goes well beyond entertainment, shopping, and so on.

As that same article noted, “86 percent of state government unemployment websites fail at least one basic test for mobile page load speed, mobile friendliness, or accessibility… showing a consistent disregard for the needs of disabled people even before the pandemic.”

The emphasis on identifying essential services made it clear that banks, healthcare, food suppliers, and an array of other resources were going to be given special dispensation to maintain operations in some form. The non-essentials were still quite necessary, and at all points, the disabled struggled with accessibility.

One organization performed testing on the Instacart website, for instance, and found that (although the company’s mission stated that it serves all customers) the site had errors and malfunctions that made it nearly impossible for someone with a disability to do their shopping. The same was discovered of online banking and a wide range of healthcare providers. In fact, United Healthcare conducted a survey and found more than 80 percent of all consumers were anticipating using online medical support, and yet most of the digital assets had yet to redesign for full accessibility.

This meant that patients would find themselves effectively blocked from websites, patient portals, and most apps, from diagnostics and care to booking appointments.

Accessibility in mainstream education has become an urgent priority, too with the pandemic closing schools spring semester and moving online. In the U.S. alone there are nearly 14,000 public school districts serving an estimated 7.5 million students with special needs. Their needs for accessibility remain at risk in the massive rush to convert to online classes and distance learning across the board.

Be proactive about accessibility

It makes good fiscal sense to ensure your site is accessible. Sites that are designed with accessibility in mind perform better in organic search results than their non-accessible cohorts. Being compliant with regulations around accessibility demonstrates a desire to be inclusive of the entire digital audience, which gives your website a level of credibility and reliability that others don’t match.

Facilitating accessibility on the web is fast and simple. With a subscription to the TruAbilities ADA widget, you access a comprehensive set of tools for website accessibility. Whether your audience is smaller than 100 people or you have visitors by the thousands, you can use TruAbilities compliance solutions to create accessibility for all. Doing so helps everyone to close the gap on the other digital divide.