As life moves online, gaps in digital accessibility mean millions of disabled Americans are being left behind.
When virtual events began proliferating due to calls for social distancing, Camisha Jones saw a silver lining. For years, she has had limited access to in-person events due to undifferentiated connective tissue disease, which causes, among other symptoms, joint pain and fatigue. But now that many events would be taking place online, she realized she could attend more poetry readings than usual.
Her enthusiasm was short-lived. “I find myself opting out of events because very little effort is being made to provide accessibility services for them,” said Jones, who works as the managing director of a poetry organization and lives in Herndon, Virginia, in an email interview.
In addition to chronic pain, Jones also has Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear that causes fluctuating hearing levels as well as other symptoms. In order to enjoy online events, she needs to be able to read what speakers are saying through captioning or a transcript.
However, 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 autocaptions 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.
One in four American adults is disabled. It’s been 30 years since lawmakers passed the Americans With Disabilities Act to make the country—and later, some argue, the internet—more accessible. But now, as we shift to working, schooling, shopping, and communicating virtually, the pandemic is showing how many holes remain in digital accessibility. From the absence of captioning to technical obstacles to blatant disregard for who even has access to the internet, these holes are everywhere: in health care, the workplace, education, and even state government websites, where more than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment. According to research by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in April, “86 percent of state government unemployment websites fail at least one basic test for mobile page load speed, mobile friendliness, or accessibility.” The researchers noted in their report, “These results closely mirror the performance of 400 state government websites ITIF tested in 2018,” showing a consistent disregard for the needs of disabled people even before the pandemic.
Jones, who has met with multiple doctors for virtual appointments over various telehealth videoconferencing platforms since March, said she had trouble understanding them due to the lack of accommodations, which has led to “infuriating” delays and technical obstacles. “None of the platforms for these appointments have included captions,” she wrote. Some non-telehealth-specific videoconferencing platforms do offer autocaptions, including Skype, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams; Zoom, however, does not.* (All of these platforms have HIPAA-compliant options, provided that the platforms are used correctly.)
In the pandemic, deaf and hard-of-hearing people also face technical issues even when getting care in person. Many hospitals are limiting in-person interpreters to prevent the spread of the virus and offering video remote interpreting in their stead. But remote sign language interpreting can be plagued by poor Wi-Fi connectivity or a lack of training on the part of medical professionals. The Los Angeles Times reported that in March in Ocoee, Florida, Jennylee Bruno, a deaf author who was diagnosed with COVID-19, initially received information about her condition through a video feed that kept freezing.* Staff eventually stopped using the interpreter altogether because of the frequent technical issues and instead used a whiteboard to communicate. “There’s a lot of people there and they have no time to wait for an interpreter,” she told the newspaper.
Employees now working from home are also facing videoconferencing challenges. Alaina Lavoie, a writer, editor, and social media manager in Boston, finds these calls overstimulating for her as an autistic person. “I have to focus and spend a lot more energy on video calls than I would on meeting in person or an audio call with no video component,” she said over email. She finds herself needing to take multiple breaks during calls because the pressure of deciding whom to look at or when it’s appropriate to speak exhausts her energy. “I think it increases accessibility if events are available to watch later, especially since with a virtual event it’s so easy to record it and upload it.”
Students are also saying that their access needs aren’t being addressed in the virtual space. Despite the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which ensures equal access to education to eligible students with disabilities, many students have been overlooked during the rush to move courses online. (It didn’t help that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was, until recently, debating whether to grant waivers to schools exempting them from special education requirements.) Mitchell Smedley, a blind high school student in Ivyland, Pennsylvania, is one of four students who filed a civil rights complaint with the National Federation of the Blind on May 11 against the College Board for not making its AP tests, which are now being administered digitally because of the coronavirus pandemic, accessible by hard copy to students who use Braille. “College Board needs to give the option for Braille and tactile diagrams, like we would have had before the pandemic,” Smedley said over email. Without them, “it’s like asking the sighted students to turn off their screens.”
Online offerings also make the assumption that people can even access them. But many disabled people lack basic internet access. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, disabled adults are roughly 20 percent less likely than nondisabled people to say they subscribe to home broadband and own a computer, smartphone, or tablet. Twenty-three percent of disabled respondents say they “never” go online, compared with 8 percent of nondisabled respondents. It’s likely that fewer disabled people have internet access than nondisabled people because they are more than twice as likely to live in poverty. Only 32 percent of working-age people with disabilities are employed, compared with 73 percent of nondisabled people.
All of these roadblocks—whether to academic resources, medical care, or just participation in a virtually staged community—cost disabled people more than just the access they’re denied in that moment. Elizabeth Ellcessor, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who studies the accessibility of technology, said that technology that restricts access to those who fit bodily norms is itself disabling. Referring to the rise of video meetings through platforms like Zoom, she said over email, “While these technologies extend access in some ways, they also introduce new problems tied to various disabilities or bodily needs.”
With public health experts saying that social distancing may need to continue on and off through 2022, businesses, schools, and organizations need to make their online services accessible. If they don’t, already underemployed disabled people risk losing their jobs, experiencing difficulty acquiring goods and services like health care, and not having the information they need to stay safe.
“We [disabled people] stand to benefit greatly, alongside everyone else in this economy, if we make digital accessibility a priority,” said former Rep. Tony Coelho, who has epilepsy and was the ADA’s primary sponsor, in an email interview. “My recommendation for leaders who are trying to figure out what to do and how to do it is to build relationships with disability leaders in their communities. They are your best assets.” He added that it’s also important to “address how race, class, national origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, and religion impact digital access.”
Lawsuits over web accessibility are filed at the rate of once every working hour, according to a 2019 report by 3Play Media, a company that provides captioning, transcription, and audio description services. In a landmark decision in October, the Supreme Court declined to hear Domino’s Pizza’s petition to review its case, in which the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it violated the ADA because its website didn’t work with a blind man’s screen reader software.
“Right now, the world has just been scrambling to survive COVID-19,” said Heath Thompson, who uses a wheelchair and is the chief executive officer of AudioEye, in an email interview. “I believe the pandemic has also created an opportunity for worldwide empathy towards the need for digital access, as we’ve all now been able to experience what it’s like not to be able to do basic things every day that we all took for granted just a few short months ago.”