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The History of Digital Accessibility

Deniz Taşyürek
November 28, 2022

The internet can seem like a wonderland of connectivity, and the importance of being part of that connection is increasingly important to the daily lives of people around the globe. Unfortunately, however, making sure that digital communication is accessible to people with disabilities isn’t always a high priority as new technologies are being developed. Addressing the access gap created by neglecting digital accessibility is long overdue.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that roughly one in four Americans live with disabilities and per the UN, an estimated 15% of the 7 billion people worldwide do as well. Comparatively, WebAIM has found that only 3% of the internet’s top 1 million homepages were fully accessible. Put simply, digital accessibility, or more commonly the lack thereof, impacts a lot of people and it’s clear that ensuring that persons with disabilities have full access to the internet should be a much higher priority for anyone in the business of connectivity and communication. 

The illustration with the title “World without barriers,” including a computer screen with a play button and a man on it, a pile of books right next to the screen, a man with wheelchair right next to the other side of the screen, a woman climbing to the ladders, a man carrying a magnifier in front of the screen, and another man sitting on the screen.

What is Digital Accessibility?

Digital accessibility, or web accessibility, is all about designing websites, apps, and internet technologies accessible to anyone, regardless of visual, audio, motor, or cognitive ability. The purpose of designing with accessibility in mind is a more egalitarian internet experience for all; one where perception, understanding, usability, interactivity, and participation within the online world is equally achievable for persons with disabilities as it is for abled people. 

Why Does Digital Accessibility Matter?

Digital accessibility matters in the same way access to transportation, healthcare, and education matter. Because quality of life and ability to participate in society matter for everyone and an internet that is hospitable to those with accessibility needs is hospitable to everyone. 

Aside from moral imperatives, however, digital connectivity is one of the most powerful technological advancements in human history, the chief advantage of which is the ability to create connections between anyone anywhere and to make our lives easier. With connectivity, convenience, and creativity being the main focus and purpose of the online world, an increasingly digital global society should be more accessible to those with disabilities, not less. As technology advances and it becomes easier to offer individual users unique and personalized experiences of their devices and digital interactions, it would frankly be a waste of technological potential to create barriers to access through creative neglect in a space where accessibility barriers can be so easily eliminated. 

“Now, depending on who you ask, they'll have different reasons for why digital accessibility is important. But ultimately, it reaches the same end goal, which is providing access and removing barriers to the internet. I'll talk about why accessibility is important to me in one particular order.

The first thing is inclusion.

It's the fundamentally right thing to do from a diversity, equity, inclusion standpoint to make sure that everybody has access to the same content. 

The second benefit is business benefits. We've all heard of the one in five people who identify with a disability statistic, so it's a no-brainer that making your content or products accessible will increase your market share by 20%.

And last on my list is compliance. If you address the first two criteria, you'll automatically meet compliance. Those who consider inclusion as an important part of doing business would've already focused on making their application accessible and by default meet compliance regulations. I don't like to lead with compliance because then it just becomes another item to mark off the checklist.

So, this is my particular order.”

Aditya Bikkani
 
COO, AEL Data (Full-service Accessibility QA company)
CEO & Founder, AdvancedBytez (Accessibility Automation product company)

A Brief Look at the Key Milestones in Digital Accessibility

The wording “ADA - Americans with Disabilities Act” on the image in an illustrative format, four people standing or sitting right next to the letters of ADA, accessibility-related icons (wheelchair, cables, sight, hearing, gears) around the letters. 

1990: Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that ensures that people with disabilities have access to all sectors of public life including transportation, education, workplaces, restaurants, retail spaces, and places of worship. The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of ability and ensures equal access to government services, telecommunications, and public accommodations, and is additionally significant because it addresses people with disabilities as a protected civil rights group similar to race, age, gender, or citizenship. The ADA also laid the groundwork for digital accessibility guidelines by including websites in the description of public accommodations. 

Though many timelines of the disability rights movement start with the ADA, it’s important to remember that this legislation was not the beginning of social change, but rather the culmination of decades of activism and advocacy work from people with disabilities, and allies.  

1995: The First Microsoft OS with Built-In Accessibility Features

Windows 95 is the first operating system to include accessibility features as a standard component of its design and out-of-the-box functionality. Among the accommodations included in Windows 95 are:

  • StickyKeys: A keyboard setting that allows for sequential keystrokes to form compound commands, designed to enable shortcuts for users who have difficulty holding down multiple keys simultaneously. For example, a user would need to hold down CTL+ALT+DEL to access the task manager, but with Sticky Keys enabled, could press CTL, then ALT, then DEL and achieve the same result. 
  • FilterKeys: A keyboard setting that makes the keyboard less sensitive to light or duplicate keystrokes making it easier for those with fine motor difficulties to type.
  • ToggleKeys: ToggleKeys adds an audio component to typing to assist those with visual impairment or cognitive disabilities in identifying when locking keys such as “caps lock” and “num lock” are enabled or disabled. When these settings are activated, a higher-pitch sound is made, and a lower-pitch sound is emitted when removed. 
  • MouseKeys: MouseKeys allows the numerical section of a desktop keyboard to serve as a means of cursor navigation, eliminating the need to use a mouse. 

1999: The Release of WCAG 1.0 in 1999

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are released in 1999, providing a way to evaluate the accessibility of a website to persons with disabilities. The guidelines are accompanied by a ranking system of three tiers with accessibility features divided into priorities 1, 2, and 3. A complete list of the checkpoints and their priority designations can be found at W3.org.

  • Level A: The website satisfies the list of accessibility features designated as Priority 1. This ranking is considered to be the bare minimum in terms of accessibility and is viewed as below acceptable in most cases. 
  • Level AA: The website satisfies checkpoints designated as Priority 2. Most websites are advised to aim for this level of accessibility in order to support assistive technologies and meet the needs of persons with disabilities.
  • Level AAA: The website satisfies checkpoints designated as priorities 1, 2, and 3, and is considered universally accessible. While websites are encouraged to strive towards this level, WCAG recognizes that certain design specifications that enhance accessibility for some may limit accessibility for others, and it is not expected that Level AAA be achieved. 

2000: Windows 2000 with Narrator

The release of Windows 2000 builds on the accessibility features offered in Windows 95 with two significant developments, Narrator, and the virtual keyboard. Both are included as standard with the operating system and neither requires additional software to function. 

  • Narrator: Offers text-to-speech functionality as a rudimentary screen reader, allowing users to hear written text aloud. 
  • Virtual Keyboard: This feature displays a screen-based keyboard that can be navigated by a mouse or joystick. 
Windows 2000 desktop view displaying where to find accessibility features: Start menu > Accessories > Accessibility 
Source: Youtube

2002: Apple Introduces Universal Access

Apple’s OS X: Jaguar included a number of features designed to increase accessibility for users with visual, audio, motor, or cognitive disabilities. In addition to options such as MouseKeys, StickyKeys, and a screen reader that had previously been available for Microsoft, Universal Access included customizable displays with the ability to reverse colors, increase contrast, or convert to greyscale. As a package of features, Universal Access represented Apple’s first effort to make accessibility accommodations a standard part of their operating system for every user. 

2005: Apple Introduces VoiceOver for Mac OS

VoiceOver, Apple’s screen reader program, was first introduced in 2005 as part of the Mac OS X 10.4 update and refined in Leopard (OS X 10.5) soon after. Moving beyond the basic functionality of reading text aloud, VoiceOver included more robust descriptions of a website in addition to the ability to navigate with voice, but did not offer the same plug-and-play usability that Apple is known for to users who are blind or visually impaired as their sighted peers, and for many, the initial release of VoiceOver fell short of users expectations for ease. Since 2005, VoiceOver has come standard in all of Apple’s computer operating systems and continues to evolve and improve with each iteration. 

2008: The Release of WCAG 2.0

Just as technology itself evolves, so too do standards of accessibility. In the eleven years since the original guidelines for web accessibility were released, the prevalence of internet connectivity in the daily lives of people throughout the world has increased dramatically. Likewise, the need for persons with disabilities to have full and unrestricted access to the digital world rose as well, and new guidelines were released in order to help developers meet effective standards of accessibility. 

Rather than a checklist of features and accommodations, the new guidelines focused on the core concepts of accessibility in order to remain relevant and applicable as technology advances. The POUR criteria is designed to help developers evaluate the effectiveness of their accessibility efforts. 

A circle illustrating POUR criteria with each point (perceivable, operable, understandable, robust) positioned on the circle. Perceivable includes sight, hearing, and Braille alphabet icons. Understandable includes a brain icon. Operable includes mouse keyboard, and touch screen icons. Robust includes computer and phone icons. 
Source: Deque

POUR Criteria

  • Perceivable: Content must be available both visually and audibly in order to ensure that those with visual impairments or who are deaf or hard of hearing have equal access to the content. For example, screen readers must be able to provide a description of non-text content in addition to reading any text components, and audio elements of a digital experience must have visual alternatives such as subtitles available. 
  • Operable: There must be a variety of ways for users to navigate the digital interface in order for it to be accessible to persons with visual, aural, motor, or cognitive disabilities. For example, a “tappable” control must also have a voice control option.
  • Understandable: Content and user interface should be easy to understand for any user, regardless of ability.
  • Robust: Digital content must be created with accessibility in mind, not just for the present, but for the future as well. Robust content anticipates the need for compatibility with assistive technologies and user agents. 

2009: Apple Introduces VoiceOver for iPhones

As mobile devices continued to dominate a greater and greater share of the digital marketplace, Apple began to release mobile accessibility tools, such as VoiceOver for iPhone 3GS, which was the first screen reader to use gestures on a touch screen. Though VoiceOver for iPhone was consciously designed for persons with disabilities, many of the expanding capabilities of mobile phones lowered communication barriers for many communities, such as video calls which made it easier for users to communicate via sign language, despite not being designed specifically for deaf and hard of hearing users. 

Throughout the years, Apple’s offerings of accessibility technology had advanced far beyond their original attempts, and in 2011, Stevie Wonder gave a heartfelt shoutout to Steve Jobs and Apple during one of his concerts saying, “His company took the challenge in making his technology accessible to everyone…in the spirit of caring and moving the world forward…There's nothing on the iPhone or the iPad that you can do that I can't do.”

2014: The Introduction of EN 301 549 by the European Union

EN 301 549 provides a legal standard for European information and communication technology and requires digital content made accessible to persons with disabilities. Based on Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, EN 301 549 is comparable to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (a precursor to the Americans with Disabilities Act) which requires that governmental forms of information and communication technology be accessible to all. 

2018: The Release of WCAG 2.1 in 2018

The latest iteration of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines includes standards of accessibility specifically for those with cognitive, attention, and learning disabilities. 

Digital Accessibility Today

In many ways, the Covid-19 Pandemic provoked a reevaluation of digital accessibility worldwide, as the need to convert so many aspects of life to online alternatives made abled people more aware of the challenges that persons with disabilities had been encountering for decades. Where an individual need to work from home had commonly been considered a “deal-breaker” for many employment opportunities, suddenly entire companies were finding ways to keep their workforce connected and productive without the need to physically be in an office setting. Likewise, arts organizations, public libraries and museums, educational institutions, religious communities, and more invested significant effort in providing digital access to the public that had not been a priority for the disabled community. A survey by Deque initiated in March and April of 2020 found that over the course of the following year, many companies made efforts toward digital accessibility a priority in some ways, but often fell short on providing resources, training, or time to fulfill those promises. One respondent’s summation echoes sentiments expressed by many others, “​​Demand for accessibility is up, and lots of policy action, but little in the way of resourcing or engagement. COVID has put a lot of things in the ‘urgent’ category.”

“We tend to take the barriers in digital accessibility as given and forget that they’re human-made. It is important to remember that we design the whole digital experience. And it is up to us to create mobile technologies that are assistive, not limiting.  As it is the case in every other part of our lives, access means equal.”

Duygu Küçükçolak
, Product Manager at Storyly

The WebAIM Million

As a result of analyzing the home pages of the top 1 million websites, WebAIM found that there are WCAG 2 failures on 96.8% of them. Despite the slight improvements over the previous years, these pages still have barriers to end-user accessibility most commonly due to the following reasons: low contrast, missing ALT text, empty links, missing form input labels, empty buttons, and missing document language.

“Practically speaking, it’s important to prioritize core user flows and the most severe issues that block access and create barriers to independent and private use. This means understanding the types of issues that users have (by designing with feedback from real users), the impact when those are not addressed, and understanding how to design and create in the best way to make them inclusive to a wide range of disabilities. Some solutions focus on specific user groups and sometimes solutions may benefit one group and hurt another.  Ultimately, solutions that are adaptable to the users' preferences provide the most flexibility and support the wider audience. Regarding what requires more attention – all issues can be very important to someone but not others – for example, flashing content may be very detrimental to one group but not an issue for many other groups. Underrepresented groups such as people with cognitive and learning disabilities are one group that deserves more attention in design – which will have many benefits for all users.

In addition, some things have to be fixed in design, while others can be fixed in development.  Many issues that impact users who are blind can be addressed during development with behinds the scene accessibility properties – while other issues that impact users with low vision or cognitive disabilities have to be addressed during design as development alone will not address these needs. So it’s really about addressing the right issues during the right stage of the product lifecycle.”

Jonathan Avila, Chief Accessibility Officer at Level Access

The State of Accessibility

Diamond’s 2021 State of Accessibility Report presents a comparison of accessibility trends year over year among the top 100 most visited websites. It is important to note that though the selection of those websites changes each year (Diamond notes that only 60% of the websites that were in the top 100 in 2020 remained on the list for 2021) the figures regarding their accessibility provide a consistent snapshot of how much of the internet is accessible to all in that given year. By testing each website and designating it as either Accessible, Accessible with Difficulty, or Inaccessible, Diamond was able to show that accessibility has improved dramatically since the onset of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Among the key findings:

  • In 2019, 21% were accessible, 24% were accessible with difficulty, and 55% were inaccessible 
  • In 2020, 61% were accessible, 7% were accessible with difficulty, and 32% were inaccessible 
  • In 2021, • 62% were accessible, 9% were accessible with difficulty, and 29% were inaccessible

While it is encouraging to see that the percentage of fully accessible websites has tripled in the last three years, it’s important to note that almost all of that progress came between 2020 and 2021, and without the social pressures of the pandemic, accessibility only improved by 1% in the following year. It should also be noted that the third that remains inaccessible is just what we can see in the Top 100 and that there is little reason to believe that less popular websites are more accessible in general than those on the list. In short, despite improvements, legislation, and advocacy, much of the internet remains inaccessible to people with disabilities. 

Accessibility in the Mobile Ecosystem

Within the mobile ecosystem, Diamond limited their evaluation to the top 20 free apps for iOS and Android, and the top 20 paid apps for the same platforms. 

  • Of the top 20 free apps for Android, 75% were accessible, 5% were accessible with difficulty, and 20% were inaccessible 
  • Of the top 20 free apps for Apple, 65% were accessible, 10% were accessible with difficulty, and 25% were inaccessible 

Based on a Pass/Fail accessibility rating for the top 20 paid apps, only 40% of those tested on the Android platform passed and just 10% on iOS. Within the report, Diamond notes that most Americans check their phones nearly 100 times a day totally roughly four hours on mobile devices, the majority of which is spent in apps. The report goes on to address the impact of the lack of accessibility in the mobile landscape.

“Universal design is about making sure apps are available to the maximum number of people in the maximum number of circumstances. This includes accessibility, inclusivity, and usability. The foundation of app development is a well-designed process and universal design must be a bedrock on which that foundation rests…Many of the mobile apps Diamond tested are those that allow users to interact with each other, socially, visually, and financially. Accessibility barriers of these apps will not only lock out a person with a disability but also limit society as a whole.”

Prevalence of Alt Text

One of the easiest ways for websites and digital communications to improve their accessibility is by adding alt text to images, meaning that a screen reader would have a descriptive text of an image to read aloud to users. As awareness about the use and benefits of alt text rises, the percentage of websites that utilize it increases, but the presence of alt text for visual media is still not as prevalent as it should be. According to Level Access’s recent testing, in 2019, the percentage of organizations that included alt text in their social media images was 29%. That percentage increased to 45% in 2020, and 75.5% in 2021. While this trend is promising, it is important to keep in mind that alt text is only one method of making visual communication more accessible.

“Alt text is just one aspect of the needs, and at the same time what was done to improve the use of it also can be applied to other areas as well – awareness, integration into process, showing the impact of lack of it, etc. Without people experiencing the impact, accessibility appears like a vague thing that is being done or required simply to tick a checkbox, to benefit a small number of people, or because it has to be done - rather than something that materially impacts a significant number of people and their lives.”

Jonathan Avila
, Chief Accessibility Officer at Level Access

Universal Design is the Future

Overall, the message of digital accessibility has remained consistent throughout the years: While consistent improvements to web accessibility are being made, there is still a shockingly high percentage of the internet that is inaccessible to persons with disabilities. This is unacceptable. 

While universal design may seem like a niche need at first glance, the truth is that the creative thinking required to create functional alternatives to the assumed methods of technological operation are exactly the same as the creative thinking that leads to world-changing innovations for all. In other words, designing for accessibility means designing a convenient, functional, and elegant digital landscape for everyone. 

What does this mean for us? 

As members of the tech community, Storyly is committed to keeping accessibility in mind when designing our products. Over the next few months, we’ll be debuting several new features that bring us closer to a world where universal access is the norm by making Stories more accessible for users of all abilities. To read more about our accessibility features, visit our blog. 

Deniz Taşyürek

Content & Brand Marketing Strategist at Storyly. Writes about mobile user behavior, user engagement, and retention. A genuine Potterhead. She also loves succulents, cats, and aerial yoga.

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