Legibility, visibility: Envisioning meaningful inclusion online

This is the conclusion of a three-part series on legibility, visibility and access for individuals with disabilities. If you haven’t had the chance to read parts one and two of the series, I advise that you scroll back and start there.

As Aimi Hamraie writes in their work Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability, “access to public space is a litmus test of freedom.”

The Internet is our public space and built environment for the 21st century, much like our buildings and streets. It is where we socialize, learn, shop, apply for jobs and, increasingly, do those jobs. In the same way that accommodating people with disabilities in the physical environment has focused on adhering to standards (primarily the Americans with Disabilities Act) and serving those with legible disabilities, I assert that we are replicating this same “compliance regime” (Hamraie, Building Access) on the web.

Begin with the browser. It is, fundamentally, a method of conveying information that is designed for “normate” users who have good vision and attention spans. In the same way that the physical built environment was created by imagining a “normal” and fully able user, so was the Internet. We failed to take into account the needs of people with disabilities from the beginning. Tools and workarounds (such as early screen readers) were developed over time to accommodate, but do not exactly replicate website experiences for users with disabilities.

Eventually, web standards were put in place to attempt to accommodate people with disabilities. And while the architect Le Corbesieur wrote that “a standard is necessary for order in human effort” (Towards a New Architecture), we must contrast this with the complex, widely disparate human experience with disability. Or as Hamraie describes it, “the anxiety-producing immensity of human variation” (Hamraie, Building Access). On the Internet, as in the physical built environment, our standards trim down disability to what we can understand through devices and simple solutions. Our industry has created a 21st century system of digital legibility.

The use of an assistive device online, such as a screen reader, or the way in which one does or does not use a keyboard or mouse, renders them legible or “knowable” to designers and developers. Web standards indicate that a site must be developed so that it can be read aloud by a screen reader and tabbed through using a keyboard. Additionally, web standards take into account straightforward solutions that increase access for D/deaf and visually impaired users—for example, captioning videos and not using color alone to convey meaning.

Yet web standards have not begun to meaningfully address inclusion online for people with intellectual, cognitive and learning disabilities; people with neurological or sensory disabilities; and people with psychological disabilities. Rendering us illegible because our needs are not uniform, concise or easy to standardize becomes a way to exclude disabled people from full access--a practice that originated in the built environment long before the Internet was even a dream.

Code compliance has also failed to address the financial accessibility of the Internet and assistive devices for people with disabilities. Nearly one-third of American adults with disabilities live in poverty (Pew Research Center), so purchasing broadband access and assistive devices is an additional challenge. In Philadelphia, where I live, only 71.6% of households had broadband at home in 2017 (American Community Survey). JAWS, a popular screen reader software for people with visual and cognitive disabilities, costs $90 a year. Refreshable braille displays, machines that output website text into braille and are particularly useful for Deaf/blind users, start at $3500. Even if a website “meets standards,” it may be financially and logistically difficult to get it into the hands of people with disabilities.

There’s more to be said about this issue and the elements of our industry that are perpetuating it--and could change to improve access for people with disabilities. But for now, take a moment to imagine what it would be like to invite people with disabilities to re-imagine the Internet. What would “a user-led approach to disability” and “a strategy of accountability” (Hamraie, Building Access) look like online?