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digital accessibility

Contributor(s): Alan Souza

Digital accessibility is the ability of a website, mobile application or electronic document to be easily navigated and understood by a wide range of users, including those users who have visual, auditory, motor or cognitive disabilities.

There are many assistive software and hardware tools available to help someone with a disability to successfully interact with digital devices and content. For example, an alternative input device, such as a sip and puff switch, can allow a user with impaired motor skills to access digital content without having to use a traditional keyboard or mouse and an alternative output device, such as a screen reader, can allow a user whose vision is impaired to consume digital content .

Although the wide variety of assistive technology tools can help an end user lessen the impact of a disability, poor digital design can make those assistive tools less effective and hinder the user’s ability to interact with digital content.  Design elements that meet the needs of end users with disabilities are quite similar to the recommended best practices for good design in general. 

Digital products that follow the principles of universal design adapt easily to different users’ needs or preferences and can be accessed in more than one way.  For example, streaming video content that follows best practices provides captions for the hearing impaired and web sites that follow best practices include alt text tags for graphics.

In the United States and other countries, legislation to enforce digital accessibility has been passed.  For example an amendment to the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 508, mandates that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities. The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) of 2010 says that products and services that use broadband, including video programming on television and the Internet, should be fully accessible to people with disabilities. To help website developers ensure their content is accessible to all users, the WC3 has developed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The guide is intended to provide a technical standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations and governments internationally.

To ensure compliance with CVAA, WC3 guidelines and other government and industry mandates for inclusion, consumer and enterprise-level developers are increasingly using universal design principles to provide end users with a consistent user experience (UX) that is intuitive and easy to use.  Addressing digital accessibility during the design process also has financial benefits. According to U.S. census data, the population of people who use assistive technology to navigate the Internet is a market that is over $350 billion in size and growing as the population ages.

This was last updated in May 2016

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