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How COVID-19 has impacted digital accessibility

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When schools and businesses closed due to COVID-19, the public increased its reliance on the web to gain access to just about everythingincluding household shopping and delivery, healthcare, other services, education, information and even their jobs. Digital adoption was already booming prior to COVID-19, but now we are seeing even higher levels that are likely to stay that way even after the crisis passes when it passes. Think of the following:

In the banking industry, years of anticipated behavioral shift (i.e., the move to digital channels) has been condensed into a few months. According to research by JD Power, more than one-third of retail banking customers plan not to revert to older channels, but instead  will increase use of online and mobile banking services post COVID-19. In ecommerce, eMarketer predicts that U.S. ecommerce will rise 18%  in 2020, following a 14.9% gain in 2019—evidence of a digital shift that’s getting steadily bigger. Grocery shopping has been an industry that’s been slow to go digital, with only 3%-4% of grocery spending occurring online before the pandemic. As grocery shoppers have gotten a taste of what it’s like to shop online, that percentage is likely to increase to 5%-10% after the pandemic, according to Bain & Company.

As more consumers move—and stay online to perform essential tasks, there is increased focus on digital channels, which in turn brings digital accessibility more into focus. A recent survey, conducted by the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) and G3ict Research, shows the impact COVID-19 is having on digital accessibility initiatives and the users most impacted by them: people with disabilities.

Survey respondents were mainly senior-level, U.S.-based digital accessibility practitioners in education, financial services, government, healthcare, pharmaceutical services and other industries. While most agreed COVID-19 has raised the profile and importance of their digital channels overall, accessibility also ranked high among their concerns, reporting the following:

  • 62% say COVID-19 has increased awareness of the impact of accessibility on digital channels.
  • More than one-third of respondents have heard reports that users with disabilities are having increased difficulty accessing services during this time of crisis.
  • When asked how employees with disabilities are able to work remotely with digital platforms, 63% said they have some or great difficulty.

According to 90% of survey respondents, the volume of their work is expected to increase or stay the same in the next 3 months at the time the survey was taken (March/April 2020). Given this heightened urgency, many businesses and organizations are looking for ways to achieve digital accessibility quickly. There are several easy first steps, such as ensuring keyboard-only navigation and testing form labels and using automated testing tools to uncover other basic, but crucial issues. But what if your organization is in a state of accessibility emergency (such as facing an accessibility complaint or lawsuit) and doesn't have time to begin even these simple steps?

In these cases there are several options to choose from:

Accessibility overlays 

There are really two types of accessibility overlays. Let’s call them “tool-based” overlays and “custom JavaScript” overlays.  Tool-based overlays are most often a button listed on a page, offering users the opportunity to activate accessibility features. After clicking the button, a toolbar appears, allowing the user to change the sites colors, font sizes and more. Unfortunately, they do not fix the majority of critical issues and are fundamentally flawed as they require the user to stray from the assistive technology they are accustomed to using. A custom Javascript overlay modifies the markup of the site when the user views it. This overlay can change how the site appears to address visual accessibility issues, add missing accessibility semantics or add accessible text or text alternatives to the page. Accessibility overlays can be a great short-term solution when they actually fix accessibility issues on a site and don't require people with disabilities to download a separate tool or plugin.

Widget plug-ins 

Some organizations rely on plugins, or widgets that require the user to install a separate tool to make the website accessible. Widgets may seem like a quick accessibility fix, but take caution: they provide a one-size-fits-all approach that does not work for all people with disabilities. These widgets might be relatively cheap and address some accessibility issues, but they do little to improve the real accessibility of web properties. They also won’t insulate you from legal action, as the many lawsuits filed against companies using them have shown.

Widget plug-ins present several additional problems. They require persons with disabilities to download and use a new unfamiliar tool (versus the assistive technology with which they are comfortable), and force them to learn and install a custom plug-in that might introduce its own accessibility problems. Widget plug-ins also don’t work with native mobile applications and address only a limited scope of accessibility issues.

Make life as easy as possible for your employees

The disruption that occurred in the past year cannot be overestimated as millions of employees were suddenly expected to work from home without onsite IT support. An important component of digital accessibility is ensuring employees with disabilities can do their jobs.  According to the survey referenced above, when asked how employees with disabilities are able to work remotely with digital platforms, 63% said they have some or great difficulty.

Fortunately, there are several relatively quick and easy techniques organizations can implement to help reduce this difficulty—most having to do with making sure collaboration technologies and office documents are as accessible as possible. While most conferencing services are pretty accessible, it is important to be aware of their limitations. For example, unlike sharing a document, video presentations and screen shares can’t be read by screen readers, so when you’re presenting or calling out something on the screen, make sure you read the most important points and describe your images and your charts. Here’s a trick: Imagine the boss is on the call but had to call in from the car and also wants all the details. If you’re describing everything so the person can follow along on the phone, then everyone else will understand too.

Regarding office documents, there are several best practices that can be followed, including remediating basic Word documents for accessibility, which is a relatively non-technical process that can make a big impact. One tactic is to review your document’s content and structure in Microsoft Word (which has built-in accessibility checkers) before converting to other document types such as PDFs. This approach will optimize your conversion process, making remediation efforts exponentially easier once you move to Acrobat Pro.

The next frontier of accessibility

The COVID-19 crisis will leave a major imprint on how we have lived. As we become more reliant on digital channels, full accessibility of these channels is vital. Digital accessibility represents the next frontier of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which just had its 30th anniversary in July 2020. In this time of urgency, it’s OK to look to quick fixes, but utilize them wisely, recognize their limitations and remember they should never be considered a substitute for development teams working on comprehensive long-term solutions.

Data references:

  1. https://thefinancialbrand.com/95735/digital-online-banking-coronavirus
  2. www.emarketer.com/content/us-ecommerce-will-rise-18-2020-amid-pandemic
  3. www.cnbc.com/2020/05/16/how-coronavirus-pandemic-may-change-the-way-we-grocery-shop.html


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