According to a Pew Research survey, 75% of U.S. adults with disabilities say that they use the internet on a daily basis — but that number rises to 87% for people who don’t live with disabilities. Rates of internet usage are consistently lower for those with disabilities, and one of the goals of digital accessibility is to close the gap by making websites more useful and accommodating.
Software solutions and accessibility services can overcome some of the challenges that people with disabilities encounter when using the internet. However, all assistive technologies work more effectively when content creators follow the best practices of web accessibility.
Below, we’ll examine four technology solutions that enable people to browse the web more comfortably — and explain how accessible design can help these technologies deliver the best possible experience.
1. Screen Reading Software
Screen readers convert text into synthesized speech or braille output. People with vision disabilities often use screen readers regularly, though some users prefer screen magnifiers (which we’ll discuss later in this article).
Popular screen readers include JAWS, Apple VoiceOver, NVDA, and Android TalkBack. Every screen reader has different capabilities and limitations, but most programs are standalone applications — they’re not part of the user’s web browser.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is the most widely recognized standard for website accessibility. Several WCAG guidelines are especially important for accommodating screen reader users:
- Non-text content should always have a text alternative. For example, images should have a text alternative (also called an “image alt tag") that explains the image’s purpose on the page.
- The default human language of each page can be programmatically determined. Screen readers need to understand the language of a page in order to follow pronunciation rules. Make sure to define each page’s language using standard HTML markup.
- Websites should use clear, descriptive subheadings in a logical order. Most internet users “scan" around a page to find the information they need — screen reader users are no different. By using subheadings in sequential order, developers can improve the browsing experience for people who use assistive technologies.
This certainly isn’t a comprehensive list: WCAG contains dozens of other guidelines that can improve screen reader accessibility, so review WCAG principles and checkpoints when creating your content.
2. Closed Captioning Services
In recent years, closed caption services have gained popularity in professional workplaces. While many video conferencing apps and media players offer automatic captions, automated tools aren’t perfect — closed captioning services employ human transcribers to make captions and transcripts more accurate.
WCAG requires captions for “all prerecorded audio content in synchronized media, except when the media is a media alternative for text and is clearly labeled as such.” Closed captioning services help to address this need. However, content creators should follow the other best practices of video accessibility to reach the widest possible audience.
3. Screen Magnification Software
People with vision disabilities may magnify web content to make it legible or to reduce eye strain. Web browsers offer the ability to “zoom in" on content, but screen magnification software works differently: Tools like MAGic, Windows Magnifier, ZoomText, and Apple’s Zoom work by magnifying a section of the screen at a time, which preserves the web page’s layout.
Of course, many users prefer to use the zoom function on their browsers, so don’t assume that every person with low vision will use standalone software when accessing your website. WCAG success criterion 1.4.4, “Resize Text,” requires that content can be zoomed to 200% without losing content or functionality — and without the use of screen magnifiers or other assistive technologies.
4. Speech Recognition Software
Speech recognition software enables users to control their browsers, dictate text, and interact with websites using their voices. People may use speech recognition if they have physical disabilities, cognitive conditions, learning disabilities, or chronic health issues such as repetitive stress injuries.
Most operating systems have built-in speech recognition tools, which depend on the best practices of keyboard accessibility. Users will expect common commands (such as “go to the next page") to operate websites in predictable ways.
Here are a few WCAG recommendations that can improve the browsing experience for speech recognition users:
- Provide a clear visual indicator of which element has the current focus. Without visible focus indicators, users might not know what they’re controlling. A quick test: Use the “Tab" key to navigate your site. If you can’t identify which element has focus, neither can your users.
- Use labels and identifiers for interactive elements. Each element’s label should match its programmatic name. For instance, if a user sees “Submit" on a form button, they should be able to say “submit" to complete the form. For more guidance, read our article on accessible names.
- Fix any “keyboard traps.” Keyboard traps prevent users from navigating your site after focusing on a certain element, and they’re one of the most frustrating accessibility issues.
Ultimately, if your website is accessible for keyboard-only users, it’s probably accessible for most speech recognition tools. By auditing your content for WCAG 2.1 Level AA conformance, you can identify (and remediate) keyboard accessibility barriers.