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Are QR Codes Accessible for People with Disabilities?

May 17, 2023

QR (Quick Response) codes are a common tool for driving customer engagement. By scanning a square, black-and-white barcode with their smartphones, customers can be redirected to an app, website, or any other digital product. 

Brands use QR codes for a number of reasons; the codes are virtually error-free, trackable, and convenient. They can be scanned from any direction, and because they’re capable of containing 7,089 characters, many printed QR codes can function even when damaged. 

When used properly, QR codes can also improve accessibility. Many people with disabilities have difficulty entering long addresses into their mobile web browsers, and for those consumers, scanning a QR code saves quite a bit of time. This benefits a wide range of users:

  • People with dyslexia and other reading disabilities may have trouble typing long URLs. 
  • People with limited vision may be able to access content much more quickly by scanning a code.
  • People with memory disabilities may have trouble remembering passwords and may prefer to use a QR code to log into a website or verify their identities.

However, QR codes can present challenges for other users. People with vision disabilities may have trouble lining up the QR codes with their cameras — and if the code redirects the user to an inaccessible website or mobile app, the experience can be frustrating. 

Here are a few quick tips for making QR codes as accessible as possible.

Use QR codes, but provide an alternative

When you give your customers options, everyone benefits — as long as those options are truly optional. 

Some people may not have smartphones; others may have older devices, and they may need to download a third-party app to read QR codes. Don’t force those users to “figure it out.” 

One of the four foundational principles of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is operabilityThe interface cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform. 

QR codes require a specific type of interaction (lining up the camera with the visual code) that may be impossible for blind users and people with mobility disabilities. Provide alternatives:

  • For a QR code that serves as two-factor authentication, provide a link for verifying the user’s identity via email or another method.
  • For a printed QR code that redirects the user to a restaurant menu, write the URL so that the user can manually enter the address.
  • For a QR code that redirects to an app store, print the name of the app and instructions for downloading it. 

Essentially, if your instructions read: “Scan the QR code or…,” you’re in a good position. The more options you can provide, the more ways your customers can engage with your product.

Related: How To Make Your Website's Authentication Process Accessible

Provide instructions for using the QR code

In 2021, VocalEyes, a UK-based advocacy organization, surveyed people with vision impairments about the accessibility of QR codes. 34% of respondents said that they’d used QR codes independently; 39% said that they knew about QR codes, but hadn’t used one. 

Generally, respondents with low vision agreed that QR codes were useful — when accompanied by clear instructions. Users may need assistance lining up their cameras with the code, and brands can provide that assistance.

  • Consider using a colored frame around the code to help users orient their cameras. 
  • Write detailed instructions in clear language, using a large, legible font.
  • Explain exactly what will happen when the user scans the code. 
  • Make sure your instructions meet WCAG’s requirements for color contrast.
  • QR codes that appear on websites should have alternative text explaining that the image is a QR code, along with a quick description of the code’s function.

Once again, it’s important to remember that QR codes don’t work for every type of user. People who are blind may be unable to orient their phones to read the code, even with clear instructions.

Related: Brands Are Losing Billions by Not Being Digitally Accessible

Make sure the QR code directs the user to accessible media

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many restaurants switched to online-only menus. That created issues for the disabilities community: Many menus are delivered as PDFs, which create accessibility issues even when optimized for assistive technologies. 

Likewise, if your code redirects users to an unoptimized website or mobile app, you’re delivering a poor experience. Audit your content for conformance with the Level A/AA guidelines of the latest version of WCAG (currently, WCAG 2.1). 

The Bureau of Internet Accessibility offers a free website accessibility scan, and we’re always available to help organizations embrace digital accessibility. To learn more, send us a message

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