How Situational Disabilities Affect Mobile Users

January 19, 2022

Digital accessibility has profound benefits for people who live with permanent disabilities that affect the ways they use the internet. However, accessibility also impacts users who have situational disabilities — short-term limitations that can occur for a variety of reasons.

Some situational disabilities are especially common for mobile users. For example, if a smartphone user accesses a website while standing in bright natural light, they may not be able to perceive their screen. Their capabilities are limited (for a period of time) because of their environment.

The principles of web accessibility can help content creators reduce the effects of temporary or environmental challenges. In this article, we’ll discuss several other examples of situational disabilities and demonstrate how mobile developers can improve users' experiences by following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Most mobile users occasionally encounter situational disabilities

When developing your mobile app or website, remember that your target audience may access your content in thousands of different ways. You might test your app for compatibility with smartphones and tablets — but you probably won’t perform tests in bright sunlight or with a cracked smartphone screen.

The WCAG framework is a powerful resource for developers because it uses a principle-oriented approach. Instead of planning for every possible scenario, you’ll design your content to be perceivable, usable, operable, and robust. Mobile accessibility is a manageable goal, and WCAG’s success criteria provide guidance for delivering the best possible user experience.

Here are a few examples of situational disabilities that could affect your audience, along with relevant WCAG success criteria:

  • A user loads a video while riding a bus or train. Since they’re in a public place, they’re unable to listen to audio. WCAG 2.1 Success Criterion (SC) 1.2.2, “Captions (Prerecorded)” requires captions for all pre-recorded synchronized media. With accurate captions, the user can understand the content without sound.
  • A mobile app asks a user to swipe left to activate a feature. The user’s smartphone screen is cracked, and the device won’t register a "swipe" gesture. WCAG 2.1 SC 2.5.1, “Pointer Gestures" requires that path-based gestures can also be operated with a single-pointer method. Instead of swiping, the user can tap the sides of the screen to use the app.
  • A user’s smartphone uses a battery-saving setting that reduces screen brightness. The user might have difficulty reading text. WCAG 2.1 SC 1.4.3 requires content creators to use appropriate color contrast ratios, which can improve legibility.

In addition to situational disabilities, accessibility can also accommodate people with temporary disabilities, which are limitations that persist possibly for several weeks or months, not for a moment or a lifetime. For instance, if a mobile user has a repetitive stress injury, they may temporarily use their non-dominant hand to browse the web.

Many people have trouble with precise movements when changing their browsing behavior — but if your content conforms with WCAG 2.1 Level AA, you’ll avoid creating unnecessary barriers for these users.

Related: Including Temporary and Situational Disabilities in the Accessibility Conversation

Accessible mobile design removes barrier for your entire audience

The Council for Disability Awareness, a disability advocacy organization, estimates that about 5.6% of U.S. adults acquire temporary disabilities each year. Situational disabilities that affect mobile usage may be much more common — most people occasionally encounter circumstances that change the ways that they use their devices.

WCAG provides the best framework for designing mobile content that works for everyone. By setting your WCAG conformance goal and testing your app or website frequently during development, you can make sure you’re accommodating as many people as possible.

The Bureau of Internet Accessibility offers a free Definitive Mobile Accessibility Checklist, which can be helpful when starting your accessibility initiative.

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