Including Temporary and Situational Disabilities in the Accessibility Conversation

September 1, 2020

When building for accessibility, website owners often consider permanent, significant disabilities first — an understandable approach, as people with permanent disabilities certainly deserve the right to access the internet in a comfortable, intuitive way. 

However, disabilities aren’t always permanent or severely disruptive. An important part of accessibility is planning for all types of real-world users, including those who may experience disabilities for several weeks or months.

For instance, a person recovering from carpal tunnel surgery may need to navigate the web with their keyboard until they heal. A patient recovering from cataract surgery may choose to use a screen reader for several weeks, or an individual with a concussion might turn their screen brightness to an abnormally low setting to avoid eye strain and headaches. Even a user who has misplaced their eyeglasses could be described as having a temporary situational disability — and the disability will change the way that they interact with a website.

Temporary and situational disabilities are common, but they’re often left out of the accessibility conversation. For designers, programmers, and others involved in the web development process, there are several key points to keep in mind.

Temporary disabilities change browsing behaviors in unexpected ways

If a disability affects a user for a relatively short amount of time, they are unlikely to purchase adaptive technologies (for instance, specialized keyboards) or spend time learning new shortcuts for page navigation. They'll often use widely available hardware — keyboards, mice, and touchscreens — to interact with the web. Keyboard accessibility is especially important, since mice are especially problematic for users with severe dexterity issues.

Webmasters can perform a quick accessibility test by navigating a site with a keyboard alone. This process can highlight many navigation issues that might frustrate a user who isn't navigating with a mouse.

People who have temporary disabilities will appreciate (and use) options

When a webpage has a clear layout and plenty of places to find information and access navigation elements, people have an easier time finding what they need. That’s particularly true when a user’s "typical" web-browsing behaviors are disrupted.

A simple way to improve accessibility is to ensure that all non-text media has a text alternative. That might be as simple as adding image alt attributes, video transcripts, and captions, which will allow visitors to avoid content that might be problematic.

When implemented correctly, all users can benefit. For example, a person with temporary hearing issues might prefer to read a transcript rather than watch a video; the same might be true of a person working in a crowded, noisy environment.

Consistent page designs can greatly improve the user experience

Users with temporary disabilities may have issues navigating, particularly when a site’s layout shifts from page to page. Regardless of the nature of the disability, a consistent layout keeps the focus on the content and limits potential sources of frustration. Sites should keep navigational elements mostly the same, using headings and lists to keep content organized. 

Remember, no two users will interact with a site in the exact same way; given the immense variety of both permanent and temporary disabilities, the best course of action is to subject a site to regular audits and to look for ways to make content more useful and understandable.

According to the Council for Disability Awareness, a disability advocacy organization, an average of 5.6 percent of Americans acquire temporary disabilities each year. Not all of those disabilities will directly affect how people use the internet — but the point of accessibility is to acknowledge the full spectrum of possibilities. Disabilities can affect any person at any time, and to build an accessible website, it’s important to keep accessibility as a priority. 

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