When discussing digital accessibility, we often focus on people with vision disabilities and d/Deaf users — and considering those disabilities is certainly important.
But it’s also important to remember that accessibility impacts everyone. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in 4 U.S. adults have some form of disability.
That number may be an underestimate, and it certainly doesn’t tell the full story: Every single person can benefit from inclusive, accessible design. We all deal with situational disabilities, and following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) ensures better experiences for all users.
Defining Situational Disabilities
Situational disabilities are temporary disabilities that occur due to specific, short-term circumstances. Some quick examples:
- You fill out a form on your mobile phone while holding a cup of coffee. You can only use one of your hands to navigate between form fields.
- You’re driving, so you respond to a text message through your voice assistant. You’re unable to look at your phone’s screen, so you rely on the voice assistant to review the message.
- Your desk is near a window. In the middle of the afternoon, the sunlight hits your screen, and you need to magnify text (zoom in) in order to read it.
- You’re recovering from carpal tunnel surgery, so you use your keyboard (with no mouse) to browse the internet.
- You’re working on your laptop in a busy airport. You forgot your headphones, so you can’t listen to audio content.
Essentially, situational disabilities occur because of — well, a situation. That situation is often environmental, but it can also relate to an injury or temporary medical condition.
WCAG and Situational Disabilities: Avoiding Common Barriers
If you read through the examples above, you understand that situational disabilities are extremely common. Very few people use computers in perfect conditions, 100% of the time — and when situational factors change the way that we use technology, we rely on inclusive design.
When web developers ignore color contrast, for example, websites may be unreadable in bright light (even if you have 20/20 vision with no color vision deficiencies). If a mobile app is designed for a specific viewport, you might miss content when you change your phone’s orientation.
WCAG 2.1 addresses these challenges. The guidelines are written to promote the best practices of web design and development, which covers many issues that impact users with situational disabilities:
- WCAG requires websites to maintain certain contrast ratios for foreground elements (such as text) and background elements. This makes text more readable for people with vision disabilities (and people browsing in bright ambient light).
- WCAG requires that content is fully navigable with a keyboard alone. This improves usability for a wide variety of users, including those who use assistive technologies (AT).
- WCAG requires captions for multimedia. Captions are essential for many users with hearing disabilities, but they’re also useful for anyone who keeps their sound turned off.
- WCAG requires that functionality that uses multipoint or path-based gestures can be operated with a single pointer. This ensures that content (especially mobile apps) remain operable when the user has limited mobility or dexterity.
When content works for users with disabilities, it simply works better: Users have more ways to interact with elements, navigate, and complete processes.
Thinking About Situational Disabilities Can Improve Your Content
Starting a digital accessibility strategy can be difficult, especially if your team doesn’t recognize the importance of inclusive design. Discussing situational disabilities can be quite useful here — when people understand how design decisions impact everyone, the scope of digital accessibility is more obvious.
By discussing situational disabilities, you can help your team embrace the four core principles of accessibility: Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust (or POUR, for short).
Those principles can help you avoid barriers that affect your users. That includes people with different abilities, preferences, and browsing habits. As we’ve discussed in other articles, inclusive design starts with accessible design, and the right mindset can help you build a sustainable approach.
To learn more about the importance of digital accessibility, download our free eBook: Developing the Accessibility Mindset.
Or, to see how your website stacks up against WCAG 2.1, start with a free automated analysis. If you’re ready to discuss your accessibility strategy, send us a message to connect with an expert.