For some, this change has been positive. Digital technology and online interactions make it easier to stay connected and independent. Entire workplaces have moved online, allowing disabled people to work from home. (Despite requests for workplace reasonable adjustments for years).

For others, moving to a digital-first society has created many more barriers. Despite access being more important than ever.

This article was originally presented as a talk at AbilityNet’s TechShare Pro conference 2020.

Disabled people and barriers to technology

It’s clear that technology can provide access and independence in a digital world. But organisations create barriers by not making their websites, products, or services accessible.

Research shows that:

  • Disabled people are over 50% more likely to face barriers to accessing digital and online services than non-disabled people.
  • If you have an impairment you are 3 times more likely not to have the skills to access devices and get online.

Research by Reason Digital radical accessibility via Populus and Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2020 (PDF)

Covid and disability

Since the pandemic has forced us into a digitalfirst society, many disabled people are reliant on digital to:

  • access healthcare services and benefits
  • get basic necessities
  • find out how to protect themselves

We know that 59% of all deaths involving Covid in England and Wales between March and July were disabled people (Office for National Statistics). It is more important than ever that information online is clear. And that it can be easily understood by the people who need it the most. 

Accessibility barriers during Covid

Scope recently did research into how disabled people were affected during coronavirus.

Most people described digital technology as “important” in supporting them to cope during lockdown. Particularly for:

  • entertainment
  • ordering prescriptions
  • staying in touch with family and friends
  • shopping
  • banking

However, participants with learning and behavioural impairments were the most likely to describe struggling as a result of the shift to online services. In particular, social interactions. They found it hard to communicate and be understood by others online.

Others struggled with navigating new websites or technology. Like using Zoom, digesting information, and completing online forms.

Participants with physical, visual or hearing impairments described experiencing physical accessibility issues. Such as struggling to participate in video calls with low quality or poor audio.

The need for accessible content

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of clear and understandable information and communication. This is often overlooked when thinking about digital accessibility.

We asked respondents how they found the government’s communication and information provided during lockdown. Of those who consider themselves a disabled person:

  • 63% said the information is confusing
  • 49% said communication is unclear
  • 47% of disabled respondents experienced technological challenges during the pandemic

For example, experiencing accessibility issues with video conferencing software, like Zoom and Google Hangouts.

Many organisations, charities and public services were not ready for this change. As a result, many disabled people have been forgotten. They’ve not had the support they need when they needed it the most.

Challenging negative attitudes towards disability

To understand why accessibility is often overlooked, it helps to look at attitudes towards disabled people.

60% of people underestimate how many disabled people there actually are.

This is a problem because if a group is seen to be smaller than it is, trying to remove barriers is seen as a niche concern.

32% think disabled people are not as productive as non-disabled people. This figure has remained higher than 30% since 2009.

13% hardly ever or never think of disabled people as the same as everyone else. Too often, websites, services and apps exclude disabled people because of assumptions that disabled people do not use them.

Research from Scope’s Disability Perception Gap report

How disabled people are viewed negatively affects how our digital society views accessibility.

Changing attitudes towards accessibility

We need to change this narrative. In this digital-first society, we need to inspire change in attitudes to disability and inclusive design.

We need to stop thinking of disability as ‘difference’ and only affecting the few. We need to think of accessibility as universally beneficial. Not just for a disabled minority.

Start thinking of it as everywhere and for everyone.

Businesses can help influence, inspire and revolutionise the next wave of digital products to be inclusive. For this to happen, disabled people need to be considered as a core consumer group.

We need organisations, politicians, and the public to challenge stigma and negative attitudes. To see change, we need action from all levels in society.

How organisations can help

Organisations need to make sure they embed accessibility in working processes and culture. For that to happen, senior stakeholders need to take accessibility seriously and prioritise it.

They must make sure that at every level, content creators, designers and developers do too. With the correct training, understanding and attitude towards inclusive design.

Put your users at the centre of the experience. Integrate disabled people in the design and content creation process.

It’s not just making sure that your website compliant with the Web Content Accessibility GuidelinesIt’s understanding how disabled people are accessing your online services. Both the barriers they face, and the context in which they are facing them.

To get these insights, organisations need to research and test with disabled people.

Companies prioritising digital inclusion have the power to positively impact millions of lives.

How you can help

Try not to think about accessibility as a box-ticking exercise or consultation. It’s involving and prioritising disabled people’s needs in the solution itself.

In your work and social life:

  • look beyond your own (perhaps barrier-free) experience
  • engage with accessibility barriers
  • actively work to remove them in everything you do

Accessibility can then stop feeling like something we need to do, often retrospectively. Instead, it can become something that is built into all practices. And embedded in social and working culture.

How to be an Inclusive Design Ally

  • Embed as many best practices as possible
  • Do user research and testing with disabled people, give them easy ways to tell you about any barriers they’re facing.
  • Keep learning, iterating and improving.
  • Make sure you have processes in place that make it easy for everyone to take on the responsibility and be confident with accessibility.
  • Live and breathe accessibility in your work.

It is time we start recognising the positive impact of accessibility and digital inclusion. It’s everyone’s responsibility. Be a gamechanger.