Disabilities highlight the need for society to be mindful of the different challenges and experiences faced by everyone. No one should be prevented from quality-of-life amenities simply because of a limitation. However, accommodating disabilities can become complex when considering multiple disabilities such as deaf-blindness.

For more common limitations, users with disabilities may depend on a handful of features to allow them to access information and use services. But those who have compounding disabilities require an entire web of accessible features working in unison.

One specific and challenging example of multiple disabilities is deaf-blindness. This blog will provide an overview of the challenges those with deaf-blindness face when accessing information and what website publishers can do to help. 

Deaf-Blindness: Definition and Causes

According to the National Center on Deaf-Blindness (NCBD), this condition is when someone experiences a certain degree of both vision and hearing loss and cannot process information presented to them, either visually or audibly.

Deaf-blindness is not necessarily the complete loss of both faculties, though there are many cases in which this holds true. Instead, those considered to be deaf-blind may have partial loss of both senses or significant loss of one, and partial loss of the other.

Causes of Deaf-Blindness

More than 70 health complications can be linked to deaf-blindness. The most common causes of deaf-blindness can be linked to syndromes such as; CHARGE, Usher, and Trisomy 13. CHARGE syndrome is the leading cause of deaf-blindness, accounting for 10% of these cases.

Other causes include congenital anomalies and dysfunction, prematurity, and other health events, such as; stroke, meningitis and head trauma. A 2019 NCDB report recorded more than 10,000 cases of deaf-blindness in the U.S alone.

Accessibility for Deaf-Blind Users

As most information is processed and learned through sight and sound, deafness and blindness create unique and profound challenges when attempting to use information and communication technology, especially when they appear simultaneously.

Websites are accessible for those with deaf-blindness when all visual and audio elements are logically structured and supplemented by at least one other alternative engagement feature.

Let’s look at the kind of assistive technology depended on by deaf-blind users, as well as some web accessibility features that ensure barrier-free browsing.

Assistive Tools

Depending on the nature and severity of a condition, for a deaf-blind individual to use a phone app or website, he’ll need assistive tools to accommodate the stronger of their two senses. In extreme cases in which someone has significant or complete loss of both vision and hearing, this individual will need to depend on haptic tools.

Assistive tools that can help those with deaf-blindness access digital content include:

  • Screen reader — Dictates a website or content through auditory cues
  • Voice dictation — Allows users to perform tasks through speech commands
  • Braille displays — A device that interprets web and app content onto a live Braille interface

A Barrier-Free Website 

For these assistive tools to be accurate and dependably work with online content, websites need to follow specific design and development standards, such as the Web Accessibility Content Guidelines (WCAG) published by the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

Abiding by WCAG standards will ensure websites and phone apps  accommodate assistive technology such as screen readers and Braille displays, and prevent web developers from building barriers. This includes using the following features:

1. Keyboard Navigation

Those who are blind or have low vision are unable to orient a cursor. Thus, fully accessible websites are those that are entirely navigable through the use of simple keyboard commands and strokes. Hitting ‘Tab’ should move the focus area to the next interactive element, and ‘Enter’ should make selections. 

2. Well-Structured, Logical Websites

A website designed to be simple, familiar, and logical will provide the best user experience for all users, especially those who are dependent on assistive tools. Proper menu structure and use of heading tags will enhance usability for those using keyboard and Braille pad navigation.

3. Image Alt-Text

All images which provide informational value to content must be supplemented with a text-alternative description of the information. This description is not typically visible to traditional users and can be embedded into an image for screen and Braille readers to process.

4. Closed Captioning, Transcripts, Sign Language

Without the addition of closed captioning or available text transcripts, audio in video and other media content is inaccessible for people who are deaf or have hearing loss. In some cases, organizations also choose to provide an accompanying sign language translation feed.

5. ARIA Labels

Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) labels offer alternative information about interactive elements for screen readers and Braille displays while remaining unseen to sighted users. ARIA labels provide more descriptive details about inherently visual content, such as icons or a form field button.

6. Text & Font

Accessibility websites do not dictate which text size or font is displayed to users. Instead, they are structured openly to adapt to a user’s browser settings. Some fonts can be difficult to read due to their style or weight, and a user with a visual disability may read another font more easily.  

Websites also need to provide the ability to increase text size, whether through on-page settings or a browser. The text should comfortably enlarge up to 200% of its original display size and avoid inhibiting other elements or creating reflow issues.

Why Deaf-Blindness Accessibility is So Beneficial

In terms of demographics, designing with accessibility in mind for deaf-blindness may seem insignificant. Those who are deaf-blind make up a small percentage of those in the disabled community.

However, developers should note following WCAG content standards benefits all types and variations of disabilities, including visual, hearing, cognitive, and motor disabilities. Cumulatively, this population represents 1 out 4 of U.S. citizens — around 26%, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

When disabled users can easily access web content, user engagement, number of viewing sessions, and demand will ultimately be enhanced.

Civil Rights

Designing for accessibility is also the right thing to do and a signal of responsible corporate citizenship and a key component of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, and establishes the rights of people with disabilities to equal access and opportunity and makes discrimination based on disability a violation of civil rights. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, this includes the right to equal access to websites.

Hosting an accessible website means protecting the rights of the disabled community and will protect your organization from costly litigation and demand letters.

UserWay Makes Accessibility Easy

As you can see from the examples above, creating accessible and barrier-free spaces is an involved and technical feat. Retrofitting an existing website to adhere to WCAG standards can be extremely timely and expensive. Adding UserWay’s AI-Powered Accessibility Solution is a simple and cost-efficient way for anyone to jumpstart their accessibility journey, whether it’s a small business or enterprise.

UserWay’s machine learning and human-in-the-loop technology scans for WCAG violations and provides clients with a dashboard to manage their web accessibility and quickly approve remediations. UserWay’s Accessibility Widget provides an on-page accessibility interface that enables user-trigger accessibility preferences, such as text resizing and contrast adjustments.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can people with deaf-blindness still access and use the internet? 

Yes, though how they experience the internet is very different from sight-based users. People with varying degrees of deaf-blindness will depend on different tools and techniques, such as screen readers, keyboard navigation, and dictation. Even those who are completely deaf-blind can use Braille displays to access websites.

How can I make my website usable for deaf-blind users?

Bringing your website into compliance with the strictest WCAG standards (currently WCAG 2.1 AAA) will ensure your website is easy to use for everyone, including those with deaf blindness. Tools, such as UserWay’s AI-Powered Accessibility Solution will help you detect and remediate accessibility issues that make websites unusable or challenging, such as missing alt text, closed captions, and missing ARIA labels.

Is my business website required to be accessible to people with deaf-blindness? 

In short, yes. The U.S. Department of Justice’s position is that public-facing websites are subject to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This act requires accommodations to be made and certain barriers removed to ensure inclusion and equal opportunity for people with disabilities. The DOJ has suggested that businesses follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to comply with the law.