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Thumbanail Web Accessibility for the Mobility Impaired

I’ve mentioned the impactful video, Inclusive design and testing: Making your app accessible – Google I/O 2016in at least one other post because it gives excellent perspective on how digital content can be made more accessible. The first part of the video shows a few groups of users with various disabilities meeting with startups to help user test their digital content. Around the 8:40 mark, one of the users describes what it’s like for him to send a message on his phone. To illustrate how difficult typing on his phone can be, he challenges the viewer to run and try and accurately type a text message on their phone without slowing down. I tried, and he’s right, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes.

“Advancements” Can Be Barriers for Some Users

There are certain settings on devices that make using them with mobility impairments especially tough. For example, have you ever accidentally shaken your phone only to have it try and clear all of you text? Or jostled your music player too much so that it begins shuffling a song? Sometimes, these little details that are built as extras for the general population can be a huge problem for people who are disabled. If a function depends on using a steady hand and precise movements, then it might alienate a huge group of users who do not have control over their mobility.

Mobility Impairments Can Impact Anyone

Mobility impairments can come in a lot of forms, and they aren’t always permanent. All digital devices are built to be most helpful for users with standard mobility capabilities. This rules out a large amount of the population that will find themselves struggling with a mobility issue at some point in their lives.

Even if you break your arm, you’re going to have a temporary disability to overcome. Typing on a computer and using your digital devices won’t be as simple as they once were. You will experience a loss in dexterity, and probably not be able to grip and mouse or use a computer trackpad if you’ve damaged your dominant hand. Sometimes using digital devices can even contribute to some temporary mobility problems. I know that when I’ve been typing for hours at a time, my wrist will begin to ache and my fingers will cramp up. Depending on how many days in a row I’ve been pushing myself to the limit, I can feel the effects for up to a week after. While I technically could use my fine motor skills to use my laptop’s trackpad, the motion often hurts a fair amount and I have to switch to keyboard navigation for certain tasks. Otherwise, I’m exacerbating the problem, and it will be even longer before the pain goes away.

A huge portion of the elderly community has to grapple with deteriorating capabilities that can lead to serious and sometimes permanent loss in mobility. As we age, problems like arthritis and more fragile bones can contribute to decreases in fine motor skills. It might even be tough for them to grip a smaller device like a phone. These problems make many people reluctant to try new technology as the issues they have to overcome just to begin using the devices are too big. It’s a daunting issue, but luckily there are ways to help.

Loss of Mobility Shouldn’t Matter in the Digital World

I’m a huge proponent of universal design, or creating things so that they are accessible for as many people as possible. I think that digital devices give us a huge opportunity to help people feel included and level the playing field. Everyone should be able to access the same content no matter what their disability, and accommodations should be made available to ensure this is possible.

People with mobility impairments benefit greatly from keyboard navigation. Instead of relying on fine motor skills to use a mouse or trackpad to get around a website, they can use predetermined keyboard commands. Pushing a distinct key is much simpler to achieve then moving a mouse slightly to click on a tiny link. WebAIM wrote an excellent post about how critical it can be to give people with disabilities the opportunity to communicate via technology, calling it “a lifeline.”[1]

What Can Be Done?

Well, the user testing study is a good start. Learning what users find helpful and what they don’t is the first step. If you’re a website owner, you can also improve the keyboard navigation capabilities of your site. Going through your site using only keyboard commands will teach you what changes you need to make. For example, do you need to use an excessive amount of keystrokes in order to get to a sub item in your site navigation? Changing the order of the content you use can help you to simplify the navigation process for users that have mobility impairments.

You can also install the free UserWay widget. It’s simple to install and doesn’t require you to modify your site’s code. You’ll get the benefit of increasing your WCAG 2.0 compliance and you’ll give your users access to a variety of helpful features, including improved keyboard navigation accessibility. The widget is a fast way to improve the way your users interact with your website, no matter what accommodations they require.

Start Improving Your Website Now

Mobility impairments can create a host of issues for users who want to interact with the digital world. Since mobility issues can impact anyone at any time, it’s especially important for website owners to consider what modifications they can make to their sites. Your users will benefit greatly from your consideration, and it’ll help you to avoid costly accessibility lawsuits that are becoming increasingly more common.

What accommodations do you use to help adapt technology to your mobility impairments? Do you ever come across website features that are really tough for you to use or interact with because of your disability? Share your thoughts on web accessibility for the mobility impaired in the comments below!