Few people can easily reach the 20th floor of a building by stairs. Wheelchair users would give up immediately. Young children or the elderly would most likely injure themselves or get tired after the first few steps. Blind people might have significant difficulty identifying the path; and let’s face it – even a person without physical disabilities would probably be daunted by the prospect of climbing 20 stories on foot. An elevator would therefore make the ride to the top accessible to all.
Likewise, in the digital realm, there are tools that combine to perform the same function as an elevator in a building to make the Internet an accessible environment for all.
The “digital elevator” is an image often used by Amanda Lyra, a Brazilian digital accessibility expert.
Lyra, who lives with a disability and uses a wheelchair, believes that our focus on accessibility shouldn’t be about helping people with disabilities do things, but rather about making spaces (including the internet) easier for everyone to make accessible.
“If you’ve already used subtitles on a video because you forgot your headphones, used voice commands in a map app, or used automatic translation on YouTube, you’ve benefited from digital accessibility,” she said.
In Brazil, digital accessibility has been a legal right since the enactment of the Disability Inclusion Act in 2015. However, there are still significant gaps on the ground as actual implementation of the law remains a challenge.
According to a study conducted by BigDataCorp and shared by Movimento Web for Todos (Web for All Movement or WAM), less than one percent of the more than 20 million websites registered in Brazil are fully accessible. WebAIM analyzed over a million websites worldwide and found an average of 50.8 errors per page, which were detected in 96.8 percent of the sample.
“It is much easier to perceive in the physical world when there is no access ramp, no tactile floor; when a sidewalk has potholes,” Suzeli Damaceno, coordinator of WAM, told FairPlanet. “But in the digital environment, it’s not. The ones who notice these barriers are the people who have to constantly try to work around them on websites and apps.”
She mentioned that most of these websites and apps are developed by and for people without disabilities; those who, as Lyra also describes them, “see, hear, have no cognitive state, use conventional mouse and keyboard, and use fingers for navigation.”
Even today, Brazilian professionals working in programming, design and content creation are not typically offered digital accessibility classes in school. This prevents information developed by international organizations from reaching workers.
“Since the dawn of the Internet, the W3C has produced guidelines for digital accessibility, which are regularly updated to keep up with technological advances,” WAM’s Damaceno said, “but they are not being adopted by those who work in these areas and understood.”
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) develops international standards for various web formats such as HTML and CSS, while the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) summarize 78 rules – nine other drafts are pending implementation – on best practices for web navigation.
“These guidelines cover content, design and programming,” added Damaceno. “Whenever we talk about digital accessibility, we always have to look at these three points together.”
The diverse world of disability
According to the last available census in Brazil, conducted in 2010, there are 45.6 million people living in the country with at least one type of disability (more recent information will be collected in 2022 and will likely update this number).
The appalling lack of web accessibility directly impacts nearly a quarter of the population living with a variety of conditions, from partial vision loss, blindness, hearing loss, and various mobility impairments to daltonism, autism, and other neurodiversities. Additionally, Amanda Lyra pointed out that with the incessant use of screens and headphones in our daily lives and the natural aging process, vision and hearing loss could eventually affect us all.
People with disabilities use different tools to support their experience with computers, tablets and mobile phones – depending on their condition (often a mixture of several). Today, some people with disabilities do not use common accessories such as a mouse, which can make navigating an inaccessible website difficult.
“I have visual impairment. We don’t always just use the screen reader [free tools installed on the web navigator]but also screen zoom,” said Eduarda Albuquerque, a social worker who founded the group Efficient visuals (Efficient Visuals, freely translated).
“Because some websites don’t have the ideal format, if we greatly increase the text, one thing comes on top of the other, […] and if you click on one thing, you end up clicking on another.” Duda, as she is often called by her friends, added that in these situations she ends up asking someone for help, which limits her autonomy.
Therefore, to ensure true accessibility, we must look at the entire fabric of the online world, and not just confidently describe an image or transcribe a video—both important actions in their own right.
“Everything is very interactive these days, more dynamic to grab attention, and sometimes those interactions aren’t read by the screen reader,” Duda said. For example, the reaction buttons on social media would not be recognized by such tools, she explained. Transparent content and tight buttons also make it difficult for some people to navigate popular platforms.
While full accessibility for all is too ambitious a goal, Duda said, we should strive to make it easier for as many people as possible to navigate the digital sphere. We can do this by familiarizing ourselves with individual needs and by giving people with different disabilities space to participate in the discourse.
“Everyone has their individuality. What works for me may not work for other people with the same condition,” said Amanda Lyra. “When you meet people who are different from you, you will remember them as you build a narrative, and it’s a lot easier to work with diversity and without stereotypes.”
Despite the apparent lack of digital accessibility, people with disabilities are increasingly using the internet to access social rights, complete daily tasks and stay informed, among other things. At the same time, social media platforms and in-app chat groups connect people living in similar conditions and allow them to spread useful information within their community and beyond.
Efficient visuals, for example, gathers people from all over Brazil and even Portugal. Its activities, mediated by Duda and her partners Silvia Daiane and Eraldo Junior, aim to empower people with visual impairments and their loved ones. The specific activities of each group are determined based on the needs of its members.
But Duda and her colleagues are not alone.
More and more influencers with disabilities are taking their messages out into the world via the internet. “The more we say that, the more [awareness] is awakened. It’s teamwork,” said Duda. Amanda Lyra, who is also a successful singer and digital influencer, echoed that sentiment, saying that “things change when we start occupying the spaces when we present.”
And despite the obvious challenges, the digital accessibility expert is optimistic. Lyra travels across the country to attend events as a speaker and celebrates the progress: “The possibilities [in my career] happen because the market really understands what the relevance of accessibility is and doesn’t see it as a B-agenda.”
Picture of Sigmund.