Don’t forget hidden disabilities when building accessible websites

Not all disabilities are obvious. LeeAnn Kinney puts the spotlight on the impairments we tend to ignore

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were headed up to a high floor in a tall building and the elevator was broken? 15 flights of stairs later you’re panting, out of breath and annoyed?

Maybe you’re lucky enough to have the physical strength and ability to get up those steps, but imagine if that wasn’t the case. What if you’re in a wheelchair and stairs aren’t an option? Or you’re elderly and walking that many flights isn’t possible? Situations like these can be a small nuisance for one person, but an immense barrier for another.

Just as things like dropped curbs, ramps and lifts can help people in physical spaces, so too do users on the web benefit from virtual accessible spaces. When we build sites that do not consider accessibility, we are excluding an astounding percentage of the population.

Too often, we only consider disabilities that are immediately noticeable, such as people who are blind or deaf, in a wheelchair or maybe missing a limb. But there are many disabilities that are a little more inconspicuous; those that we are unable to see just by looking at someone. These might include cognitive or learning disabilities, colour blindness and other visual impairments.

There is also a plethora of situations in which a person can experience temporary — or ‘situational’ — disability. This could be a new parent who is sleepdeprived, and only has one arm available because the other is cradling a baby. Or a cancer patient may be dealing with ‘chemo brain’ — side effects from chemotherapy that include difficulty concentrating and mental fogginess.

Temporary disability

Reducing cognitive load and presenting information in a clear, concise manner not only benefits the aforementioned, but also those with a learning disability or whose native language is not English. Many older people face loss of fine motor skills, reduced vision or memory. It is not unlikely that a large percentage of us will find ourselves or our loved ones in one of these situations.

It is imperative we take every type of user into consideration, never assuming we know exactly who our users are, what their limitations might be, and how they are using and navigating our sites. We need to consider as many invisible, situational and otherwise ignored disabilities as we can; building accessible websites from the beginning, and not as an afterthought.

LeeAnn is a frontend developer and web accessibility advocate. She is co-leader of Girl Develop It Philadelphia and co-organiser of ELA Conf

This article originally appeared in issue 278 (april 2016) of net magazine.