Website Accessibility Still A Challenge For The Visually Impaired: Screen Reader Pitfalls

  • 17.01.2022

A couple of years ago, Guillermo Robles (a visually impaired plaintiff) sued Dominos Pizza for violating the ADA (Americans with Disability Act). The judge ruled in favor of the disabled individual and it was believed that the case would push business enterprises to take ADA compliance more seriously. Given the intensity of the litigation, the exorbitant cost of the fines and that it was against a renowned and public traded pizza chain, it was assumed that blind people would now be able to access the web with ease as every other business would take note and follow suit in getting their websites and apps accessible.

Unfortunately, that assumption proved to be incorrect and we are still far from our goal of making the web accessible to everyone. Even today, when many big brands have faced similar legal repercussions due to their inaccessible websites, blind people are still struggling to access the web. The struggles are not just limited to ordering a pizza but extend to every other service and product out there. Screen readers are supposed to be an accessibility tool, however, most low vision users remain challenged as so few websites are compatible to screen reading software. The frustration of being unable to access the content and rather hearing the Stephen Hawking like voice repeatedly saying “button, button…button” or “graphic, graphic…. graphic” is the sad reality of the current state of digital accessibility.

The ADA is a civil rights law that when first passed did not take the web into consideration. How could it when the laws were enacted in 1990 and there barely was internet at all!  Therefore, great strides were anticipated when web and technology accessibility became a part of the law. Even after constant revisions and version releases, ADA regulations are still considered insufficient and vague, which only makes it more challenging for commercial websites to understand what they have to do to make their websites accessible and avoid ADA lawsuits. It isn’t an overstatement to say that WCAG guidelines are just a bare minimum framework to achieve accessibility. Additionally, businesses can fill up the Section 508 VPAT form to prevent the risk of expensive lawsuits, nonetheless, visually impaired users can easily get frustrated and serial litigants can make huge money suing businesses.

Assistive technologies like screen readers might be useful for good old fashioned desktop websites yet apps and the modern web is far from being 100% accessible. When a visually impaired individual visits a website, mostly it results in them clicking off due to inefficient or inaccessible technology. They usually have two choices, either hit the back button and search for another accessible website or ask someone else to do the chore for them. Leave aside the risk of accessibility lawsuits, you are also missing out on the chances to generate higher revenues by not addressing the need of a blind potential customer.

With the rapid growth of e-commerce, businesses are at higher risk of getting sued for not following the accessibility framework. Retail, being the most targeted industry for accessibility lawsuits, is offering a clear picture of what the future might hold if your products and services are not designed to provide equal access to everyone.

The latest frameworks suggested by WCAG or 508 Compliance Certification, or any other useful accessibility verification process should be seen as a part of the mainstream development and not just an additional practice. The awareness level for accessibility guidelines is slightly improving, though the needs of more than 12 million blind people in the US are still not being taken into consideration by most businesses. 

How to address the pitfalls of screen reader behavior?

Screen reading software like JAWS and NVDA or the common tools like Braille Keyboards and Magnifiers, ensure that people with visual impairment can equally access the content available on the web. Although, someone has to make sure that the latest assistive technology is working the way it is expected, which means there should not be any of the accessibility issues that make the screen reader act weird. For instance:

– Session time outs; a user is expected to access certain kinds of forms in a given period otherwise they expire. The obvious security reasons to expire the session can make it challenging for an individual who is using the form via a screen reader. The time limit issues should be addressed carefully, balancing security needs and accessibility requirements.

-Inefficient links are very common to make a screen reader incapable of reading the proper explanation of where a link will lead to, no matter how sophisticated the assistive technology is. Compatibility on your website is the name of the game. If there are too many navigation links, or the link text is missing, or if there is an ambiguous text on a link, it is likely that the screen reader wouldn’t be helpful enough to interpret the content to the user, leaving them unable to properly navigate your website.

-Forms ambiguity; A visually impaired pizza lover who can’t pick the toppings or complete the order without getting help from someone else is an example of how assistive devices are not capable enough without a website being properly coded. Especially when it comes to the form controls, unclear control or empty labels. The latest guidelines to achieve accessibility make it very clear what threshold must be cleared for form controls. 

An Evolving Digital Landscape

The online environment and the buyer behavior are rapidly changing and so is the number of accessibility lawsuits. Although businesses do make excuses that the accessibility frameworks lack clarity and are subject to technology changes, which is indeed true, the fact that serial litigants are making a big deal out of it should also be considered – bemoaning the murkiness of accessibility requirements won’t stop a lawsuit.

Ultimately, the threat of losing out on huge revenues and facing litigation should compel businesses to take good care of the backend coding. Even so, if there are some uninterpretable elements, which makes it difficult for the screen reader to parse the web, then ADA and Section 508 compliance certification are the absolute best practices.

To adhere to the required accessibility frameworks, one can try out the automated software testing. The latest tools are great to find many of the accessibility blockers, though relying solely on automated technology can also make things worse. For instance, when the screen reader reads “more information,” which is a legit behavior, it does not help that most users interpret that by clicking the text.  However, the user will be directed to a page where they can get more information if they want. Rather than using “click here” or “more” which often leads to confusion, the developers should use easy to interpret labels. Such issues can’t be addressed through software testing as it takes human interpretation to grasp the intent and the experience of the end-user. Therefore manual audits are the best way to attain the accessibility goals and ensure sufficient solutions.

What should be done?

Enhance the overall performance of screen readers by using a combination of automated testing and manual audits. If interested in ADA audits, get in touch with one of our accessibility specialists and find ways to overcome the obstacles for your visually impaired target audience.