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Guide: Internet access for Americans with disabilities

Robin Layton

Oct 8, 2021 — 4 min read

Nonprofit organizations and software companies create assistive technology and applications to make the internet easier to use for everyone.

Young blind woman with headphones using computer with refreshable braille display or braille terminal, a technology device for persons with visual disabilities.

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It’s obvious that the need for daily internet access is here to stay and that this need will only continue to grow. 

However, not all access to the internet is equal. Not only is the U.S. struggling with solving the digital divide and providing internet to everyone, but it is also clear that the internet was not built for accessibility by those of us with hearing, sight, mobility or cognitive issues. 

Fortunately, that’s where several software companies and nonprofit organizations have stepped up, creating accessibility features and assistive technology.

What is digital accessibility?

“Every user deserves a first-rate digital experience on the web. Someone with a disability must be able to experience web-based services, content and other digital products with the same successful outcome as those without disabilities,” according to GAAD, the Global Accessibility Awareness Day organization.

The Digital Equity Act is attached to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, currently in Congress. The act will provide state-level grants to implement digital skills training, improve accessibility and for rural agencies to address their own broadband needs. 

AccessiBe, a provider of services to help websites meet accessibility standards, says less than 2% of the 350 million active websites in the U.S. are considered accessible to people who have disabilities.

According to research by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in April, “86 percent of state government unemployment websites fail at least one basic test for mobile page load speed, mobile friendliness, or accessibility.”

Making a website more accessible can be as simple as adding alternative text on images and videos should always have captions.

There are a number of free tools that can help designers and developers test the accessibility of their pages:

Who is affected by inaccessibility? 

Digital access is necessary because 61 million adults in the U.S. live with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). That is 1 in 4 adults.

The most common disabilities fall into these categories: visual, hearing, motor and cognitive. According to a Pew Research study, “about 13 million people reported cognitive difficulties. Around 11 million people in the U.S. reported significant hearing difficulty, while roughly 7 million reported significant difficulty with vision, even when wearing glasses.”

These issues sometimes lead to disparities in who has access to technology.

Another Pew Research study found that “62% of adults with a disability say they own a desktop or laptop computer, compared with 81% of those without a disability.”

Accessibility features and assistive technology

  • Hearing assistance apps: There are some apps on the market that help people with hearing impairments use their smartphones:
  1. Subtitle Viewer: This app offers the ability to view subtitles in different languages. Subtitles are displayed in real time and it can be used in real time with TV and at movie theaters. The application synchronizes with television and movies at the cinema. 
  2. RogerVoice: This app will caption your phone conversations.
  • NonVisual Desktop Access (Windows + Linux): A person with blindness or low-visibility issues needs a screen reader to read text in a computer-generated voice or a reader with a braille display. However, these devices are often quite expensive. A man with blindness created this free screen reader, a NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA). 
  • Vision: Voiceover, Voiceover with Braille, Spoken Content, Reduce Motion, accessibility shortcuts, a workflow creator, text size and display adaptations, Siri access for voice commands, Dark Mode to ease light on screen, Hover Text and Zoom features, a magnifier and dictation options.
  • Mobility: Assistive Touch, Accessibility Keyboard
  • Hearing: Conversation Boost, Facetime Sign, Real-Time Text
  • Google Accessibility: Google’s accessibility features and products include: Tools to help app developers find opportunities to make their product more accessible. Chrome offers TalkBack and Live Caption, low-vision settings, a classroom screen reader and more.
  • Blackberry Accessibility offers a front-facing camera for face-to-face video chat, closed captioning, visual, audible and vibration notifications for hearing issues. For sight issues, BrailleBack works with Google’s TalkBack to provide a combined speech and braille experience.

Additional resources for those with disabilities

Adaptech Research Network conducts research involving college and university students with a variety of disabilities in Canada. 

Their website offers downloads for free and inexpensive adaptive technologies and built-in accessibility features for Windows, Mac OS, Android and iPhone. 

Ways you can help

  • Teach & Advocate: Contact organizations about inaccessible websites
  • Participate in Global Accessibility Awareness Day: The third Thursday of each May is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Ideas to participate include: Caption a video or at least prepare a transcript. If it is not your video, send the transcript to the owner and suggest that they follow the information provided by Google for YouTube or 3Play Media for Vimeo to add captions. Write a blog post on what digital accessibility awareness is and what your (the writer’s) ideas are for raising that awareness. Create a video demonstrating how you use some type of assistive technology and upload it to YouTube.

Organizations helping fight for digital accessibility

  • The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international community that develops open standards to ensure the long-term growth of the Web.
  • The Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) is the global leader in assistive technology (AT) education and research and the premier organization for AT manufacturers, sellers and providers.
  • AAPD will advocate for policies that promote the development of universally designed technology, and that ensure affordable access to that technology, to support people with disabilities to live independently.
  • The Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTS  Raises awareness about digital accessibility through conferences, seminars and media relations, benchmarking progress in implementation and deploying capacity building programs for governments and advocates.
  • Knowbility, Inc. is a nonprofit organization based in Austin, Texas and an award-winning leader in accessible information technology.

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Robin Layton

Written by:

Robin Layton

Editor, Broadband Content

Robin is an editor with Allconnect, handling broadband content. She holds an English degree from Shepherd University in West Virginia. She has worked as an editor, writer and designer for several newspapers acro… Read more

Joe Supan

Edited by:

Joe Supan

Senior Writer, Broadband Content

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