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What problems do disabled Internet users face?


Users with disabilities face many different problems when they try to access the Internet - Web developers should try to take these difficulties into account when designing their sites. Obviously there are numerous types (and sub-types) of disability. For the purpose of this article these types of disability have been separated into four generic groups. These groups, in no particular order, include users with the following disabilities.

  1. visual
  2. aural
  3. physical (motor)
  4. cognitive

It should be noted that certain individuals may suffer from multiple disabilities.

For each disability group I will consider the ‘barriers to access’ faced by that group and the Assistive Technology (AT) available to them. AT enables users who are affected by these various barriers to access the Web provided that the actual Web pages are coded correctly.

Disability Statistics

Disability statistics tend to reflect users who are registered as disabled. Many disabled people do not consider themselves to be disabled or prefer not to register as such. The consequence of this is that disability statistics only approximate the true numbers and almost certainly underestimated them. However, according to Michael Paciello in his book 'Web Accessibility for People with Disabilities', there are approximately: -

  • 500 million disabled people worldwide
  • 8.5 million disabled people in UK
  • 52.6 million disabled people in USA
  • 37 million disabled people in EU
  • 4.2 million disabled people in Canada
  • 3.7 million disabled people in Australia

Temporary disabilities are NOT included in these statistics. Additionally, Paciello estimates that between 95% and 99% of all Web sites are inaccessible.

Visual Barriers to Access

This category includes people with little or no vision, people with colour blindness, people who use Screen Readers, and people who use screen magnifiers.

In the UK 1 person in 60 of the whole population is blind or partially sighted. In addition, 6 out of 10 visually impaired adults have another illness or disability. It is presumed that these UK figures, and other UK statistics cited later in the article, are representative of disability statistics worldwide.

Many people assume that visually disabled means total blindness. In fact only 1 in 5 of the visually impaired are totally blind. Likewise, people assume that the visually disabled can read Braille and have a guide dog. In fact only about 5% can read Braille and only about 1% actually have a guide dog.

Users with visual disabilities will, to varying degrees, have difficulty seeing the computer screen. This can range from total blindness where the user cannot see anything, to somebody who is near or far sighted and therefore able to read the text with the aid of spectacles or perhaps a screen magnifier. Some dyslexics have problems with certain colour combinations, as do people with colour blindness.

There is a range of AT designed to help people who have trouble seeing the screen including:

  • Screen readers
    • Dolphin Supernova
    • Jaws
  • Web browsers
    • Cast E-Reader
    • IBM Homepage Reader
  • Refreshable Braille displays
  • Voice recognition software
  • Screen magnification software

In effect all of these AT solutions perform the same function; namely they convert on-screen text into a format which can be understood by the disabled person.

Web developers can code special ‘skip navigation’ links which provide a means for visually disabled users to avoid the main navigation controls of a Web page and jump straight to the main content of the page. This means that the visually disabled user does not have to listen to the screen reader reading out the navigation links on every page.

Aural Barriers to Access

This category includes people who have been deaf from birth, deafened people, and those who have partial hearing. A deafened person is someone who was born with hearing but then developed a hearing impairment later in life, perhaps as a result of an illness or an accident.

In the UK 1 in 7 of the whole population has a hearing impairment (8.7 million). This number is rising as the general age of the population rises. About 8% of these are severely or profoundly deaf, a high proportion of which have other disabilities as well. In the UK there are approximately 50,000 Sign Language users.

The barriers to access faced by users with hearing difficulties depends, to a certain extent, on whether the user has been deaf from birth or deafened later in life. It is important from a Web developer’s perspective to differentiate between the two groups.

Users who are deaf from birth communicate using Sign Language. Sign Language is a language in its own right and has different grammar and structure to spoken English. Sign Language users must learn English in the same way that others may learn French or German. Web developers cannot assume that Sign Language users can read and understand the content of their Web pages. Did you know that there are even national and regional sign language dialects?

There is an assumption that users who become deaf later in life can read and understand English. It may be true in some cases but many of these users communicate using Sign Supported English (SSE); a combination of Sign Language and English.

Users with hearing difficulties require visual representation of auditory information such as a transcript or captions. MAGpie is a free piece of software enabling the creation of captions and subtitles for, and integrating audio descriptions with, digital multimedia such as video.

Physical Barriers to Access

This is a wide ranging category and includes people with a range of physical disabilities including amputees, people who may have suffered a stroke, have spinal cord injuries, lost the use of limbs or digits, and people with manual dexterity or physical co-ordination problems.

Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) is thought to affect about 2% of the UK population at any one time, one in 100 people over the age of 65 have Parkinson's disease, and eight in 100 over the age of 65 are affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

Most Web sites are created assuming that the user can see the screen and use a mouse. Many physically disabled users cannot use a mouse. Many Web sites include links which are extremely small. Again many physically disabled users, even if they can use a mouse, cannot hold the mouse pointer steady for a long enough period of time to enable them to select the link.

There are a number of AT devices available to help users with physical disabilities including Retinal scanning devices and Voice Recognition software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking. In addition the Windows operating system has a number of built-in accessibility features such as ‘sticky keys’. Sticky Keys allow users to select keyboard combinations one key at a time.

In addition Web developers can add special code to their Web pages to allow physically disabled users to navigate their site. This special code allows physically disabled users to navigate via their keyboard using special access keys. Access keys enable users to quickly visit key links within a site.

Cognitive Barriers to Access

‘Cognitive disability’ is any disability that affects mental processes including mental retardation, attention deficit disorder, brain damage, dementia and other psychiatric and behavioural disorders. This category also includes people with learning difficulties and dyslexia / dyscalculia. People with learning difficulties may have problems with literacy, information technology, and understanding information generally. Dyslexia includes people who have problems reading, writing and spelling. Dyscalculia describes people who have problems with mathematical calculations.

‘Mental load’ is also a factor; that is, the demands placed upon a person's cognitive abilities when performing a task. This is a problem for all people, and especially for users of AT. For persons with cognitive and/or behavioural disorders the problem is magnified. Web designers should avoid using background images and music and should use a consistent design layout. These measures will not only reduce mental load for the cognitively disabled but will help all users to access their Web site.

There is no specific AT available for people with cognitive disabilities although much can be done to increase accessibility when designing the content of a Web site. For example, users with learning difficulties may struggle to read long paragraphs or certain fonts. This problem can be minimized by keeping paragraphs short and using CSS. It is also difficult for some users with cognitive disabilities to read justified text so text should be left justified. Flashing text should also be avoided as this can cause certain people to have epileptic seizures.

The Plain English Campaign has produced a number of free guides to help Web developers produce accessible content for the cognitively disabled. Page content tips include keeping the average sentence to between 15 and 20 words, using active rather than passive verbs, using clear and helpful headings, and leaving plenty of ‘whitespace’ on the screen.


Web developers should try to create Web sites which can cater for the diverse needs of all users. Web developers must be aware of the various user needs and the AT available to help such users.

It is relatively easy to create an accessible Web site for a user with a specific disability. The problem is that Web sites must be accessible for all users, including users with multiple disabilities. It is also worth mentioning that this article has only covered user needs in a general sense. Each user is an individual and may have very specific requirements. This demonstrates how difficult it is to fully comply with the disability legislation.

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