Is our current digital world actually more inclusive and accessible than it was just a few months ago when we were first told to wear masks, work from home, and shop online to help protect ourselves and our loved ones?
On the surface, the answer is yes. Virtual conferencing with closed captioning, translation, as well as the ability to record and watch later have all improved access for those who already were comfortable with technology and have access to reliable internet. The explosion of on-line shopping, home delivery and curbside pick-up have made it easier for those with mobility issues to get the goods they need.
However, if we look below the surface, like the ever-present iceberg analogy, there is much more going on. Our digital response to the challenges presented by COVID-19 restrictions has improved resources for communication, access to goods and services - but only to those who already had, know how to use, or have the capacity to learn what the internet offers. However, there is also increasing evidence that people who were already excluded from physical spaces or faced barriers to inclusion before the pandemic are now facing digital exclusion.Those who are on low incomes, disabled, elderly, living in remote areas or have long-term health conditions are also those individuals most unlikely to have little, if any, access to the benefits that the internet can provide. These groups already faced isolation, loneliness and feelings of helplessness and it has only gotten worse.
An older adult on a fixed income who has hearing loss may have been quite comfortable shopping in-person, visiting their doctor, paying their bills at the bank, and even watching TV with closed-captioning. Then as the world around them shifted to on-line banking, facetime with relatives, booking medical appointments through a browser (or having them cancelled altogether) and constant referrals to websites for more information, it has put their mental and physical health at risk. Withdrawal from society and supports is easier todo when you don’t have to (or aren’t allowed to) interact in-person
Switching to digital is leaving some people behind, and more often than not, they are people with disabilities or who have other existing barriers to accessing services and supports. The rapid change to an almost exclusively digital world is leaving behind the most vulnerable.
How do we ensure that our digital world is inclusive? That solution, like so many others, is more about the effort than the application. Businesses can comply to minimum acceptable standards, meet all the requirements for accessibility in their jurisdiction and still leave many outside. It takes more than the minimum required to really be inclusive. Offering closed captioning services on all screens and in virtual meetings, ensuring text-based instructions are clear and easy to understand is a good start to include the more than one in five people with hearing loss across North America.
Ensuring websites adhere to accessible and usable design standards that can be used on any platform, or any device will benefit people with and without disabilities, those with low literacy or not fluent in English or even someone who is just an infrequent user of technology. By making your connection to your customers, clients, employees, tenants, patients, residents, and followers easier, you are more accessible to everyone - with greater potential for growth.