Why the internet is barely usable for some people with disabilities

Why the internet is barely usable for some people with disabilities

Despite some progress on accessibility, users still face countless frustrations online, says entrepreneur and activist Alwar Pillai.

For people living with disabilities, the internet can be almost as full of annoying barriers as the real world. Poor design choices can make websites hard to navigate for those with visual impairments, while users with hearing difficulties may struggle in online conferences that fail to make necessary accommodations.

While there has been slow progress over the past 20 years, one recent study suggests that only two percent of the internet is fully accessible.

“Most product teams are made up of able-bodied people under 40,” says Alwar Pillai, an accessibility expert and co-founder of Toronto tech startup Fable. “They don’t have access to a diverse group of people with disabilities, so there’s no straightforward way for them to get feedback to help them make more informed decisions.”

That’s what led Pillai to co-found Fable in 2018 with Abid Virani, who she met at OCAD University while she was completing her master’s degree in inclusive design. “Our mission is to empower people with disabilities to participate, contribute and shape society.”

Fable remotely connects digital researchers, designers and developers with teams of testers who have a range of disabilities to try out their products and flag any issues. It provides training that helps developers build accessible products, and it also runs a free online skills development program for people with disabilities who want to work in the tech sector.

Fable, which is used by Microsoft, Facebook, Shopify, Slack and Telus, raised US$10.5 million in May. Among its investors is Toronto venture capitalist John Ruffolo, who uses a wheelchair after an accident two years ago.

Here, Pillai discusses how we can all benefit from more accessible technology.

Why are developers still making websites and apps that so many people can’t use?

The way companies build products right now is broken for multiple reasons. One is the lack of diversity in product teams, and another is their lack of skill sets. Researchers, designers and developers go through programs to learn about digital product development, but there’s not a lot that covers accessibility.

I worked as a designer and an accessibility manager, and I was part of projects that worked on accessibility where there was no one with a disability in the room. Product teams make assumptions on what makes an accessible experience without actually talking to people who need it.

It’s not intentional, but still, there are over a billion people with disabilities who face so many challenges when accessing the internet.

The internet has been around for a long time and there are tools for accessibility. What barriers do people still face?

People with disabilities have been using assistive technology for more than 20 years. They’ve customized these technologies to work for their specific experience, and there are automated tools that can flag accessibility issues. But there are so many different scenarios. For example, if someone who uses a screen reader is filling out a signup form online and they get to a field where they have to pick a date. Visually, the calendar opens up, but for a screen reader user, it might not work.

Weren’t laws like the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act supposed to sort out problems like these?

There are mandates from the federal and provincial governments. In fact, many countries have accessibility requirements that refer to a global standard, which is the Web Content and Accessibility guidelines. I like to think of these mandates as the baseline: They ensure the minimum requirements are met. When we speak to businesses, we tell them not to focus on the mandates — focus on the users. This is a market that you should be serving when you look at it from a business perspective.

How much of a difference does it make to have users with disabilities test products?

We’ve been able to have success because when teams test their products with our community, they have these “aha” moments. A researcher, developer or designer can watch someone with a disability use assistive technology to go through a product that they built and gain valuable insight that can help solve problems. At Fable, we don’t focus on a specific disability or a specific assistive technology. Our goal is to help product teams work with users that have the most complex requirements — folks who are marginalized, that product teams typically won’t consider.

We also try to help product teams recognize the broad benefits of building a product that’s usable for everyone. For instance, captioning on social media videos was designed for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, but if someone is in a crowded space and can’t watch the video with sound, they read the captions. It’s similar to electric toothbrushes — they were originally designed for people with motor impairments, but most of us use them now.

It also seems like we’ll face an accessibility time bomb as the population ages. What can be done to help elderly people use the internet?

It’s not about us as individuals; companies have to take responsibility and design their products for everyone, including the most challenging user. If they consider the needs of people with disabilities who use various assistive technologies, they will make products that will work for the aging population as well. We’re seeing a lot of that now — on devices you can now customize font sizes and change the contrast.

These started as accessibility features that were buried inside the settings. But now when you turn on your phone, those are the first things it asks you. Every person uses their devices differently, so let’s give the option to users to be able to customize their experience.

You spend a lot of time online. What’s your favourite internet time waster?

I like to watch cabin-building videos on YouTube. It is so calming to sit and watch people build cabins within five time-lapsed minutes. I love seeing what people do with really tiny spaces. And I’m hoping to build a cabin with my partner sometime in the future, so it’s fun to get inspired.