The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is three decades old, and 5 years later, Section 230, the internet law protecting publishers like Twitter and Facebook, followed suit. Both are in need of an overhaul. Why are we still following internet laws that are 25 years old, anyways? As someone whose eyes skip, and has a laceration on his left cornea, as well as a lack of fine motor skills, reading, typing, and using a mouse or trackpad, can be difficult when navigating the web. Now is the opportune time to improve the myriad issues with the ADA. So, let’s focus on creating an ADA for the digital age.
Many of the disabled rely on the internet for their jobs, schooling, and as a way to interact and explore. Before Covid-19, some individuals with disabilities “lived” online out of necessity. Now, everyone is doing more work, shopping, watching entertainment, and communicating online. So, let’s make the internet accessible for everyone.
How websites can be more accessible
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are thought of as the benchmark for accessibility, but while federal websites are required to follow WCAG 2.0 or 2.1 (or soon to be published 2.2), private websites continue to slide. They do have to be "accessible," but this vagueness allows companies like AccessiBe to claim quick and easy solutions by using their software. This lie is peddled despite digital accessibility being a complex issue that can’t be solved by add-ons like widgets and overlays.
If the WCAG provisions were incorporated in a revised version of the ADA, it would provide a set of concrete standards for all to adhere to. This would be analogous to the current standards for building codes like gradient slope, door width, etc. For example, WGAC 2.1 states: “The visual presentation of text and images of text has a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1.” It might be meticulous for websites to comply with this rule, but these standards are necessary to ensure that pillars are in place so users with disabilities have access to data. For instance, an optional audio recording could be provided for every online article instead of having only some websites coded to offer it.
Hopefully, in the future, there will be a technological leap that galvanizes small websites and big-name companies to natively offer a selection of WCAG-mandated color schemes, font sizes, and more. The goal is not to preserve discrimination by providing “special” avenues to experience a website; the objective is to create a bedrock website for all.
Social Media and apps
Social media is another corner of the internet in dire need of WGAC compliance, which makes the disabled feel marginalized. Images are the nexus of social media interaction. As such, the disabled community would benefit from useful accessibility features such as detailed descriptions under image posts. For example, let's say Sally posts a picture of herself playing with her dog. Instead of seeing a generic "Sally is playing with her dog outside" caption, I'd love to know the color of the dog and its breed. What about the environment? Is it stormy or calm? Is it day or night? These descriptions should also be applied to GIFs and memes. The disabled should not have to miss out on the fun of a meme because they happen to be visually impaired. Meme-generator websites should not allow memes to be shared without a description, so whenever it is shared, a person could tap or right-click it to listen to the image’s description.
While the inclusion of captions on platforms like YouTube is heartening, popular apps like Clubhouse don’t offer live captions. Even Instagram forces the hard-of-hearing to download third-party apps to add captions to Stories. These features should come built-in to all social media apps. It would bring more users to the app, spice up the user experience, and ensure that disabled users don’t feel like 2nd class citizens in social media communities.
When we think of gaming, we imagine adolescents smashing buttons or ultra-focused adults engaged in strategy, but it also has practical applications, like flight training, construction simulation, and precision agriculture. The artistry of consumer games should not be legislated, but pragmatic uses should be. What if someday a construction robot could be controlled by a deaf person in a wheelchair? Shouldn’t the instructive software have captions? Or, if you are an older or visually impaired farmer, it would be nice to have a text-to-speech engine that vocalizes your mapping data and crop statistics so you can farm your land.
Fortunately, gaming giants have begun to heed the call for inclusion. Microsoft, for example, launched the Xbox Adaptive Controller and has a stellar accessibility department. Nintendo also deserves props for adding button remapping on the Switch. Sony’s Last Of Us Part II has recently set a new precedent for accessibility in the traditional gaming market. With its 60-plus options for disabled gamers, including vision, hearing, and motor accessibility presets, game developers would be wise to adopt these enhancements to attract new customers.
There is another reason to make a game accessible: cloud gaming. Over a billion people in the world live without the internet. With the utility of the internet driving prices down, along with Starlink providing internet coverage for rural areas, hundreds of millions of new gamers may enter the market — and a number of them will be disabled.
Cloud or console, if a game is played with a different mode than the default, who cares? Why deny a group of people majestic worlds of gaming and entertaining dialogue that everyone else has the opportunity to enjoy?
AI is another facet that neglects the disabled community. This is why it was troubling when Google fired AI ethicists Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell. They are women who might have been more in tune with minority communities such as the disabled, ensuring that AI is developed with us in mind.
Right now, face unlock might not work for a person with one eye stitched shut, which is similar to the criticisms AI developers faced for not considering skin complexion and bone structure of certain ethnic groups for biometric authentication. Hand gestures on smart displays can make a user experience easier, but they might not work for people who lack fine motor skills. Many disabled people work out, yet fitness programs often don't recognize their body types, stamina, or ability level. As the promise of tomorrow becomes increasingly AI-centric, it is important that the people most often thought to benefit from new technology — the disabled — have some kind of representation at their helm.
When websites keep metadata, it’s easier to fill out forms and can be a lifesaver for those who have difficulty typing, but will it jeopardize their security? Can metadata be used without invading the user’s privacy? Although AI robots could one day help the disabled live on their own, will they be allowed to touch an individual who needs help transferring in and out of a seat? These are issues that we need to start crafting laws for now.
This past January, an amendment to the ADA titled the “Online Disability Act” failed to become law. Despite its positive framing, the law would have limited the disabled’s ability to file complaints regarding the inaccessibility of websites. In a 2019 landmark case against Domino’s, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision in which a blind man sued the company because his screen-reading software couldn't read the website. These violations still occur even though the Department of Justice declared that sections of the ADA apply to websites and mobile apps. Enforcement has always been lacking when it comes to the ADA, so defined legislation like the WGAC needs to be made crystal clear for businesses to follow and for the disabled to know their civil rights. Let us hope, like Section 230, the ADA is ushered into the 21st century.
If this happens, the disabled could relax and catch their breath, knowing that they’re included in society’s future. Right now, as is always the case, companies are using the issue of accessibility to make money, or politicians and some individuals are trying to strip the disabled of the rights everyone else has in the name of business. If the WGAC became law, more people could use the internet to purchase goods, start businesses, making the economy more robust for everyone. Inclusion is the key to a digital dawning.