How Do People With Disabilities Access and Use the Internet?


It’s challenging to go through life without having access to the internet. Yet for many people with physical and cognitive impairments, this is the reality that they’re forced to live with. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be this way. New technology is paving the way for a brighter tomorrow.

Disabilities and Barriers to Web Accessibility

The average person may take internet accessibility for granted, but it can be a cumbersome task for those with impairments and disabilities. Common barriers to web accessibility include:

  • Visual. For individuals with blindness or color-blindness, it’s often challenging (or impossible) to see a web page and successfully navigate via sight.
  • Auditory. For those who are deaf or have significant hearing loss, auditory barriers limit the way the internet is consumed and navigated. Not all websites have closed captions or supplemental sign language, which makes it hard to process auditory content.
  • Physical. For internet users with motor disabilities and physical limitations, using a traditional keyboard and mouse isn’t always possible. And with the rise in touch screen functionality, browsing the internet has become even more challenging.
  • Cognitive. For people with autism spectrum disorder, cognitive issues, and neurological disabilities, complicated web navigation and lots of on-page movement can make it difficult to use the internet with any degree of efficiency.
  • Speech. As video chat and online voice calling have become more commonplace, people with speech issues may find it challenging to utilize some of the methods that websites and businesses have put in place.

Technologies and Solutions for People With Disabilities

“While many people may think that certain disabilities may keep [disabled individuals] from accessing technology, accessibility is always a possibility,” Intelligent Video Solutions explains. “From captions to audio descriptions, from devices that let a user control a computer with their eyes, voice, or even breath, assistive devices are as diverse and imaginative as the people who use them.”

Here’s some of what currently exists on the market:

1. Assistive Computer Hardware

For individuals with physical disabilities that prevent them from being able to use a standard keyboard or mouse, there’s assistive computer input hardware that’s specifically designed to remove some of the friction from the navigation process.

Commonly used solutions include touchscreens, keyboards with key depressors, Braille keyboards, and mouse and keyboard alternatives (like joysticks, hand-operated inputs, and large button switches).

One of the more interesting technologies is the sip-and-puff system. It allows individuals with mobility challenges – such as fine motor skill disabilities or paralysis – to control internet navigation with their mouth.

Most assistive hardware can be installed relatively easily. However, for those with high needs, it may be necessary for a custom computer to be created for the user’s specific disabilities.

2. Pseudo-Assistive Software

In some cases, pseudo-assistive technology is all that an individual needs to enjoy internet accessibility. Common examples include text-to-speech software, speech-to-text software, keyboard shortcuts, and auditory navigation for browsing the internet without a mouse.  Many of these pseudo-assistive solutions are available for free or at a low cost.

3. Strategic Website Development

Finally, as web developers become more aware of the challenges those with disabilities face in using the internet, we’re seeing some improvements in how they tackle key issues with navigation and content consumption.

It’s becoming more common for video content to be published with subtitles. We’re also seeing less flashy graphics and movement, which cause overstimulation and may even impact those who are susceptible to seizures. There’s also an increased emphasis on developing sites that can be accessed entirely via keyboard, not just with a mouse. There’s still much progress to be made, but steps are being taken in the right direction.

Freedom Through Accessibility

“The Internet Society’s motto is ‘The Internet is for Everyone,’ reflecting the belief that access to the Internet is a fundamental public policy issue,” InternetSociety.org explains. “Apart from access to infrastructure and equipment, accessibility depends on making physical devices and online services useful to everyone, including persons with disabilities.”

While accessibility has long been a priority, it hasn’t been until just recently – and particularly the last two to three years – that practical solutions have emerged. The hope is that new innovations will continue to emerge and provide greater freedoms for people with both physical and cognitive disabilities.

Image Credits: Disabilities from VGstockstudio/Shutterstock