The impact of non-accessible digital materials ranges from frustration to complete inability to use or understand a material. Learn more about these impacts and how you can be part of positive change.
Creating accessible websites and digital materials in your educational environment reduces barriers and ensures that all students who encounter your materials can understand and interact with them.
Websites and digital materials that are not designed with accessibility in mind exclude a significant population of potential users from participating in an internet-dependent world. Unfortunately, information exclusion is a barrier people with disabilities experience on a daily basis.
What is a Disability?
Accessibility is often discussed in the context of disability. If we're going to talk about accessibility, we need to consider how we understand disability first.
The Medical Model
People often classify disabilities by individual physical traits or function:
- Visual (blindness, low vision, color blindness)
- Auditory (deafness, hearing impairment)
- Motor (paralysis, cerebral palsy, missing limbs)
- Cognitive (learning disabilities, traumatic brain injury, dyslexia)
- Seizure (epilepsy)
- Mental health (depression, anxiety, panic attacks)
This model of classifying disabilities comes from a way of thinking known as the medical model. It sees disability as an individual problem to be fixed by medical professionals.
The Moral Model
This model defines disability as a sign of moral or religious failing - not doing enough of the right things.
The Charity Model
This model defines a disability as a tragedy. People with disabilities should be pitied and "taken care of," often away from the public eye.
The Rehabilitation Model
This model believes that people with disabilities should work hard to appear as "able" as possible, to avoid discomfort or inconvenience to individuals who do not experience the disability.
The Social Model of Disability
The models of disability described in the previous sections are inappropriate. They do not contribute to the kind of equitable and inclusive society that we strive for at the University of Minnesota.
A different way of thinking about disability began to emerge in the 1970s, when people with disabilities began publicly reflecting on their own realities. It is known as the Social Model of Disability.
In this way of thinking, disability is defined by the decisions that society makes about what makes bodies and minds valuable. Society's ideas then lead to decisions about physical spaces, technologies, laws, and policies. Those spaces, laws, and policies often exclude and discriminate against people whose minds and bodies function differently.
In the social model of disability, society can amplify exclusion and discrimination against people with disabilities; but society also can encourage people to design a world that works well for a wider range of bodies and minds. When understood in this light, every person is responsible for contributing to the accessibility of the environment that we all share.
How Many People Have Disabilities?
This number is difficult to estimate. Many people are hesitant to disclose disabilities or don’t consider their impairments to be disabilities. According to the World Report on Disability (2011), about 20% of the world’s population experience some form of disability. The report also notes that people with disabilities have, as compared to those without disabilities:
- poorer health outcomes
- lower education achievements
- less economic participation and
- higher rates of poverty
These negative outcomes are often linked to barriers in accessing services. The United States Census Bureau reports similar statistics with 19% of U.S. citizens disclosing the presence of a disability.
Disabilities in Minnesota
In March 2017, the Minnesota State Demographic Center reports that about 10.9% of the population in Minnesota has one or more disabilities, according to the Minnesotans with Disabilities report. The most common types are:
- Independent living
Age and geographic differences are wide. Disability is strongly associated with aging, so disabilities across counties varies from 6.1% in Carver County to 18.3% in Aitkin County. Minneapolis has the most people with disabilities of all cities.
Wide disparities in prevalence exist across race and cultural groups. Among typical working-age populations, disability rates range from 18-22% for Ojibwe, African-American, and Dakota populations to below 5% for Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and Russian populations.
In this typical working-age group, persons with disabilities are:
- 2.6 times more likely to be unemployed
- 3.4 times more likely to be not participating in the labor force
- More than half as likely to work full-time, year-round
Disabilities at the University of Minnesota
As of 2019, over 4,000 students are registered with disability resource centers and offices across the University of Minnesota's campuses.
But these are just the tip of the iceberg, because nationally, 19.4% of undergraduates and 11.9% of graduates reported having a disability in 2015–2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
In addition, many faculty and staff members also use accommodations and experience disabilities.
For all members of the University community, the numbers reported are artificially low because:
- Some people may not identify as disabled.
- Others may not want to register with their local center.
- Many people don't know that disability accommodations exist or apply to them.
- Some people simply prefer not to talk about their disability.
- Many people prefer to avoid bureaucracy by managing disabilities on their own.
Types of Disabilities and Impairments
Disabilities can be apparent to you—or not. Disabilities can be permanent. There are also impairments that can be temporary or situational.
- Someone born deaf is living with a permanent disability.
- Someone with an ear infection is affected by a temporary impairment.
- A person who is struggling to hear while in a noisy workspace is experiencing a situational impairment or temporary disablement.
All are affected by access barriers, but the person with a permanent disability also has an unequal experience based on how society views and stigmatizes some bodies and minds, according to the social model of disability.
If you consider the wide range of disabilities and impairments as you design materials, you can extend access to more people in new ways.
Examples of Impacts of Inaccessible Materials
A piece of technology is only as accessible as its least accessible component.
Users with disabilities often get most of the way through a process, only to find that the end product—an inaccessible table, PDF, or online form—is unavailable to them because it lacks accessibility features.
Imagine you're a Deaf student and you're exploring majors on college websites. You encounter a lot of uncaptioned video content. Do you request captions on all the videos and wait for it to be completed and then come back to it when it’s ready? Or do you try somewhere else?
Or, imagine you're a student who relies on speech recognition software to navigate the web. You’re trying to do your part of a group project that’s worth much of your semester grade but you continue to find barriers to the information you need because the code for the websites you visit makes the information inaccessible to you. What do you tell your group members? How often is this a message you need to deliver? How do you feel delivering that message?
Watch the 2-minute video Experiences of Students with Disabilities from WebAIM (Links to an external site); read the video transcript (links to an external site). Think about the factors that cause this student to lose autonomy or access to information.
Even when technology is created with accessibility in mind, users with disabilities continue to experience barriers and exclusion. It is up to all individuals to make materials accessible to everyone. In doing so, we will not only create a society of inclusion, but everyone will benefit from the increase in access.