This past year, Canadians have relied on websites and apps for everyday tasks more than ever before. So, it’s not surprising that those with disabilities – especially visual impairments – have faced additional challenges in this new digital-first reality. To explore just how Canadians with disabilities have been affected by this shift, Siteimprove and Fable spoke with 55 Canadians who said their disability affects how they browse or use websites.

Canadians with disabilities rely on the internet more than ever before

As the world entered lockdown last year, it’s unsurprising that 70 percent of respondents said they were either much more or somewhat more reliant on the internet than ever before.  As most of offline shopping was halted, and what remained became highly restricted, those with disabilities who weren’t already reliant on services like online shopping and grocery delivery were forced to adopt them.  Even if offline shopping was once possible for them, many people with disabilities experienced new difficulties reading signs explaining new restrictions, keeping social distance from everyone (including those assisting them), navigating lines and markers many businesses placed on floors, and so-on. 

Changes to shopping and mobility came on top of the barriers that masks can introduce: masks sometimes cause thicker prescription glasses to fog up completely, which can make it more difficult for people with vision problems to recognize the voices or faces of people around them.  These changes meant that for those with disabilities who didn’t already rely on the Internet for much of daily life, they were quickly forced to adopt it over an extremely short period. 

However, even those who already depended on the internet for daily activities found themselves changing behaviours.  When a service becomes an essential part of living, rather than just a luxury, the desire and expectation for accessibility increases accordingly. 

As expected, the behaviours that changed most were things that became essential during the pandemic.  For example, 11 percent of respondents said they switched to more accessible video conferencing software.  When forced to rely on something daily, accessibility issues that were once just irritating can become crucial.  Similarly, as following local news became more and more a matter of life and death, 9 percent of survey respondents said they switched to a more accessible news source.  As the pandemic impacted the mental health of everyone, it is unsurprising that 10 percent of the people with a disability we surveyed switched to a more digitally accessible entertainment source.  Grocery stores (9 percent) and clothing stores (13 percent) were also frequently changed, as people searched for better and easier ways to accomplish things online. 

Unfortunately, not everyone was successful in the quest to live and work online.  In spite of all of the problems presented by in-person interaction during the pandemic, Canadians with disabilities frequently found that they were forced to go offline due to inaccessible websites. The category most impacted by this was pharmacies. Ten percent of people with disabilities had to visit a pharmacy in-person because the website was inaccessible.  As pharmacies are a source of health products and prescription medication, and the place where many people book the COVID-19 vaccine, it is especially important that further investment is made to improve their accessibility.  Other places people were forced to resort to offline visits due to inaccessible websites included financial institutions (6 percent) and grocery stores (6 percent). 

“Websites should be made with simple formats and not overly complicated with information. When it comes to websites and accessibility, simpler is always better.” – Survey participant

This data highlights why accessibility, adaptability, and usability for everyone matter so much.  Even as we come out of the last year in COVID-19, the Internet will not go back to being a luxury; it is now, and will remain, a requirement for many people to live independent, healthy, and successful lives. 

Some of the top issues experienced by Canadians with disabilities

The Canadians that we spoke to during this research included those with visual disabilities (62 percent), those with cognitive or neurological disabilities (18 percent), those with physical disabilities (14 percent), and those with auditory disabilities (4 percent).  This covers a wide variety of assistive technologies. It includes screen readers (like JAWs for Windows), screen magnification software (like ZoomText), voice control software (like Dragon Naturally Speaking), and adaptive hardware (like head mice or switch systems).  It also includes users who depend on captions, distraction free designs, straightforward processes, and simplified language. 

“There have been numerous times that I have not been able to complete a task independently because a website was not accessible. When I am able to complete a task on an accessible website, it makes a huge difference, and I become less frustrated, and am satisfied with the results.” – Survey participant

Keeping this background in mind, these are some of the most frustrating issues reported by Canadians with disabilities during the previous year.  The most reported frustration is websites that can’t be navigated by a keyboard.  Poor keyboard navigation can impact screen reader users who are unable to use the mouse at all, low vision users of screen magnification software who can find the mouse difficult to track, and users with physical disabilities who lack the hand-eye coordination or physical ability to use a mouse. 

The wide impact felt across different disabilities and assistive technologies demonstrates why keyboard navigation is so large a part of website accessibility guidelines.  If a control can only be activated with a mouse, or an element can’t be focused on using the keyboard, this will completely lock out users with multiple different disabilities.  This problem is compounded by the fact that it is difficult for automated testing to catch all the failures of keyboard navigation.  To fix this issue, it’s important that website owners are manually testing to ensure all links and controls can be focused on and used via the keyboard. 

A close second in reported frustrations is form controls that aren’t correctly labelled.  If a form control has no label, screen reader users may hear only “button” or “edit” when they focus the control.  This problem is especially serious when shopping or performing any other financial transaction.  If a screen reader user is unsure what a control is for on a website that doesn’t involve money, they can always just guess and see what happens.  But when spending money, the difference between “checkout” and “continue shopping” is a critical one, and users with disabilities may be far less willing to guess in these circumstances.  Unlabelled form controls can also cause frustration to those using voice control software; instead of being able to say the name of the field where they’d like to enter data, they’re forced to go through complicated workarounds to position the cursor where they want to type. 

The third most-reported frustration is missing alt-text.  Screen reader users who are blind depend on alt-text completely, as they are entirely unable to see images.  However, low vision users of screen magnification may also need to rely on alt-text, if they are unable to see the image well enough to read any text it contains or see important details of the picture.  On the modern web, images can contain anything from infographics with crucial statistics, to pictures of products helping shoppers understand what they’re purchasing, to photos posted on social media by friends and family whom we can no longer interact with in-person.  When people with disabilities are left out of this content because of missing alt-text, it limits their ability to make daily decisions based on the latest news, interact with distant friends and family, or make fully informed purchasing decisions when shopping online. 

Looking ahead: What this means for your business

“People have to be more vigilant about making sure that their websites are accessible like their buildings.” – Survey participant

Of the respondents surveyed, 63% reported feeling limited in their ability to use the internet when compared to people who do not face accessibility issues.  This is an enormous problem, affecting a rapidly growing market segment.  Currently, one in five Canadians live with a disability.  However, due to an aging population, this number is expected to quickly increase over the coming years.  COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of doing business online and shown a spotlight on the needs of Canadians with disabilities.  However, once things open again, these needs aren’t going to go away. Including everyone online is going to become a critical consideration as we build the future. 

As businesses, it’s our job to make our websites inclusive – especially when these updates are not difficult to make. When you consider that 22% of Canadians aged 15 or older are living with a disability, and potentially facing these barriers on your website right now, it’s not something anyone can afford to ignore.

Samuel Proulx

Samuel Proulx is the Accessibility Evangelist at Fable. Sam has managed online communities in various spaces for 18 years; he brings this expertise to Fable, helping them build an inclusive team of people from all walks of life, which spans the entire country. Completely blind himself, he knows and values the importance of accessibility and diversity in all aspects of life. Sam is an expert in accessibility, accessibility testing, community management, Drupal, WordPress, and Ubuntu.