We live in an era when information is readily available no matter where we go, thanks to mobile phones and the proliferation of apps for every possible need or interest.
Yet one of the largest audiences for mobile apps is still often overlooked.
In the United States, one out of every five adults has a disability, according to a 2015 study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What’s more about 10% of the world’s total population, or roughly 650 million people, live with a disability. Looked at another way – people with disabilities are the world’s largest minority group.
Designing universally accessible mobile apps, however, remains an afterthought in many cases.
Search online for discussions about designing mobile apps to be accessible for those with disabilities and there’s only a smattering of recent, authoritative articles.
Even on college and university campuses, the issue of universal design of mobile apps remains an emerging area of focus by and large.
While the higher education community has made great strides with regard to the accessibility of educational materials and general technology, mobile apps have not yet caught up.
The Current Landscape
The Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require federally funded institutions to ensure all individuals with disabilities can use online content as effectively as other individuals.
But when it comes to mobile apps and accessibility, there’s much work to be done.
A 2016 article in Digital Information Gazette points out that in terms of making information technology accessible to people with disabilities, websites have received the lion’s share of attention.
“The accessibility of mobile devices and apps is particularly pressing,” according to Dana Marlowe, principal partner at Accessibility Partners, “because of their rampant popularity.” Smartphones are everywhere, as are tablets. At the end of 2015, the Pew Research Center reported that 68% of Americans have smartphones and 45% have tablet computers.
“Mobile technology has sparked a new era of opportunity for people of all ages and abilities, yet many mobile apps have design flaws that prevent people with disabilities and the elderly from using them effectively,” stated IBM Chief Accessibility Officer Frances West in a press release issued by the company when recently releasing its own technology to identify and correct usability issues.
Accessibility in an App
Accessibility in app design can take a variety of approaches. Accessibility Partners recommends the following advice:
- Accompany images and navigational controls such as buttons with text labels
- Provide captioning with audio and video
- Test your apps with assertive technology, including e text-to-speech tools
An Early Trailblazer
California State University, Northridge has been one of the early leaders in this arena. The school has made a concerted effort to ensure that all information technology resources and services are accessible to all students, regardless of disability. And that effort includes the school’s mobile properties.
What’s more, for the past three decades, the school has been hosting a one-of-a-kind conference on the subject – the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference.
Dedicated to presenting and exploring new ways technology can assist people with disabilities, the “CSUN Conference,” as it has become known, is the only one of its kind sponsored by a university.
“Disability is something that interferes with one or more major life activities. And ten to 15 percent of people meet that definition,” Cal State Northridge’s Kate Sharron pointed out during a talk on the subject at the 2016 Kurogo Higher Ed Mobile Conference.
A senior analyst for web services, Sharron helped launch the CSUN mobile app and spoke at the conference about the importance of universal design that is inclusive of mobile apps.
Some of her design suggestions for mobile apps included putting the app in grayscale, changing how touch works on the phone and also making text larger.
“Universal design will help you reach all students, meeting your students where they are,” added Sharron. “At CSU we take accessibility and universal design seriously.”
The Task Ahead
“Building accessible apps doesn’t have to be tremendously time consuming,” notes a mobile expert to Digital Innovation Gazzette. In fact, many devices have accessibility features available within the operating system.
By many accounts, a small amount of additional design and development time, over what is normally required, can result in a highly usable and accessible app.
In addition, remember to build accessibility into any refreshes, redesigns, or new rollouts of websites or mobile apps.
The big take away here is that universal design and accessibility should no longer be an afterthought or something that’s merely squeezed in during the testing phase.
“Factor accessibility in from the beginning,” urged Sharron at the Kurogo conference. “It shouldn’t be one of the last steps, it should be one of the first.”
When well planned and executed, assistive technology, even something as seemingly straightforward as a mobile app, can transform the lives of people with disabilities.
Watch Kate Sharron speak about CSUN’s mobile app.BACK TO BLOG