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6 Mobile App Considerations For People With Disabilities

Make sure your mobile apps can be used by the 60 million Americans with disabilities. Consider this expert advice for developers.
1. Add Alternative Text To Images

This is one of the most important accessibility issues, not just for mobile apps, but all software and Web user interfaces, according to Marlowe. Images -- while often a linchpin of digital design -- can be problematic for users with disabilities. This is particularly true for people who rely on text-to-speech technologies, such as low-vision or blind persons, or people who interact with their technology using voice commands, such as a quadriplegic person.

"[Images] are not read by screen readers and have subjective content," Marlowe said.

Including alternative text for images during the development process ensures screen-reader users will glean the meaning of the content.

2. Consider Captioning For Audio And Video

In a similar manner, the widespread use and popularity of online video and audio formats can pose challenges for some people -- or render the experience unusable. As a result, Marlowe said, many of Accessibility Partners' clients are now adding captions to video and audio content. "For users who are deaf or hard of hearing, many of our clients now add captions to audio and video features," Marlowe said.

3. Include Explicit Labeling For All Form Fields And Other User Inputs

The concept of alternative text (see #1) is also fundamental for ensuring that any user inputs -- address fields, drop-down menus, "submit" or "buy" buttons, and so on -- are accurately translated by screen-reader tools. The same would hold true for users who rely on speech-recognition software to interact with mobile apps and other digital interfaces. "Oftentimes, they're not labeled and then the person can't really select from what's in that menu or go into the form field because it's not labeled or coded correctly or clearly," Marlowe said.

4. Ensure Proper Row And Column Headers For Tables

Many of Accessibility Partners' clients are HTML-based. Sharon Rosenblatt, one of Marlowe's colleagues at the firm, said via email that proper tabling is important for screen-reader technologies to function properly. "An accessible data table must have designated row and/or column headers. In the markup, the '<td>' tag is used for table data cells and the '<th>' tag is used for table header cells," Rosenblatt said. "This allows data to be organized logically, with the data associated to the correct headers. A person using a screen reader will therefore be able to understand the data's meaning. That's indicative of HTML, but other programming languages have different accessibility that can be built into their interfaces."

5. Test Your Apps Using Assistive Technology

People with vision, hearing or other physical impairments may rely on technological help to surf the Web, read email and perform other digital tasks. These include tools like screen readers (text-to-speech tools), refreshable Braille displays, screen magnification and high-contrast settings. Test your apps with these tools to ensure they're highly usable. Text-to-speech is a good place to start if you've got limited time or resources; Marlowe said this is one of the crucial accessibility challenges for many mobile apps and other digital technologies today.

6. Get Feedback From People With Disabilities

Another straightforward way to test the accessibility of your apps: Ask people with disabilities to use them, preferably before rolling them out. (Although it's never too late to make existing apps more accessible.) This isn't much different than the other types of usability testing that digital businesses already do on a regular basis.

"Always have users with disabilities test-drive a mobile app before it goes live to make sure they can access and find all of the information that [another user] without a disability would be able to obtain," Marlowe said