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.

Kevin Casey, Contributor

August 22, 2013

6 Min Read

9 Android Apps To Improve Security, Privacy

9 Android Apps To Improve Security, Privacy

9 Android Apps To Improve Security, Privacy (click image for larger view)

The mobile era makes information more readily available. It should do so for everyone, including people with disabilities, yet accessibility is often an afterthought in device design and app development.

"It's a big issue," said Dana Marlowe, principal partner at Accessibility Partners, in an interview. Marlowe's firm and its 12 employees advise corporations and government agencies on IT usability and accessibility issues for people with disabilities. "It's not where it needs to be yet," she added.

There are approximately 60 million people with disabilities in the U.S. alone, according to Marlowe, a number that is growing steadily. (That figure, based on U.S. census data, includes a wide range of disabilities, from blindness and hearing loss, to physical mobility issues, to hidden disabilities such as cognitive impairments.) Marlowe noted that stat makes people with disabilities the largest minority group in the U.S., one that any of us can join at any time, often unexpectedly. She added that the aging baby boomer population underscores the need for usable, accessible IT.

The accessibility of mobile devices and apps is particularly pressing, Marlowe said, because of their rampant popularity. Smartphones are everywhere and tablets aren't far behind. Devices like Apple's iPad and native apps like Facebook now pass the mother-in-law test: Technologies so prevalent that even your mother-in-law uses them. (Marlowe just helped her mother-in-law install the Facebook app on her iPad. My own mother-in-law draws the line with Facebook, but does have an iPad.)

[ Here's another reason inaccessible apps are a big problem: Mobile Accounts For 17% Of All Web Traffic. ]

For the skeptical or downright cynical, consider this: People with disabilities have a combined discretionary income of $220 billion, according to Marlowe. Are they going to spend money with you if your user interface is inaccessible? (Answer: No, they won't.)

You also might not have any choice but to prioritize accessibility, especially if you do business with the federal government. Section 508, an update to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, requires federal agencies to ensure widespread IT accessibility for both internal development and external procurement. In other words: Don't expect a dime of federal money in your bottom line if you're unwilling to meet accessibility standards.

The iPad-and-Facebook example speaks to a challenge in ensuring accessibility. It's not just one company's responsibility, and can be both a hardware and software issue. Yet while the accessibility of various devices varies, according to Marlowe, more people with disabilities are turning to tablets and other mobile form factors. "People with disabilities are using tablet and other mobile devices because they are increasingly more accessible than some of their more standard hardware counterparts," she said. That shifts some of the accessibility burden to mobile developers.

"[App development] also has to be accessible, and oftentimes accessibility is unfortunately overlooked," Marlowe said. With that mind, she shared six key areas for ensuring widespread accessibility of apps. 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

About the Author(s)

Kevin Casey


Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses.

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights