The first global pandemic of the digital era is upon us. We’re living in unprecedented and uncomfortable times.
For our senior citizens, these past several weeks have been particularly discomforting. According to the CDC, men and women over the age of 65 are significantly more likely to develop complications from COVID-19. As we seek to restrict the spread of coronavirus, it’s critical that we protect one another, especially our elders, and adhere to current directives to practice and enforce social distancing. Isolating ourselves in a bid to stop the spread of disease is incredibly important as we aim to protect seniors, in particular.
As more of us stay home under quarantine (can’t say I would have ever imagined writing those words), it’s only natural that we will become even more reliant on our connection to the digital world.
In one form or another, just about all of us have come to rely on countless digital services. Consider, for instance, the many services that seniors typically rely on. There’s email. There’s medical resources — information as well as online appointments with a doctor. There are shopping websites, particularly for food. Certainly, we are all trying to keep pace with the unceasing wealth of information pouring in day after day surrounding this rapidly evolving global event. So there’s also this basic need for news, which is more heightened than ever. The list goes on and on. From paying our bills to ordering our groceries and staying on top of 24/7 news cycles, unimpeded access to web has never felt so urgent.
But the fact is, for many of the individuals who are most at risk, fully engaging with your website and applications can be difficult or, even, impossible. The prevalence of disabilities and impairments impacting one’s use of a computer or mobile device increases with age, so our seniors are more likely to face obstacles when websites are not coded with website accessibility in mind. This is a demographic that represents 16-percent of the United States population, including seniors.
The needs of our aging population overlap, in many ways, with the needs of our population with disabilities. Seniors often have impairments that make using online and web-based technology difficult. These are just a few of the digital access barriers that are impacting tens of millions of people around the world:
- Vision: Contrast sensitivity can be reduced, color perception can be difficult, and focus can be hard, making web pages particularly difficult to read when text is not crisp, clear and large. Someone with cataracts, macular degeneration or any other impairment causing low vision may not be able to fully engage and interact with a website if it isn’t created to support zooming or provide options to enlarge text.
- Motor control and dexterity: Using a mouse can be difficult, painful or even simply impossible for some users. Clicking that mouse or pressing that button, especially on small call-to-action buttons, can be similarly challenging. If you have developed severe tremors that have made it impossible to use a mouse to navigate, a website will only be usable if measures have been taken to support visual focus and keyboard navigation.
- Cognitive function: The modern web is dynamic, interactive and ever-changing. For example, fast moving carousels that rapidly transition from one block of information to the next can be too overwhelming for those requiring more time to read and process information. Controls are needed to pause highly interactive features and functions.
- Hearing: As we get older, our hearing gets weaker. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that, for seniors, multimedia content such as videos, podcasts, and other formats can present barriers if captioning and transcripts aren’t provided.
In this moment and for all the reasons mentioned above, it has never been more crucial that our websites and online shopping experiences be accessible. Designing for accessibility means making sure that all users, including those who are ageing and those with disabilities, can access your site and move across it with ease. Looking beyond COVID-19, this is an ever-growing demographic. The number of seniors will drastically increase in the coming decades. If your website isn’t accessible, the time to take action is now.
Luckily, if you’re ready to design your website with the accessibility of an ageing population in mind, you’re not on your own. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) take into account this wide overlap between users with disabilities and older adults. This informative guidance lays out a clear checklist that web designers should follow and website administrators should keep in mind to ensure that everyone, regardless of their year of birth, can navigate your website across every tab and every corner.
As we look to accommodate senior citizens and also build a web that is equipped for our future selves, here are some key steps you can take to ensure an optimal and accessible user experience for all your users:
- Use relative font-sizes and ensure text containers resize.
- Use legible fonts. When in doubt, use sans serif fonts such as Arial, Open Sans, Helvetica or similar.
- Consider color blindness and consistently use a high level of contrast between text foreground colors and background color. Ensure a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1.
- Make sure links are clearly marked. Using color, alone, is insufficient, whereas underlining helps identify links.
- Avoid overuse of symbols, acronyms, and iconography. Use text instead.
- Create enough space between clickable elements such as buttons and links.
- Test your site as a keyboard user; make sure focusable elements receive focus and that focus is clearly identified; provide skip navigation links to enable greater keyboard navigation efficiency.
- Make sure link or button purpose is properly conveyed. Users shouldn’t have to guess where they will be taken to next.
- Provide controls to pause auto-rotating carousels or animated content. Users may need more time to read, understand, and interact.
- Make sure forms are properly labelled; avoid using placeholder text that disappears on focus.
- Ensure proper error handling and make sure any alert notifications and modal interfaces are keyboard accessible.
- Make sure navigation is consistent, easy to follow, and predictable across the site.
- Take the time to integrate breadcrumbs, so users can better track their location within the context of your navigation hierarchy.
- Avoid distracting content, excessive amounts of information and use plain-spoken language.
- Older viewers may experience a decline in both auditory and visual perception. Be sure to make your videos accessible with captions.
- Provide transcripts for audio-only content.
This challenging time we are all living through is particularly – and unjustly – amplified for our senior citizens and the millions of individuals with disabilities relying on an equal digital playing field. Equal access online still isn’t a guarantee. Together, we can work to eradicate every barrier to digital access.
Featured image via Pexels.
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Author: Sean Bradley