Monday, March 16, 2015

Are all impairments disabilities? See for yourself.

When trying to determine how to make your content accessible to people with disabilities, you may have already suspected that not all impairments are considered disabilities; therefore, no standards are absolutely required for assisting people with these impairments. For example, as many of us get older, we may not have 20/20 vision (or better), but with corrective lens (e.g., contacts or glasses), our vision may be brought pretty close to 20/20 vision. Therefore, poor vision does not equate to being disabled. Without those corrective lens, you might very well be blind, but in those cases, it is a choice that you make as an individual not to get the proper medical attention. How many times have you seen someone's grandparent mutter with annoyance that someone should make the print larger on something, so they can read it when you can clearly tell they don't own a pair of reading glasses?

Some impairments are not disabling by any legal definition, but they are also not always correctable with assistive technology or other aids. For example, I have a visual impairment. If you've never met me in person, you are probably surprised that I have any issues whatsoever. I get around on the computer very easily, chatting away on emails and social media and programming websites, and I don't wear glasses. Well, actually by law, I do: I'm required to wear them when I drive. But I can easily avoid using them in front of my computer most of my day-to-day activities. Why?

My visual impairment is that I was born with weak eye muscles (lazy eye), which essentially made one eye more dominant than another, convincing my brain to shut it almost completely off, in a sense, because my brain couldn't handle the information blending together in that odd way you would describe as "double vision." Without binocular vision, synchronized control over both eyes focused on a shared subject, I have (a) no depth perception and (b) am at a higher risk to lose vision completely in my weaker eye.

Right now it is just slightly poor vision, not blindness, so part (b) means I'm not disabled, but what about part (a)? The ability to discern the locations of objects around us is very important. I can't tell you how many times I've "miscalculated" while engaging in the world I'm trying to perceive, how many accidents, how many bruises, and how many cuts from hitting and sliding against things I should know are right there because I can "see" them - I'm not "blind." I just can't see where they are in relation to me. While this is causing me numerous injuries, it is not a disability. I can occasionally get it right (and do survive many a day without new injuries).

But there is another aspect that is becoming more prominent given our advancements in technology, particularly in the entertainment industry: 3D. Televisions are supporting 3D content. Movies are being filmed for 3D viewing. This content is not viewable by me, period. My brain cannot understand it. I cannot participate with everyone else in viewing this content. Thankfully, the same content can be provided in 2D, an alternative means, but that often means viewing it at a later time than it is presented to the larger audience.

Sound anything like these defined accessibility issues?
  • Creating a video with dialogue that is posted before closed captioning is provided, requiring the deaf to wait after everyone else has viewed the content.
  • Creating a flyer with textual content embedded in an email before alternative text is provided, requiring blind or low vision users to request the alternative content and wait after everyone else has viewed the content.
It's an interesting issue to me obviously because it is a personal one. I can function quite "normally" otherwise. That is, I can function without assistive technology (supported by your efforts to provide the alternative content at the time of information creation) or other aids for most of my daily living activities. Therefore, I don't have a legally defined disability.

So what impairments are, in fact, disabilities? There is quite a list among visual impairments. Here are some low vision problems along with solutions to make content accessible for users with these impairments:


The inability to see perceive some range of colors properly or at all. Examples are red deficiency, green deficiency, blue deficiency, and complete color deficiency.  See where you stand with this color acuity challenge!


  • The ability to read content based on a significant enough contrast in foreground and background colors (e.g., light color foreground against a white background, red foreground against a black background).
  • The ability to value or grade content based on the declaration of color(s) for importance or criteria of specific content (e.g., red for very important information, categories like dogs, cats, and llamas in the colors red, blue, and pink).


  • Design content with enough contrast between the foreground and background to make informative content legible. Check out this Colour Contrast Check application to see how compliant your colors are. As we get closer to the Section 508 Refresh, it will be important to focus on being compliant, at minimum, to WCAG 2 AA.
  • Identify important content or categorical content in more than one way. For example, important content can be red and bold. A required field could also include the term "required" or "*" with a definition of this term at the top of the form. Different categories can be defined at the top, such as C1 for Category 1, C2 for Category 2, C3 for Category 3. Similarly, you can define them with graphical icons using the alternative text on the images to assist the blind as well with the categorical references.
  • Never define actions entirely based on their color (e.g., "Press the green button to continue, the red to cancel.").

Macular degeneration

Associated with loss of vision in the center of the visual field.


  • The ability to read content based on its size, particular if it is textual information embedded in an image.


  • Do not create textual content for a specific size; don't use images for detailed information. Allow the user to resize or zoom in on the content by using text.
  • Do not create a burden on the user to view content by requiring a significant amount of horizontal scrolling in order to view that content. Make your content as responsive as possible (i.e., using percentages for the sizes of tables and images instead of exact pixel widths).
  • Keep text alignment simple to reduce scrolling and losing content. Do not use justified alignment ever.


Associated with loss of peripheral vision as well as an increase in the blurriness of visible content.


  • The ability to read content based on its size, particular if it is textual information embedded in an image.
  • The ability to read content based on its color, due to poor contrast.


  • Keep the font size, at minimum, 12 point, but allow the user to change the font size to meet his/her specific needs (there is no perfect solution for all low vision users).
  • Make sure the colors contrast well enough for WCAG 2 AA, but allow the user to change the colors to meet his/her specific needs (there is no perfect solution for all low vision users).
  • In general, make textual content text; the details should not be embedded in an image where they cannot be adjusted.
  • Do not permanently set the styles (using inline styles) for fonts and colors where the user cannot change them to his/her specific needs.
Other impairments with similar problems and solutions include diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, retinitis pigmentosa, and light sensitivity. If you'd like to see examples of how low vision users view content, check out WebAIM's page on Visual Disabilities. It also includes assistive technology that they can use. See also their examples on types of colorblindness to see how it affects the images and content you may design.