People with disabilities face incessant accessibility hurdles, from the use of physical spaces to navigating online experiences. There’s a long to-do list to make their day-to-day lives easier and wholly accessible, including needed accessibility changes to our beloved mobile apps.
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Digital design company Diamond released its latest State of Accessibility Report (SOAR) on Dec. 8, documenting the digital accessibility of the most trafficked sites and downloaded apps, which include TikTok, YouTube, and children’s apps like the numerous Toca Boca games dominating the app stores. It’s the first year the company has gathered data specifically on mobile apps.
Diamond followed guidelines from the Web Accessibility Initiative, a digital accessibility standards initiative from the World Wide Web Consortium, which is a network of professionals building web development standards. These guidelines are extensive and cover everything from website development to user experience for online videos, text, and images.
This year, the Web Accessibility Initiative released more guidance on mobile-specific accessibility, which emphasizes how existing, accessible website design should also apply to all apps: Things like custom text size options, navigable buttons for screen readers, and clear image descriptions should be added to all devices.
In addition to its analysis of the most visited websites, Diamond’s report surveyed the top 20 free apps in both the iOs and Android app stores, as well as the top 20 paid apps in each. It found that 65% of free iOS apps and 75% of Android apps passed accessibility standards; surprisingly high numbers according to the organization. But paid apps on the whole tanked — only 35% of iOS and 29% of Android apps passed accessibility testing. This could be because paid apps usually have fewer users and thus less performance feedback, Diamond explains in its report.
Diamond looked at four accessibility features of every app: the app’s ability to change its orientation from portrait to landscape, having the option to resize text within the app, providing alternative text descriptions of images, and compatibility with screen readers. The above scores are just averages of each of these standards, with categories of apps doing far worse on some requirements than others.
These features are particularly important as more and more people use their phones as primary devices — at least 85% of Americans use a smartphone, and 15% of them say they use phones exclusively to surf the internet, according to a Pew Research Center poll. For Americans with disabilities, those numbers are slightly lower, with only 72% using smartphones regularly.
Mobile apps are used for news, banking, medical records, and more, not just social connections, so these devices and apps should be designed with all users in mind.
Early development changes hold the answers, the report says. Here’s how our most downloaded apps failed users with disabilities, and what creators can do to make them better.
One important mobile accessibility standard addressed by Diamond and the Web Accessibility Initiative is the option to orient an app’s screen from portrait to landscape. According to Diamond’s manual testing of free apps, only 28% of iPhone and 25% of Android apps reoriented their screens for users who needed to use their devices in specific positions.
For mobile apps to be fully accessible, the Web Accessibility Initiative says, they should support both phone orientations, vertical and horizontal. This is helpful for users who have to keep their phones in fixed positions, like mounted on the arm of a wheelchair, the initiative explains. And if a screen’s orientation changes automatically in-app, it should be able to notify a screen reader — this assists users who are blind.
Text resizing is also a crucial aspect of user-based design, and ensures that the visual settings of a user’s phone transfers over to a downloaded app. If a user with low vision has a larger text setting to help navigate their phone, for example, the app’s font should change with it.
Across the top 20 free apps, 28% of iPhone and 52% of Android apps resize text. According to the report, this failed standard is an easy fix.
The new iOS 15 just added custom text resizing for most apps, which may help user navigation. Find these options by adding the “Text Size” tool to your phone’s control center in settings. Once in an app, slide down the control center from the top right corner of your screen. Then click the “Aa” text size widget, and change your text size up or down. Slide the bottom button to the left to apply settings to the app only, or leave it on “All Apps” to change device-wide settings. (This applies to all your current apps and any added in the future.)
Alternative text for images
Where apps have seemed to make the most progress in accessibility is alternative text descriptions for images and other visual graphics. Around 82% of iOS free apps and 77% of Android apps have built-in, readable text descriptions for what Diamond calls “informative images.”
However, more than half of paid iOS failed testing, and Android was even worse, with 75% of paid apps not including usable text descriptions.
The Web Accessibility Initiative has a simple Tips and Tricks list for writing alternative text descriptions for visual graphics across websites and apps.
Headings for screen readers
Lastly, Diamond tested an app’s headings for registration screens, sign in and sign out functions, and menus. These should be easily processed by the screen reading features of phones (often used by people who are blind or have low vision). Yet again, free apps dominated paid apps — 97.5% of free iOS apps and 95% of Android apps passed, while only 50% of paid iOS and 10% of Android apps had accessible headings.
Registration and sign-in screens should be compatible with screen-reading devices, including clearly distinguished “Log In” or “Register” buttons, clear headers for filling out form boxes, and ways to navigate CAPTCHA requirements that aren’t accessible to people with disabilities. These are simple fixes that help users and the app itself — easier sign-in process equals more registered users using your app daily.
The accessibility checklist doesn’t end with these standards — there are numerous small ways app designers can make their tech more accessible, like ensuring buttons are easily reached by people with various physical disabilities and making apps compatible with gesture tools like the iPhone’s AssistiveTouch. This data is a starting point for a much-needed makeover of digital devices, to make the daily scroll easier for everyone.