The week of January 18, 2015

How accessible is the Internet?

By S.E. Smith

Disability. It’s the thing no one thinks about on the Internet, the issue covered least on most major news sites. It’s not just that disability is ignored or only discussed in passing or that rare coverage of disability is often filled with outdated and offensive language, themes, and attitudes; the Web itself is often entirely inaccessible to disabled people.

How do some of the most frequently visited news sites look through disabled eyes? That depends. Experiences of disability and accessibility are highly variable. What works for one person won’t work for another, and what one person needs is exactly what another person doesn’t. For example, some people with vision problems prefer white text on a black background, which can be unreadable for people with other kinds of vision impairments.

Web design can aim to address some of the most common issues many disabled people encounter online, if designers and the firms contracting them are willing to hire consultants, research, and make the effort. For disabled people online, there are a number of access barriers to consider. One of the most obvious is the Internet’s very nature as a visual medium. For blind people, low-vision users, and those who are colorblind, accessing the Web can present a complex challenge. Some may use screenreaders, which describe images (when websites provide descriptive alternate text) and convert text to speech, allowing users to skip through links to navigate to other pages and offsite content.

There’s another issue to consider: How does the Web talk about disability? From this perspective, access is more of an emotional issue than a physical one. A website might be filled with informative and interesting disability content, but it might also have stories framing disabled people as inspirational or burdens or not full members of society. Two stories on the same subject can turn out radically differently. In disability terms, discriminatory coverage about disability is called ableist (disablist in U.K. usage)—and ableism is rampant on the Internet.

We took a look at some of the most highly trafficked news sites on the Web over the week of Jan. 8. Starting with the Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool (WAVE), we assessed the main page of each site to determine if it met the basic standards of accessibility-compliant coding. Did images have alt tags so people using screenreaders and other nongraphical interfaces would know what was going on, or were images provided with no context for people who couldn’t see them? Were there redundant links or unlabeled forms? Would links be useful for screenreader users? (Link text like here is less useful than the Daily Dot’s home page, which tells the user where the link actually goes.)

We also evaluated sites visually: Was there a risk that content would be difficult for colorblind people to read? Did it include the dreaded carousel, which is a particular problem for screenreader and keyboard users who can’t see carousel interfaces, and thus can’t use them to navigate off the main page and onto the stories they link to? Were switchable styles that allowed people to interchange themes for visibility and comfort—for example, between light-on-dark and dark-on-light—available? (Spoiler: None of the sites we reviewed offered this feature.)

Your favorite website probably flunked this test.

Finally, we asked a key question: In the last 30 days, how many stories directly related to disability issues had the site published?

What we found wasn’t pretty.

• • •

1) BuzzFeed
Grade: D

BuzzFeed’s accessibility problems start with the fact that it, like many news sites, refreshes automatically, which can make it totally out of reach for some users, especially those on screenreaders. When sites autorefresh, many screenreaders also autorefresh, forcing the user to go all the way back through the page link by link—imagine getting 50 pages into a book and then having the cover slammed shut on you—to find an article.

Beyond that, WAVE detected a whopping 249 errors, including numerous cases of missing alt text or images with identical alt text. The site’s bylines, timestamps, and comment counts present a dual problem, as they’re both small and low contrast. How about colorblind visitors? BuzzFeed, like many sites, relies heavily on images and graphical elements, including images overlaid with text. Unfortunately, much of the contrast is poor, which can make it difficult to read.

Want to magnify it to make it easier to read? Good luck with that. Using a magnification tool scales the site awkwardly, forcing the visitor to reposition and scroll constantly to read the text. While BuzzFeed does have a mobile site in addition to an app, its main page isn’t designed to be mobile friendly unless it thinks you’re on a phone. BuzzFeed’s layout is also chaotic; there’s a lot to cover. Top navigation allows easy access to the site’s verticals, but once you get lower down, things start getting a little out of control. The three-column design can be tough to navigate, especially for easily distractible readers, and it’s difficult to distinguish between sponsored and original content.

BuzzFeed managed 26 stories about or related to disability in the last month. Unfortunately, many of them relied heavily on outdated and offensive tropes like inspiration porn. But here’s a pretty great listicle of facts that may surprise you about disabled people and the justice system, risks of sexual assault, and more.

2) New York Times
Grade: B

How does the Gray Lady stack up? WAVE found 19 errors, which is an impressively low number considering how much content the Times has on its main page. Visually, the site relies on a largely high-contrast scheme, although bylines are printed in gray, making them difficult to discern. There’s also a lot to take in, including substantial distracting content that makes it difficult to focus on any single component of the page. Notably, if you scale up using an in-browser magnifier, you’ll find quite a mess. Wisely, the Times focuses on news on the main page, sucking you in with stories before it hits you with advertising. Well played, friends.

Good design doesn’t need to come at the cost of accessibility or vice versa.

With 95 disability-related stories in the last month, the Times definitely presented a range of coverage, with pieces on subjects like community-based care for intellectually disabled adults and the ABLE Act, which got almost no mainstream attention. Much of the coverage focused on hard news and opinion, thus avoiding some common pitfalls in disability coverage, like positioning disabled family members as burdens.

3) Washington Post
Grade: B

We found 54 basic errors on the paper’s home page, largely related to missing alt text. (Remember, for screenreader users, an image or linked image with no alt text is effectively useless.) Oddly enough, when the site did include alt text, it sometimes ran a little long; to understand why this is a problem, imagine a sentence filled with endless parentheticals. While the Post had relatively few contrast errors on the main section of its home page, the sidebar was rampant with them—and also highly distracting. Incidentally, that sidebar is like an ad/content/ad sandwich. However, the layout is much more navigable than that of the Times, though it performs very poorly when scaled up.

The Post took on 86 disability stories in the last month, including some extremely sharp coverage of the dangers of cutting Social Security disability payments, reminders about non-evident disabilities, discussions of mental illness in the prison system, and female veterans fighting for recognition of their PTSD.

4) Vox
Grade: D

Considering the Vox homepage looked like a chaotic visual nightmare to me, I was astounded to discover that the site only had 36 critical errors. Most involved missing form labels and empty links. However, what’s functional for screenreaders isn’t necessarily functional for others. The decision to overlay images with text sometimes made the text hard to read, and the heavy reliance on visual media could potentially be an obstacle for colorblind visitors—or those who can’t handle glaring yellow. For many low-vision and easily distracted users, turning styles off would be the only way to navigate.

That said, the use of banner ads is rather polite. Another thing Vox does very well: Scaling up. The site quickly converts to a single-column format when it realizes that’s what you want.

Too bad Vox only had five disability stories in the last month.

5) Google
Grade: C

Google is a pretty big company filled with a lot of smart folks, including accessibility experts. The company’s main search page is a landing point for many of us at least once a day, and it’s pretty darn basic—hard to go wrong here, right? Actually, there are five errors, according to WAVE, including, ironically, a missing form label on the search box. One thing you won’t find are ads, because they want to see what you search for first.

Unlike the other sites we evaluated, Google’s search arm obviously doesn’t cover disability issues, so we couldn’t really ding it there. Instead, we checked out the Google Doodles library, thinking we might find some commemorations of famous disability rights activists like Helen Keller, Laura Hershey, Paul K. Longmore, and Stella J. Young (OK, we’ll give Google a break on that last one since she just passed away). Nope.

20 percent of the population is disabled. Your move, Google.

Considering how long women fought for parity in Doodle representation, we’re not holding our breaths—but we’d like to note that since 20 percent of the population is disabled, about one in five people depicted should be disabled. Your move, Google.

6) Huffington Post
Grade: F

The Huffington Post is an accessibility nightmare both from a pure physical access perspective—the ability to read it—and an emotional one. The site’s front page crops up 170 errors, with another 192 alerts. The site’s problems include a long list of redundant alt text, invalid long descriptions, and empty links. It’s also rife with contrast errors and poses some definite accessibility problems for colorblind browsers. And when you scale up, well, prepare to scroll sideways. And then scroll some more. To the site’s credit, though, sponsored links are clearly identified and cleanly integrated with the site’s content, without becoming distracting.

Can the HuffPo redeem itself with disability coverage? The answer to that is a little tricky. At first glance, it looks like the site has hundreds of disability stories. However, a little digging shows that search results reveal not just specific stories—mostly personal essays on disability, some of which are quite excellent—but also teasers on tags and sections as well as author pages. This makes it challenging to count the instances of individual stories on the site. However, HuffPo’s approach to the subject is, for many disabled people, not very friendly. The site includes stories pitched as “inspirational” to the reader, and there’s an entire “overcoming disabilities” section, which makes me shudder, and that’s not just my hand tremors.

7) Mic
Grade: F

Mic looks pretty, with a design that might look clean and simple to the casual eye, but in terms of accessibility, it has a long way to go.

The carousel rides again. So do contrast errors and a whole slew of absent alt text. WAVE detected a total of 100 errors on a sweep of the site, and it doesn’t scale up well, magnifying instead of shifting to accommodate the increased text size. The site is also surprisingly visually cluttered and a bit confusing to navigate.

How about the site’s disability coverage? Two stories. One of which was about something else, but mentioned disability tangentially, so, more accurately, this was the only story that ran in the last 30 days.

8) Gawker
Grade: D

There are nearly 50 errors on the Gawker main page, most of which are missing alt text. Redundant links account for many of the 37 alerts. Here’s what there is to like about the main page, though: It has a clear, simple, flowing format that is quite easy to navigate. And though you’re going to have trouble reading the publication’s name if you’re colorblind or have difficulty with low contrast, your consolation prize is that the site scales up very readily.

What we found wasn’t pretty.

In terms of coverage, Gawker ran around 19 stories in which disability was mentioned—mostly tangentially, in a single line—in the last month, with coverage of only two major disability issues, both of which were posted on sister property Lifehacker: ABLE accounts that allow disabled people to save money beyond the former Medicaid eligibility cap of $2,000 and requesting accommodations at colleges and universities. The site could be opening eyes for its readers and expanding the media conversation about disability, but instead, this was like a taste of what Gawker could be but isn’t.

9) Daily Mail
Grade: D+

I have to be grudgingly fair to everyone’s favorite U.K. tabloid, and I was actually surprised by what I encountered. Daily Mail is reasonably screenreader-friendly and functional for a variety of disabled users, and it has just 33 errors on its main page, most of which are empty headings. Its alerts primarily involve redundant links, but there are rather a lot of them, given the amount of content packed into the Mail’s main page, which brings us to the visual assault of navigating the website. To its credit, the Mail has relatively few contrast errors, but the site feels a bit like being slapped in the face with a dead cod. Wait until you scale it up: That’s when things get really wacky!

With some 160 stories on disability (this is a bit of an overstatement, as some of these search results were redundant, as seen with the Huffington Post above), the Daily Mail definitely has disability coverage down. Down to a bitter science, that is. Between inspiration porn and cure narratives, reading the Mail isn’t much fun for disabled people. The site would get a C for theoretical navigability, but the dismal nature of its content dragged down its score.

10) Daily Dot
Grade: C

In the interests of fairness, we had to put ourselves to the test, because those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. A WAVE overview found 17 errors with our home page, including images without alt text along with empty headings and links. The main page also included a number of redundant links, which can be confusing and frustrating for people using screenreaders. There were also some contrast errors with bylines and other fine print.

On the plus side, the site scaled up beautifully when magnified, thanks to mobile optimization, and in terms of navigation, the main page is laid out in a clear, logical fashion that flows easily. Menus at the top provide easy access to the masthead and other information, along with the option to skip directly to specific verticals like News and Politics. Ads are present but not distracting. That said… I see you, carousel.

Want disability coverage? Sorry, we only wrote seven stories about disability in the last month.

• • •

Twenty-four years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, we’re struggling to get Web accessibility right. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Good design doesn’t need to come at the cost of accessibility or vice versa; in fact, the best design is universal design, implemented so everyone can use it. The tools are out there, from design guides to entire websites dedicated to the subject.

It’s up to the Internet to rise to the challenge.

We need to do better.

Illustration by Max Fleishman