Online-Only Services Offer Safety, But May Limit Access

Liz Zogby - April 20, 2022

As a result of the covid-19 pandemic, interaction with websites and apps sometimes become the only way to access certain goods and services, leaving some older adults and people with disabilities facing significant accessibility challenges.

A person holding their smartphone up to a kiosk with a QR code on the screen. The kiosk is pinned on a wall with several colorful posters.

Photo by Proxyclick Visitor Management System on Unsplash

A recent NYT article discussed the impact of bank branch closures during the covid-19 pandemic on older adults in Spain (“ʻIʼm Old, Not an Idiot.ʼ One Manʼs Protest Gets Attention of Spanish Banks,” Raphael Minder, March 25, 2022). While the shift to less in-person human interaction was protective, preventing unnecessary exposure to a virus that is particularly dangerous to older adults and people with disabilities, the article points to the unintended consequences related to accessibility for these same groups.

Carlos San Juan de Laorden, a retired Spanish doctor, has difficulty using an ATM because of hand tremors associated with his Parkinson’s disease, but even trying to make an appointment to meet with a bank customer service representative required utilizing an app that Dr. Leon found too complicated. The barriers presented by ubiquitous digital technologies are faced by many – people with disabilities, older adults, and those with low digital affinity (i.e., people who find digital technology so challenging that they are unable to utilize it). And the impact of these often under-recognized barriers on their ability to access basic services during the pandemic – ordering lunch, purchasing a bus ticket, withdrawing money from the bank –  is profound.

According to Pew Research, which tracks the adoption of key digital technologies, 25% of those 65 and older do not use the Internet (compared to just 4% of those 50-64), and only 61% of the oldest age group own a smartphone (compared to 83% of those 50-64). While the gaps between age groups related to technology use have decreased in recent years, the still-significant disparity in technology adoption has limited independent access to some goods and services for many older adults.

Before the pandemic, individuals often had a choice about whether to interact with a business in-person or online, and could choose the modality with which they were most comfortable. When the pandemic made in-person interactions either impossible or challenging, in many cases businesses also limited or even eliminated the ability to access services without the use of digital technologies. For example, many restaurants now won’t accept take-out orders over the phone, only accepting online orders. If you are unable to use their website or app for any reason, you simply can’t place a take-out order. Similarly, other restaurants got rid of physical menus and servers to take orders, requiring patrons to scan QR codes to view the options and place their orders. Successful interaction with websites and apps often became the only way to access goods and services.

Government services online (such as paying your taxes or requesting information) are generally covered under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act that requires Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible (and many states have similar state laws covering the accessibility of state government information). In the current U.S. legal framework for public accommodations (i.e. private organizations who serve the public like restaurants, banks, or retail stores) under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), switching from an in-person/online choice to online only may potentially reduce legal coverage, and may move many websites from having accessibility “required” to accessibility “optional.” Some U.S. circuit courts have said that Title III of the ADA only requires website accessibility for people with disabilities if there is a “nexus” between a website and the physical store or location. In circuits where the nexus legal theory is valid law, if a business no longer has an in-person component, there may not be a legal requirement for its website to be accessible. Courts and the U.S. Department of Justice have sometimes differed on this, as the DOJ has been saying for more than 25 years that websites of all public accommodations must be accessible.

Jonathan Lazar, professor in the iSchool at the University of Maryland and director of the Trace R&D Center, a pioneer in accessibility research and development for half a century, notes: “During the covid-19 pandemic, people often focused on new uses of technology, however it’s even more important to ensure that everyone continues to have access to the goods and services that they need to live and thrive. When organizations shift their business and delivery models, they need to make sure that they continue to provide access to everyone. This includes users with disabilities or older users who may need accessibility and flexibility in their interactions with organizations. Just saying, “we put it online” isn’t sufficient if you don’t even know whether people are able to effectively use it.”

Trace research and development projects are focused on increasing accessibility of technology – for example, creating ultra-simple digital interfaces like Morphic for all users including those with low digital affinity, understanding the accessibility needs of those with dementia and how intelligent voice assistants like Alexa or Siri can better serve older adults, and ensuring that technologies driven by artificial intelligence incorporate data generated by people with disabilities so that their underlying assumptions do not create new barriers. In addition, Trace’s work addresses the barriers created by systems – the policy, legal frameworks, and standards and guidelines that can shape either a more accessible world or one that erects new walls as new technologies are folded into our everyday lives.

As the global pandemic has pushed more and more services online, we must ensure that accessibility remains in the forefront of our decision-making and problem-solving efforts. Digital technology can facilitate cost-savings and efficiency and protect public health, but it can achieve these objectives while also ensuring accessibility to all — with the implementation of known accessibility strategies, a commitment to universal access, and the steady advocacy of experts, policymakers, and ordinary citizens.


Original article was published by the Trace Center on April 12, 2022.