Disability and privacy

A common feature that developers request, and one that users with disabilities push back against, is the ability to detect if assistive technology is in use. In this article, we’ll go over the reasons users are reluctant to embrace a feature of this kind, and why it might not be a good idea to use it, even if it did exist.

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Samuel Proulx, Community Manager at Fable

“If every platform we interact with could query our browser to find out what assistive technology we’re using, how might that change our experience?”

Disability is not identity

While a person’s disability inevitably contributes to who they are, it is not their entire identity. However, for many people with visible disabilities, it is the first (and sometimes only) thing recognized about them when engaging in the physical world. Almost every person with a disability can remember the first time they went online, and realized that first impressions of them would be made based on the comments they wrote, or emails they sent, rather than their wheelchair or cane. While there is no shame in being a person with a disability, it is refreshing to be able to discuss interests like food, music or sports, without also having to answer questions about our disability. 

Detection can impact experience

If every platform we interact with could query our browser to find out what assistive technology we’re using, how might that change our experience? Questions arise like: How would this information be shared, and with whom? Would the developers of the websites we know and love begin to change the experiences we have? Would we begin to have less and less in common with non-disabled users of the same platforms? 

For example, would a social media website decide to hide images and videos from the feeds of blind users? Or no longer show podcasts to deaf users? If these things are hidden from us, it also means we can no longer fight to gain access to them. It’s hard to request descriptions for images that are  hidden from you, or transcriptions for a podcast episode that you didn’t even know existed. 

Detection can lead to discrimination

Every developer who wishes they could detect if assistive technology is in use likely has the best of intentions. In their mind, they probably intend on making the experience better for everyone, by customizing it for every user. However, it is sometimes difficult to recognize just how sensitive this information can be. For example, what if a medical insurance application could detect this information, and use it to deny coverage? Alternatively, some advertisers could choose not to advertise products to users with a disability, because of inaccurate ideas of what we’re interested in. These assumptions may lead to us missing out on marketing messages we might have been interested in, further excluding us from the digital economy. 

Detection discourages universal design

One thing that has been proven over the last 30 years of digital development is that separate experiences for disabled users don’t work. They’re more expensive, they require more attention, and when it’s time to update them, the experience for disabled users often falls behind.  

If developers had access to this information, they could begin to offer “customized” experiences. The problem with this is that they could do so without even telling the user that they are getting a separate “accessible” experience. 

A website that focuses on universal design principles is not only a more accessible website for people with disabilities, but it’s a better experience for everyone.  Making your website more accessible means it’s more likely to work on everything from a desktop with a huge HD monitor, to a phone with a tiny screen. Designing with accessibility in mind means that your website will be easier to use, and better, for every user.

Why risk violating a user’s privacy?

There are numerous reasons why screen reader detection is not currently a feature in browsers, and why disability advocates hope it never will be. Why risk violating user’s privacy, in order to create a customized experience for disabled users? Why not design for everyone from the beginning? By doing so you’ll end up with a design that’s easier for all users and all device types. If you adopt this way of thinking, you should never need to detect if a user is running assistive technology. You should never even need to ask.