While it’s important to incorporate accessibility into your website to minimize legal risk and increase market share, providing a seamless user experience for your visitors is by far the most critical thing you can do today. And although the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a valuable reference when creating accessible content (primarily for individuals with disabilities/disabled individuals). These guidelines should be taken as a starting point rather than your end goal because some aspects of web accessibility are left out altogether. In this blog, we’ll explore one of the most overlooked aspects of accessibility as well as the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) as it relates to gender.
How is Gender related to Accessibility?
First, you might be wondering what gender has to do with accessibility or disability. To understand the connection, let’s take a look back to a milestone federal ruling in the summer of 2022 in Richmond, VA, where a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that transgender individuals diagnosed with “Gender Dysphoria” are covered under the protections of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The American Psychiatric Association defines Gender Dysphoria as the “psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity.” While it’s important to clarify that this does not mean all transgender individuals are disabled, nor does it assume they all experience this particular distress, it’s still a shared experience that affects the mental health and well-being of the transgender community.
Many of the barriers that transgender users face when interacting with web content act as triggers for those who experience gender dysphoria. A typical example of this is a website form that includes a field for a user’s “sex” when it should be asking for “gender” or vice versa.
On a basic level, using these terms interchangeably often causes stress, frustration, and confusion for users who are stuck wondering whether a form asks for biological sex/sex assigned at birth data or gender data. On a deeper level, many transgender individuals get their records legally amended to reflect their gender identity, such as birth certificates and driver’s licenses, which poses a significant problem for the user as these government-issued records still use the “sex” marker. What happens when a user is transgender and needs to enter sex/biological data for medical reasons but is forced to put their legally changed “sex” to pass identity verification? Worse yet, when a user spends 20 minutes filling out online forms to then be denied a necessary medical service they requested when an error message reads, “This service is not available for your gender.” An experience like this can aggravate gender dysphoria and add to the anxiety, hopelessness, and depression that they may be going through.
Other common triggers might include an app greeting a user by their legal name without allowing them to change it. It may be getting locked in a required field for prefixes, forcing user choice from a limited set (none of which they would want to be addressed, all of which may cause distress). Conditionally rendered data can also be triggering for those who experience gender dysphoria, such as an automatically generated prefix or a gendered profile and avatar based on the user’s sex data without their consent. These are just a few of the more typical cases that can result in continuous misgendering (being referred to as a gender one doesn’t identify with) and constant gender invalidation for the user.
The Importance of a Truly Accessible Experience
When it comes to designing a website, it’s important to remember that what you do once, a user experiences repeatedly, and when the dysphoria continues to relentlessly stack for an individual, day by day, app by app, the impact on their mental health can be severe. And in addition to causing a profoundly negative user experience, businesses miss out on significant consumer spending and traffic. The UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute published a study estimating the transgender population in the U.S. at 1.6 million. Even transgender users who aren’t diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria are more likely to opt for a more inclusive alternative than one which restricts their access to content or continuously invalidates them. Another recent report released by Pew Research Center shows that most Americans favor protecting the transgender community from discrimination. Other studies reveal Gen Zs evolving and more accepting views on gender. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey reports that Gen Zers identify as trans or non-binary 20 times more than Boomers. As majority acceptance and gender diversity continue to grow, non-gender-inclusive content will gradually find its way under scrutiny. Major social media platforms, including Instagram, TikTok, and LinkedIn have already taken steps to avoid this, such as including a new profile input for pronouns. Dating apps like Tinder have also included an abundance of gender choices as the binary option of “man” and “woman” on forms is being phased out. The Seyfarth ADA Title III News & Insights Blog synopsis shows web accessibility lawsuits at an all-time high. As they continue to increase by the year, it may only be a matter of time before companies find themselves under fire for creating inaccessible and non-inclusive websites as they relate to gender.
So what does all of this mean for us?
The challenge: There is currently no set of official standards that apply to accessibility concerning Gender Dysphoria. WCAG 2.1 specifies that “sex” should be used to label inputs for gender identity. We’ve already covered how using these terms interchangeably causes a dysphoric experience for many users and sometimes results in the denial of critical access to services. However, while we are seeing a wave of gender inclusivity, the barriers that transgender users face when navigating the web go far deeper than pronoun boxes.
The solution: This comes twofold: the creation of WCAG, which addresses Gender Dysphoria and those willing to put those guidelines into use. The situation's complexity lies in
the fact that the solution is a challenge in itself. Creating guidelines for this is tough because there isn’t a wealth of information available on this topic—in fact, the most we get is “add more pronoun and gender options” and “don’t use sex terms for gender.”
WCAG for Gender Dysphoria is inevitable, but we’re not there yet. As the demand increases for creating content that is accessible to everyone, so will the demand for WCAG to identify and fill these gaps. However, we can help generate that demand by starting the conversation and seeking ways to improve the user experience, and this begins with following a process that we already know works, which is testing with impacted users. Get feedback from, and most importantly, listen to the transgender community to understand their unique challenges. Then, you can have your website audited by someone who has a foundational knowledge of the blocks that transgender users face, along with having expertise in gender diversity and gender-inclusive design.
We’re bound to get it wrong sometimes, and there will be moments when we feel completely lost, but that’s okay as long as we keep talking about it. While taking on the issue of accessibility and inclusivity for the transgender community may seem daunting without clear steps, those who start now will be seen as the revolutionaries who carved the path toward a truly accessible web for a growing gender-diverse population. So be the one to do “before it was cool” and, more importantly, because it matters.