When attempting to access critical resources and information online during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, individuals in New Jersey with certain disabilities could struggle immensely navigating websites that other residents use routinely with no issues at all.

Noting that most government websites and those of elected officials do not have features in place that make the experience more friendly for users with disabilities, Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce, R-Morris, announced the launch of such an upgrade on her own website, during a Wednesday morning Zoom meeting with officials and advocates.

"People are unaware that visually impaired individuals need to adjust the contrast lighting or size of wording on the internet," DeCroce told participants. "People are also unaware that individuals with physical difficulties, unable to use a touchpad or a mouse, are often left to click through every level of a website, sometimes 50 to 100 clicks, to receive information from one location."

An 'Accessibility' button at the top of the legislator's page allows users to engage a screen reader or turn the page black-and-white, among other features. DeCroce utilized the Washington, D.C. company User1st to implement the upgrades.

"With the explosion of the internet, so many people and organizations designed webpages, and those sites, by and large, were designed with fully able-bodied users in mind," said Shawn Pike, vice president at User1st.

Mike Marotta, of Disability Rights New Jersey, said webpage creators aren't limiting accessibility out of malice, but much of the population is uninformed about the options available.

"As the world becomes more digital, we must ensure people with disabilities are provided equal access to electronic information in order to be fully included members of our community," Marotta said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24.6% of adults in New Jersey have some type of disability. The Kessler Foundation, a New Jersey-based nonprofit for people with disabilities, said the disability community was disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. From March to April of this year, the number of employed people with disabilities decreased by nearly one million.

DeCroce used the Zoom meeting to urge her legislative colleagues to enact accessibility upgrades on their own websites.

"As an assemblywoman, I'm somewhat embarrassed that we don't have those capabilities statewide," said Aura Dunn, R-Morris, who joined DeCroce's video conference. "I want to follow in your footsteps and see what more we can do on this."

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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