Using the Internet with Epilepsy: 3 Insights on Accessibility

accessiBeSystem
March 26, 2023

For many people, using the internet is relaxing. Scrolling through social media, doing some quick online shopping, or watching a video or two is a way to unwind. For many people with epilepsy, however, surfing the web can be a totally different experience.

This year, in honor of Epilepsy Awareness Day, we wanted to share some great insights from Natasha, who has photosensitive epilepsy.

We invited Natasha to participate in one of our ongoing user testing sessions, in which we gain valuable feedback from community members on our product and internet use in general. In her session, Natasha enlightened us on what it’s like to navigate the internet with her unseen disability.

For some context, our AI-powered solution, accessWidget, allows users to select a profile that modifies websites according to specific disability traits. One of these profiles is the Seizure Safe Profile, designed specifically for people with photosensitive epilepsy - and that’s the product that we asked Natasha to test.

Natasha’s session provided us with valuable takeaways for creating a more inclusive online experience for people with epilepsy. Here are some of the insights that we think can foster a deeper understanding of where websites fall short and how we can try to bridge the gap.

“Websites don’t have warnings on them like tv shows do.” 

One of the most difficult aspects of navigating the internet for Natasha is trying to access a website that does not give a disclaimer regarding flashing lights, visual patterns, or high contrast. In other media formats, like television shows, warnings are often given to viewers who may experience a seizure due to special effects.

Netflix, for example, has begun disclaiming its content with warnings of a “strobing effect that may affect photosensitive viewers.” This effort to alert viewers with epilepsy aims at reducing the risk of triggering a seizure or disrupting neurological function. Even modern video games are getting caught up on accessibility efforts with more sufficient warnings and digital accessibility options embedded into the player experience. 

“There are hazards everywhere,” Natasha explains, “In terms of the digital world, there are a few things I do to keep myself safe. One is avoidance; there are websites I just don’t go to. I generally look at the screen cautiously, so that if something pops up, I’ll be ready to block it out. I might also open a website in a smaller window so that I can easily close it, because the big problem is - if there’s something really, really flashy in there - I can’t switch it off or close it, because I can’t look at the screen to find the X button. Websites don’t have warnings on them like TV shows do.”

Websites, and the internet as a whole, are still behind on accessibility for people with epilepsy. Not only do more warnings and disclaimers need to be introduced at the entrance of sites with triggering content, but accessibility adjustments need to be made available for those who wish to buy products, interact with services, or engage with multimedia online. 

“The internet is functional for me, I don’t use it to relax.” 

For many people, using the internet is a way to unwind. But Natasha shared, that this may not be the case for people with epilepsy. Because of the overwhelming lack of accessibility, performing digital tasks can be a purely functional experience. Unlike those without epilepsy, Natasha cannot scroll through social media and news resources leisurely, because it’s not relaxing when websites could trigger a seizure or leave her feeling really awful. Instead, she sticks to the websites that she knows are accessible, or visits more challenging sites for practical reasons alone.

“The best analogy I can think of is it’s as if you’re scrolling through a website and suddenly there’s a really, really loud, booming sound that comes into the room. So you might not have a seizure from that, but there’s no way you’d be able to read what you’re looking at and concentrate,” she says, “And you’d probably be left feeling a bit rough and a bit headachy. Whenever you go online you know that the equivalent of a deafening noise might suddenly fill your room.” 

It’s important to mention that are no “blanket” web accessibility solutions for people with epilepsy. There are actually 4 different categories of epilepsy and 40 separate types of seizures that can be triggered. Each epilepsy persona is affected by diverse kinds of website inaccessibility, as well as inaccessible facets of daily life. For example, it’s lesser known that those with photosensitive epilepsy can experience an “absence seizure” when browsing the web.

In the user testing session, Natasha opened up a website that we use as our demo. She turned on the Seizure Safe Profile. Immediately, the colors went to neutral, the moving logos froze, and the motion stopped. “Ok this is easier for me to look at. Even though this website wouldn’t have actually given me a seizure, the fact that these logos have stopped moving makes it so much easier to look at the detail on this website.” She seemed more relaxed and able to really browse and read the website, rather than rush through it.

“Dig a little bit more into the detail - and be mindful.”

Natasha’s daily experience online is complicated. In our conversation with her, she asked business owners to think about the bigger picture when it comes to using flashing pop-ups and flashing lights. Do we really need those things? Are they actually successful? With low conversion rates of 3% and with evidence that flashing lights turn the average user away, we should ask ourselves, are trendy pop-ups worth putting someone with epilepsy at risk of a seizure?

“There’s a huge lack of awareness. People use stuff just because everyone uses it and I think they assume that because it looks snazzier, people will be interested in it. But think, do you really need it? because from what I remember, these flashing imaging pop-ups have brilliant click-through rates, but terrible conversion rates. Think about if you really need it,” Natasha asks, “On LinkedIn when you put a really high contrast pattern, people might look at your post but are you getting any more comments? Or engagements? Are those comments relevant? Again, probably not. Dig a little bit more into the detail and be mindful of the fact that you’re causing a lot of people a lot of problems.” 

Advocate for those with epilepsy by supporting Epilepsy Awareness Day

There is still a long way to go before the internet becomes a safe place for many people with epilepsy. Through awareness efforts like Epilepsy Awareness Day, society can begin to better support people with epilepsy by prompting the need for digital accessibility and other inclusion practices. As we learned from our user testing session with Natasha, we really can make the internet a safer space by learning about what triggers seizures, what technology services can do to minimize the chance of experiencing one, and what a website needs to forgo to construct an enhanced, inclusive online space. 

Thank you to Natasha for sharing your experience and your voice with all of us.