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Amy Brown headshot

From Compliance to Opportunity: Digital Accessibility for People with Disabilities is Rising on the Business Agenda

While some companies are making strides to improve digital accessibility, it’s not nearly fast enough for people with disabilities who are taking their frustrations to court. For companies, this is both a wake-up call and an opportunity.
By Amy Brown
Digital Accessibility - Deafness - Hearing Aid and Video Call

The shift toward virtual work, commerce and community during the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated issues of accessibility online. People with disabilities are often unable to access the basic functions of websites and apps. And while some companies are making big strides in improving digital accessibility, it’s not nearly fast enough for people with disabilities who are taking their frustrations to court. For companies, this is both a wake-up call and an opportunity.

A stunning 98 percent of websites are considered inaccessible. That leaves the 61 million Americans who live with a disability, or 1 in 4 U.S. adults, without access to the online information that many of us take for granted. Globally, the situation is much the same: Websites are largely inaccessible for the more than 1 billion people worldwide who experience some form of disability.

That has many people fed up. The number of U.S. lawsuits alleging that websites, apps and digital videos were inaccessible to people with disabilities rose 64 percent in the first half of 2021, and more than one of these lawsuits is now filed every hour. That is a 300 percent increase in lawsuits since 2018, many aimed at large companies.

Once the pandemic boosted digital-first consumer interactions, companies got serious about accessibility — some for the first time. According to a recent survey from the market research firm Forrester, 8 in 10 companies are now working to achieve accessibility, but only about a third have a top-down commitment to creating an accessible digital experience. For nearly half of the companies surveyed, accessibility is driven by grassroots efforts from passionate teams or individual employees.

“It’s ironic that as we become more of a technological world where more things can be made accessible, less and less things are,” Michael Hingson, chief vision officer for AccessiBe, a company specializing in solutions for digital accessibility, told TriplePundit. 

Hingson is blind from birth and a longtime advocate for people with disabilities. His dramatic story of surviving the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center, making it down 78 flights of stairs with his guide dog, Roselle, is chronicled in his book, Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog and The Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero.

“All my life, I have had the opportunity to be involved in visionary work, and that includes digital accessibility,” he told us. “COVID-19 has made the lack of accessibility a more visible problem, but it hasn’t solved it. I think we’re going to see more of an outcry that accessibility isn’t built into the websites, apps and the products we’ve come to depend on.”

Not only is it the right thing to do, but serving the disabled community is also a significant market opportunity. Globally, people with disabilities control $8 trillion in disposable income, including nearly $500 billion in the U.S. alone. Those people are much more likely to spend their hard-earned cash with businesses whose platforms they can easily use, Hingson explained. Businesses that prioritize accessibility can also earn customer loyalty, with a Nielsen study finding that people with disabilities tend to be more brand loyal and also make more shopping trips and spend more per trip than the average consumer.

Moving from a compliance to an opportunity mindset

What exactly is digital accessibility? As the U.S. Department of Labor’s Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology (PEAT) puts it, accessibility means that everyone can use the exact same technology — regardless of how much they can see or hear, how they process information, or whether they can manipulate a trackpad, touchscreen or mouse.

Making websites accessible is the law. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice clarified that websites are considered places of public accommodation and should therefore comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act Title III. Due to the increased use of the internet, many countries have incorporated web accessibility into existing civil rights legislation that protects people with disabilities or created new laws to make the internet more accessible.

For many companies, digital accessibility strategy has been focused on meeting these legislative mandates. Not surprisingly, those actions tend to be more focused on risk containment versus business differentiation or innovation. 

BMC, an enterprise software company, has embedded accessibility into the way it designs its website — including creating a web accessible color palette, training developers and product managers to inclusively build products, and providing web accessibility checklists that allow for all functions of the company to build in accessibility accommodations.

“While it’s true that risk containment has been the catalyst for many accessibility initiatives including ours, it has also brought about a real change in the way we think about our digital experiences and our users,” said Mark Fries, AVP of web strategy and development at BMC. “By making accessibility something we build in from the beginning of a project, we are able to focus our efforts on the things that will be most meaningful to the most people and ultimately make the greatest impact. It’s not a tradeoff.”

Yet there is a great deal of innovation to gain in digital accessibility, as journalist John Brownlee, who is blind, writes in Modus: “Accessibility is probably the most important and exciting frontier in design right now. Far from being something that designers pursue grudgingly, it should be viewed as what it is: a crystal ball through which we can view the all-encompassing future of tech.”

The pandemic has also accelerated this mindset shift toward innovation, according to a recent report from the International Labor Organization’s Global Business and Disability Network. “[COVID-19 has] significantly raised the visibility of digital technology’s impact on the workplace … and overall, the impact of the pandemic has further accelerated digital transformation,” the report reads. “It also has ‘normalized’ accommodation requests and the adoption of inclusive technology, and many companies do have well-established accessibility solutions and practices around mobility, vision, hearing, and increasingly in the area of cognitive and neurodiversity disability.”

Framing digital accessibility as an opportunity rather than a compliance matter is the way to go, Hingson told us. “It’s really a matter of education, and to have meaningful consumer input and involvement in the development of technologies,” he said. "Technology and devices should include accessibility right from the outset, not as an afterthought.”

The next step forward for digital accessibility

There is still much work to be done. Ensuring companies are inclusive and accessible requires a new mindset that incorporates human-centered and inclusive design into the way companies create products and services. “Most organizations, including my own, still have a lot of work to do. However, it is imperative that all experiences, including products, content materials and websites, are inclusively designed,” Fries of BMC said.

Yet very few companies recognize that digital accessibility needs to be an integral part of their digital transformation strategies, according to the ILO report. They fail to connect the dots that digital accessibility investment has a universally positive impact on all users, internal and external, and is a prerequisite for sustainable and scalable hiring in serving people with all different abilities. “Beyond simply benefiting users with disabilities, focusing on web and content accessibility improves brand perception, facilitates social inclusivity, and builds a better experience for all users,” Fries added. 

The situation can — and must — change, Hingson said — and he is confident that the technology for digital accessibility will continue to improve with advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning. But the bigger question is the commitment: that businesses give digital accessibility the focus it deserves. 

“The reality is, today we have the technology and the ability to make the world an inclusive place,” Hingson said. “What we don't have is an educated desire on behalf of all the decision-makers in the world to truly make it inclusive.”

This article series is sponsored by BMC Software and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team. 

Image credit: Peakstock/Adobe Stock

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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