Software Development / Contributed

Are You Ignoring Digital Accessibility at Your Job?

6 Jun 2022 10:00am, by
Preety Kumar
Preety Kumar is the CEO of Deque Systems and founded Deque in 1999 with the vision of unifying web access, both from the user and the technology perspective. Under Preety’s leadership, Deque has grown to be a market leader in the field of information accessibility, serving corporate and government clients with the highest standards in information technology. She collaborated with the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative and is a nominated member of the Accessibility Forum’s Strategic Management Council.

Let’s be clear — developers and designers are not intentionally building digital experiences that exclude people with disabilities. Chances are, you aren’t deliberately ignoring accessibility at your company either. But that doesn’t mean issues aren’t there.

We clearly see this misalignment when we look at the facts. Recent research shows that nearly two-thirds of respondents (65%) believe digital accessibility is a civil right and not just a privilege. This sentiment is most pronounced among younger respondents ages 18-34 (75%), showing how this belief will only solidify in the coming years. The reality is three out of every four people either have a disability or have a close friend/family member who does, meaning digital accessibility personally touches many of our lives.

However, the average homepage has 50.8 accessibility issues, and there’s been an uptick in digital accessibility lawsuits in recent years. What’s not clicking?

Why We Haven’t Seen More Movement around Digital Accessibility

Unfortunately, misconceptions and baggage often accompany conversations about how to best improve digital accessibility standards.

Updated accessibility guidelines from the U.S. Department of Justice have thrust digital accessibility into the spotlight, with the media much more focused on lawsuits than accessibility gains. At the same time, the designers and developers tasked with making accessibility improvements are uncertain about how to move forward. This leaves them open to temptation from accessibility overlay solutions offering quick — but ineffective and, frankly, unethical — fixes.

Events like Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) are working to create greater agreement and clarity about digital accessibility at scale. As the initiative states, “The purpose of GAAD is to get everyone talking, thinking and learning about digital access and inclusion” and the over 1 billion people globally who have a disability. That’s why events like GAAD are so important: They create space to reflect critically on how we prioritize digital accessibility, while also shedding light on inadequate solutions and how to combat them.

Other barriers come to mind as I reflect on GAAD 2022. It doesn’t help matters that, for many organizations, an initial encounter with calls for improved accessibility comes in the form of a lawsuit. It’s a rude awakening, and while legal action is a strong motivator for change, I’d prefer to see brands proactively engaging in accessibility work because they understand the benefits it provides for people with disabilities. Starting on the back foot makes it more difficult to tackle future accessibility issues with compassion and eagerness.

What’s more, when brands are hit with a lawsuit (or lawsuits), we often see them turn to overlay solutions as a magic fix to their digital accessibility errors. While cost-effective at first glance, overlay solutions are only able to solve a small percentage of accessibility issues in a superficial and temporary manner and can actually leave organizations with extreme technical debt. In our research, we’ve found the real-world use of a low-priced overlay fixed just 8% of WCAG 2.1 A/AA issues (and sadly, the overlay actually created new accessibility issues). If a quick and cheap solution seems too good to be true, it probably is. Creating effective digital experiences that meet long-term standards requires ongoing maintenance and oversight, much like the effort many of us put into remaining healthy humans.

Magic fixes largely worsen web experiences for people with disabilities and hurt the state of digital accessibility overall. When we fall for a solution that overpromises, we soon face the reality of under-delivery (fixing a minority of your issues, ignoring the most critical problems and creating new accidental accessibility barriers in the process).

Likewise, what we consider “healthy” changes over time, and solutions working well now may no longer prove as surefire in a year. It’s better to embed accessibility principles into the foundation of your organization so all future digital experiences are built with everyone in mind. This is impossible to achieve with immature overlay solutions, and those technologies can lead to repeat lawsuits when you don’t properly solve accessibility issues the first time around.

3 Ways to Inspire Accessibility Improvements

The pursuit of perfection too often stops decision-makers from tackling digital accessibility needs sooner. Digital accessibility is a relatively similar concept to cybersecurity. While your current cybersecurity strategy may be advanced, there’s no such thing as 100% secure. Imperfections don’t stop you from being strategic in addressing issues now, though. Across the board, businesses know that having a cybersecurity system in place is the first step and that an ongoing practice to maintain security is what truly protects you.

The same sense of forward movement rarely exists in the world of digital accessibility — whether it’s because organizations don’t know how to build momentum or due to perceived cost and time demands. So, I invite you to join the conversation, reconsider your approach and take action.

Here are three factors to consider:

1. Risk and compliance

The consequences for companies that fail to improve digital accessibility include both short-term monetary penalties and long-term brand reputation losses.

Many retailers have made the costly mistake of fighting lawsuits rather than looking inward to embrace change. In these countless cases, brands often spend more resources on lawyers and legal fees than they would on investing in proper accessibility solutions. It’s baffling — why not fix your core problems and provide ongoing maintenance? Why, instead, would you alienate yourself from roughly $13 trillion in business (when you add together people with disabilities and their friends and family)?

Addressing core issues also means you can test for and catch accessibility issues earlier in the development process, which is far cheaper than making corrections retroactively in a production environment. With the latter, you must fix, test and retest systems before you can republish digital experiences — and that’s highly interruptive and creates unnecessary risks. With the former, you shift left in the development cycle and fix issues during coding stages, which is cheaper, more efficient and avoids cascading impacts.

2. DEI principles

We should prioritize digital accessibility because it’s the right thing to do. Sadly, this message doesn’t move the needle as much as we hope. While DEI work at large has taken center stage, accessibility conversations have yet to garner the same level of resource dedication and attention.

But we can’t leave accessibility out of the equation, and in many cases, people have strong feelings about accessibility conversations. Again, 60% of respondents believe people with disabilities should be able to access websites with the same experience as everyone else.

At the individual level, however, people aren’t empowered to champion change. Your organization (including executives) has to take on accessibility work together and provide resources, tools and education for ongoing engagement and empathy building. This collaborative approach surfaces leaders within your business who can occupy key roles that help push accessibility improvements forward, and also offers hiring and retention benefits. 

3. Improving usability for everyone

Beyond people living with disabilities, improving digital accessibility upgrades experiences for all types of users.   

Consider, for example, older users who may be losing dexterity in their hands or have poor eyesight. While this segment of consumers functions mostly fine without assistive digital experiences, this could quickly change. Likewise, what if you broke your arm today and you find yourself with a temporary disability? Overnight, you’d go from being able to type and search online to relying on voice-activated services and text readers. If your favorite brands are not already equipped with these capabilities, you’re likely to take your business elsewhere.

Events like GAAD offer space for us to connect around these motivators, find solutions and develop a path to improving digital accessibility. This year, I hope to see more brands moving away from reactively addressing accessibility issues and toward holistic approaches to digital accessibility. We call this method high velocity accessibility, which leans on automation to invite all teams across your organization — development, design, testing, product owners and more — to engage in accessibility conversations early on in the development cycle. 

High-velocity accessibility combines teamwork and robust process management to deliver technology experiences that are both accessible and transparent. By consistently using tools, services and training to engage your organization as a whole around accessibility, you embed accessibility principles and thinking into your company’s DNA and promote sustainable accessibility — not overlay Band-Aids that hide persistent process and technical shortcomings.

So how are you helping to bring awareness to the need for improved digital accessibility? Reading this article is a solid start, but I hope you can now make progress in spaces where you have influence to turn your growing awareness about digital accessibility into action.

Feature image via Pixabay.