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USER EXPERIENCE

Why Software Accessibility Matters

Ilona Koren-Deutsch

August 05, 2021

Making sure your software and its documentation is accessible is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do—and it’s actually not that difficult. An accessible product is as usable as possible for everyone, regardless of their physical and cognitive abilities. For example, blind people should be able access your documentation with a screen reader, and neurologically atypical people shouldn’t be distracted by flashing screens, pop-ups, or carousels.

All disabilities, whether permanent or temporary, can affect access to and use of your software. For many people, technology makes things easier. For people with disabilities, technology makes things possible. The general categories to account for in your design include auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual disabilities.

Why do it?

Your company can have both measurable social impact and a healthy return on investment if you provide equal access to your products. Accessibility can:

  • Drive Innovation: Accessibility features in products and services can solve unanticipated problems.

  • Enhance Your Brand: Diversity and inclusion efforts are accelerated with a clear commitment to accessibility.
  • Extend Market Reach: The global market of people with disabilities is over 2 billion people with a spending power of more than $6 trillion.
  • Minimize Legal Risk: Many countries have laws and many compliance standards have criteria requiring digital accessibility. When accessibility is part of strategic planning, businesses are better equipped for success. A research study of Fortune 100 companies showed that disability inclusion, as part of an overall diversity strategy, is common practice among high performing businesses. (Disability as diversity in fortune 100 companies. Ball, P., Monaco, G., Schmeling, J., Schartz, H., and Blanck, P.; Law, Health Policy and Disability Center (2005).)

Drive innovation

By designing with a more diverse group of people in mind, you can develop better overall products and generate new ideas that will benefit all users. You might also uncover previously unthought of innovations that can have a measurable social impact. One example of accessible design leading to innovation for all is driverless cars. Driverless cars, which are promising for the independence of blind people, are also projected to help solve traffic fatalities and congestion.

Another example comes from academia. Research and development of the artificial retina project to help restore sight for people who are blind might also help future robots with real-time image-processing systems, effectively enabling them to “see.”

Accessibility is closely related to general usability in that both aim to define and deliver a more intuitive user experience. User interaction design takes into account experiences other than screens when you consider accessibility. The result is interactions that are more human-centered, natural, and contextual.

Many companies use design thinking when developing products. Ideo describes design thinking as a discipline that brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It also allows people who aren't trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges.

Accessible design thinking provides varied and flexible ways for users to interact with products that can be useful for people with and without disabilities. Design thinking embraces seven core principles for participants: user-centric, collaborative, iterative, holistic, optimistic, experimental, and experiential. As you think about each of these principles, think about how accessibility can impact each one. For example, accessibility is a user-centric concept: it embraces all users, including those with disabilities. In implementing design thinking, remember to consider both the needs of your users with disabilities and the needs of your design thinking participants with disabilities.

Enhance your brand

By developing accessible software, you demonstrate that you care about your customers as people.

A genuine commitment to accessibility is an important facet of demonstrating that your company has a sense of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Understanding and acting on the diverse needs of your stakeholders, both internal and external, can help create a brand that tells prospects you’re innovative, inclusive, and trustworthy. A Forrester survey commissioned by Microsoft features statements like, “Customers are aware of the needs of the people with disabilities and make purchasing decisions based on this kind of factor.” (Assessing The Value Of Accessible Technologies For Organizations: A Total Economic Impact™ Study Commissioned By Microsoft. June 2016.)

In addition, with a clear and integrated commitment to accessibility, you’ll enhance your internal culture and be able to hire the best people. To be successful in this endeavor, the technology that your employees use, including websites and applications, must be accessible.

Extend market reach

The market of people with disabilities is large, and it’s growing as the population ages. In the US alone, the annual discretionary spending of people with disabilities is over $200 billion.

Consider the following facts when estimating market size. At least one billion people —15% of the world’s population—have a recognized disability. As the global population ages, many more people acquire a disability, which means that in countries with life expectancies of over 70 years of age, people spend 11.5% of their lifespan living with a disability. Globally, this market is estimated at 2.3 billion people who control $6.9 trillion in annual disposable income.

Think of it this way: Not having an accessible product is the modern-day equivalent of kicking out every fifth customer that enters your business.

Accessible product design often leads to improvements in general customer experience and thus customer loyalty. For customers with disabilities, such improvements are essential for equal access. Moreover, accessible design provides options that are useful to all customers in various situations. For example, accessible software benefits not only users with disabilities, but also:

  • Older people with changing abilities due to aging
  • People with “temporary disabilities” such as carpal tunnel syndrome, a broken arm, or lost glasses
  • Users with challenging situations like bright, glaring sunlight or noisy environments

In many industries, accessibility is required for compliance. Even if your business is not legally required to be accessible, you might find that your customers are only permitted to work with companies that are compliant. Factoring in regulation, government oversight, and increased court action, the legal landscape is rapidly changing in favor of equal access.

Accessibility is a human right. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) is a comprehensive human rights document that includes a direct reference to the rights of all people to have equal access to communications technology, which includes software as well as the web. Passed by the General Assembly of the UN, at last count more than 182 countries have ratified the CRPD. (As of 2021, the United States has signed, but not ratified, the treaty.)

The European Commission has adopted the European Accessibility Act, requiring ATMs and banking services, PCs, telephones and TV equipment, telephony and audiovisual services, transport, e-books, and e-commerce meet accessibility requirements. Australia, Canada, and other European countries have similar laws. Software is often included in these laws.

In the US, the number of lawsuits continues to rise, and courts increasingly decide in favor of equal access, often citing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If your product is used by the government, you also need to conform to Section 508, which covers a range of technology including electronic documents, software applications, web content, operating systems, and development frameworks.

Conclusion

Making software accessible is the right thing to do, and if you begin with accessibility in mind, it’s easier than going back and building it in later. It’s also good engineering practice to keep accessibility in mind from the start. Here at Courier, we are eager to dive into the project of making our own product more accessible. Admittedly, we’re not quite there yet, but we’re ready to get started! A few simple, but effective steps we plan to keep top-of-mind are:

  • Familiarize ourselves with the ARIA standards. The Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite defines a way to make Web content and Web applications more accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Offer real-time captioning for any of our live online content.
  • Ensure our colors meet minimum contrast requirements everywhere, including this blog.

For more on accessibility such as how to engineer for accessibility and how you can use notifications to help your accessibility program, watch this space!

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