Why accessibility is good business but rarely a priority

According to the World Health Organization, one billion people -- approximately 15 percent of the world’s population -- live with some form of disability. There are more than 350 million people suffering from color blindness alone, and discretionary disposable income of people with disabilities is estimated to be half a trillion dollars in the U.S. The potential revenue that businesses can gain from better serving people with disabilities is immense.

But despite those staggering numbers, accessibility is often ignored in the design and development of digital products. When not completely ignored, it is commonly planned and budgeted for to be done at a later time, often due to a product management paradox.

The best practice for developing digital products prescribes incremental development and delivering the most valuable features first. Providing support for "difficult" scenarios or "small customer segments" are often planned for releases late in the product development lifecycle. And this is where estimating the benefits of accessibility are not well understood.

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This means when it comes to accessibility, business cases are looked at in terms of incremental value. Launching features for screen readers or color contrast tools would potentially increase revenue with some percentage points as the product now caters for a small segment of visually impaired people. While logical, this is a false economy on all sides of the business case, benefits, costs and risks.

Benefits of accessibility comes with usability for all

There is a phenomenon known as the "curb-cut effect" that was coined in the 1960s when disability activist Ed Roberts -- who relied on a wheelchair to get around -- advocated for curb cuts in sidewalks to make it easier for mobility-impaired individuals to move freely. The result? More people benefited than only those in wheelchairs. Parents pushing strollers, the elderly using walkers and even travelers hauling luggage saw an improvement in their daily experience due to curb cuts.

This phenomenon extends past the physical world and still applies when considering digital inclusivity. For example, take closed captioning. What started as a movement in the 1970s by activists determined to make television accessible to those with hearing impairments has benefited those without disabilities too. People who are experiencing situational limitations, like being in a noisy environment, can rely on closed captioning to process what is happening on TV without the sound.

The point is, accessibility features benefit those living without disabilities, too. When organizations take accessibility into account, they can reach a broader audience and create products and solutions that benefit more people. Therefore, accessibility features will be more valuable across all customer segments.

Cost of late implementation

Unless the UI of a digital product is built using an accessible component framework, implementing after the fact results in additional efforts in redesigning components and implementing the digital assets. It also leads to extra costs and risks with overlay solutions from third-party providers.

In product terms, accessibility support is not a feature, it’s an inherit quality property of the solution, much like scalability or security. And like security, adding it late in the product life cycle is disproportionately costly and risky.

Risks to brand and reputation

A reactive approach to accessibility also comes with risk. The European Accessibility Act, which was adopted in 2019, will require banking services, e-commerce and other digital products and services to comply with strict accessibility guidelines by 2025. This type of regulation is likely to take effect in other parts of the globe, too. If organizations don’t comply, they risk lawsuits and reputational damage from which they will be hard to recover. By considering accessibility from the start, organizations can avoid damaging legal, financial and reputational risks.

The recent Robles v. Domino’s settlement further illustrates why accessibility should be at the forefront of businesses design approach. The Supreme Court established a precedent that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to all digital content, and many of the issues cited in the lawsuit were common accessibility barriers. It is every business’ responsibility to provide accessible services to each consumer, and by not taking this into account, businesses are operating at risk.

Accessibility is product strategy and design

In short, accessibility support is much more complex than adjusting colors and providing alternative text content. Accessibility cannot be managed as a product feature, especially when it comes to evaluating the cost and benefit cases or in managing the implementation.

A human-centered design approach, which keeps all customers at the core of design decisions, is key for implementing accessibility measures into digital products. Driving the understanding around accessibility and making it a central part of designers’ ways of working is necessary to embed accessibility into the design of the product.

Consider the value of accessibility from the beginning

Now that it’s clear why accessibility efforts are beneficial for all, it’s critical for businesses to remember to implement accessibility efforts from the onset of product development. The alternative is taking accessibility into account as an afterthought, which is both costly and ineffective.

Keeping all customers and users in mind when implementing an accessibility strategy is key in the design process as everyone will benefit.  And so will your business.  And in the end, we can move closer to creating a more digital inclusive world.

Image creditstockasso/depositphotos.com

Fredrik Hagstroem is the CTO of Emergn and an expert in digital transformation. He specializes in moving large change and development programs within global organizations forward, helping to achieve key business objectives. He is certified in Agile as a practitioner and trainer, and as a Systems Architect and Software Developer, specializing in Lean and Agile practices. He’s been part of the Emergn team for over 12 years.

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