Businesses oftentimes see accessibility as a matter of social responsibility — which it absolutely is. What organizations, enterprises, and startups are increasingly realizing is that meeting digital accessibility standards is a largely unseen opportunity to grow their business and stand out from their competitors.
Digital accessibility refers to the practice of creating digital technologies (i.e. products, services, or devices) with the needs of everyone in mind, regardless of their abilities. This entails removing barriers that prevent access to or interaction with digital content and solutions by people with disabilities.
In this guide, we offer you 12 convincing arguments for introducing digital accessibility to your products and services. This blog will also briefly cover key actions you need to take as you begin your journey in making your platforms accessible.
So why is digital accessibility important? Here are 12 reasons why:
1. It’s the right thing to do
Sure, this doesn’t directly relate to any business metric, but it is and should be the leading reason why digital accessibility matters: simply because it’s the right and decent thing to do.
With a wide range of services already available online, providing accessible design shouldn’t be seen as entirely different from face-to-face transactions. As much as it’s common courtesy (and oftentimes a legal obligation) to never exclude anyone in the real world based on their age, nationality, gender, sexual preferences, and disabilities (among many other aspects of a person’s identity), we should translate these practices into a technical standard of online interactions.
Source: Microsoft Inclusive Toolkit Manual
While the internet has democratized access to information, organizations and businesses can — and must — do a better job of providing equal digital access. In today’s highly globalized, digitalized, and interconnected world, excluding someone from the digital space is akin to excluding them from the physical space.
While this should be enough of an argument, oftentimes it isn’t. So we want to offer more pragmatic arguments why digital accessibility standards should matter to you.
2. Those who benefit are not “just a minority”
Building accessibility into your digital products will benefit more people that you might expect. They’re not merely a negligible minority. To begin with, disabled population that experienced some form of disability reached around 15% of the global population.
In countries where life expectancy exceeds 70 years of age, individuals go through an average of 8 years of their life with disability that often requires using assistive devices — not all of it in their senior years. At the same time, even as a person acquires a disability, they may not even identify as a “person with disability”.
One key mindset to have is this: we are all temporarily abled. Before, disability was viewed as a personal attribute. Today, disability is fortunately and rightly seen as context dependent.
This means that anyone can develop a disability or go through a disabling experience, which prevents or impairs access to digital information and services — whether permanently, temporarily, or situationally.
Source: Microsoft Inclusive Toolkit Manual
The number of people with sight-related disabilities in the US approximates the size of the population of New York City. Those living with mobility impairments in the US are more than twice this number. No one would intentionally remove the entire population of New York from their customer database, right?
Further, digital accessibility standards also benefit abled people. For example, mobile apps and devices with accessibility features will serve users who are situationally exposed to bright sunlight while on a tram or loud surroundings in a coffee shop. Because everyone can suffer from or experience temporary and situational disabilities, observing digital accessibility guidelines is effective for all your customers, not just a minority.
3. People with disabilities are loyal customers
Research from Nielsen’s State of the Disabled Consumer Report presents that loyalty is one of the key attributes of consumers in households where at least one person identifies with a disability. This suggests that brand loyalty extends to family members, not just the individual with a disability. In the study, more than one in every four households in the US has a family member that identifies with one of six disabilities they covered in the research.
The report states that although they have a lower income, consumers with disabilities shop more frequently and spend more every trip. They’re also less likely to be swayed by coupons or deals offered by competing brands. Extending this to digital technologies, if your products and services meet their needs (i.e. are accessible), then you’re well positioned to keep them as customers. They’re more unlikely to experiment with your competitors or new products.
4. It’s an untapped trillion dollar market opportunity
The market size for products and services serving people with disabilities continues to grow due to the increasing share of the aging population and better awareness about disability. Nevertheless, businesses are barely scratching the surface. Here are some key data points showing that serving this market segment is good for business.
- In the US, the market size for consumers with disabilities amounts to over a billion dollars. When including their family, friends, and associates, the size of the spendings from the increased audience goes up to over a trillion dollars (Nielsen). One estimate puts this at $7 trillion.
- In the UK, the spending power of disabled people and their households (referred to as the Purple Pound) is estimated to be worth £274 billion (Purple Organization). Businesses lose almost £2 billion each month as a result of neglecting the needs of disabled individuals for equal access to services and products.
- In a report from Accenture, businesses that championed inclusion for disability achieved around 28% higher revenue, double the net income, and 30% higher economic profit margins over a four-period covered in its study.
5. It can increase the effectiveness of your digital platforms while reducing development costs
According to a study from Forrester commissioned by Microsoft, digital accessibility can lead to cost savings when it’s introduced into established or ongoing development cycles. Updates and redesigns for user interface components of digital platforms that include accessibility improvements have resulted in reduced maintenance costs. Furthermore, the inclusion of accessibility features boosts overall customer satisfaction. Here are some notable examples:
- Legal & General Group, a financial services company in the UK, saved £200,000 in annual maintenance costs after redeveloping their website that successfully passed accessibility audits.
- This American Life, a public radio program and podcast, saw an 89% increase in inbound links after it published audio transcripts of its archived programs.
- The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK saw a 173% increase in daily users for their website after rebuilding it with a simpler user interface and more clearly written web page content.
- All the way back in 2001, Tesco launched a separate online store for customers with visual impairments. This new site, which cost £35,000 at that time, attracted a much wider audience than its main retail site that costs £13 million a year to maintain. As having separate digital platforms for persons with disabilities is considered an outdated approach today, Tesco has mainstreamed the accessibility features of this groundbreaking website that users navigate easily into their main online channels.
6. You already have customers with disabilities — and they use the internet (contrary to popular belief)
Businesses can’t truly say that they have no customers with disabilities unless they run an in-depth and methodical user research. Even so, unless participants disclose that they have some disability, this is a confidential piece of medical information that should never be asked about. Ultimately, you just can’t ascertain the proportion of your customers who live with a disability as part of a user or market study.
Online businesses can easily acquire customers with disabilities. If publicly available, anyone can access your mobile or web applications just like going into Starbucks or your favourite cafe. In most cases, there’s no compelling reason why your digital product can’t or shouldn’t be used by individuals with disabilities and remain accessible for them. For instance, 80% of disabilities aren’t even visible or noticeable.
Because of this, businesses should always endeavour to make their digital solutions meet web and mobile accessibility guidelines because they can’t be certain that the next customer or user does not have a disability. There’s a wide variety of assistive technologies that allows them to experience digital products, such as screen readers or braille terminals. Making your product accessible means making it friendly for these kinds of assistive technologies.
Furthermore, there’s some notion out there that people with certain types of disabilities, especially those with low vision disability, cannot and do not use the internet. This is certainly not true. Those with disabilities use the internet for the same reasons, same information that anybody else does: to shop, to learn, to be entertained, among many others.
In addition, people with the same type of disability use online channels to communicate across borders. For instance, they recommend products and services they find helpful. This is quite a strong trend and is very much visible on online communities such as Facebook groups.
Hence, it’s important to make all your platforms accessible. You should always assume that a sizable proportion of your users have disabilities because they'll be more than willing to walk away if your product is not usable for them.
A study in the UK found that 71% of persons with disabilities will abandon a website that’s difficult to use. This translates to an estimated loss of £11.75 billion in the United Kingdom alone each year. Further, nine out of ten people will never complain when they’ve encountered mobile or web accessibility issues. Remember that they won’t abandon their goal or task at all. They’ll just fulfill it somewhere else (e.g. buy from a different shop).
7. Everyone benefits from digital accessibility
Imagine that you’d like to watch a new episode of a TV show you’ve been following — but you’re on a bus, at a crowded cafe, or sitting silently at the doctor’s office waiting for your turn. If the streaming platform complies with digital accessibility guidelines, then you’ll still be able to watch and enjoy the show, albeit without audio, with the help of subtitles. This simple use case demonstrates that improving accessibility also enhances usability even for users without disability.
The example above isn’t an unusual case. 80% of those who use captions don't have a hearing impairment. Also, about half of streaming users say that captions are essential to them because they often watch videos without any audio, whether on a desktop or mobile device.
In another example, remember that auto-complete and voice control features were initially developed for people with disabilities. Today, these are widely used features. Similar to Tesco’s early experience with a separate online store for the visually impaired, it should be unsurprising to expect that innovations today for digital accessibility could become popular features for the general public and one of the success criteria of a digital product.
8. Implementation is easy and doesn’t take a lot of time
Introducing digital accessibility standards isn’t rocket science. If done right from the very beginning, it won’t add too much on your development team’s workload besides accessible, universal design.
Further, implementing digital accessibility isn’t as costly as you might think. Of course, it’s not nothing. There will be new things you’ll have to do, new features to introduce, and that’ll require some investment. But when weighed with the benefits and advantages as proven by many high profile companies and brands, the required cost is worth the investment.
As found by the Forrester study on accessibility, the key factor on implementation is to integrate them within your team’s established development cycles. Introducing accessibility and conducting accessibility audits after launching a product is likely to be more difficult and more costly.
Ultimately, this still depends on the complexity of your product. The promising experience has been that platform updates, redesigns, and enhancements with web content accessibility in mind tend to result in decreased maintenance and servicing costs.
9. It doesn’t have to be dull and ugly (another common misconception)
There’s a prevalent misconception among product managers and designers that a user interface following accessibility standards must sacrifice aesthetics — that it’s only in black and white, that it limits the fonts and interactive elements that can be used, and that it’s ultimately dull and hideous. This simply isn’t true. Apple products aren’t ugly, are they?
In fact, most accessibility elements lie in the code. They aren’t even visible. For those that are visible, accessible interfaces don’t need to be tiny gray fonts on gray backgrounds. They can look elegant, engaging, minimalist, monochromatic, lively, or whatever the designer intends it to be. As for color schemes tailored for the visually impaired, accessibility is so much more than contrast.
There is, however, an aesthetic-accessibility paradox that designers struggle with when designing interfaces. There are accessibility purists who dismiss aesthetics. In our belief, while balancing aesthetics and accessibility isn’t easy, this is entirely within the mission of accessibility advocates.
Part of mainstreaming digital accessibility is to develop products that attract the widest possible audience. This isn’t possible without products that are both accessible and beautiful.
10. Accessibility influences a company’s image
Companies that care about accessibility are seen as more ethical and socially responsible. This helps build loyalty among customers and employees (both with and without disabilities). They also make themselves a strong prospect for candidates, especially among millennials and Gen Z, who may be interested to work for them. For instance, 92% of Americans view businesses that hire people with disabilities more favorably (Worksupport.com).
Younger employees, particularly those belonging to Gen Z, are more sensitive to the values, ethics, and social impact of the brands and companies they buy from and work for compared to previous generations. Diversity and inclusion are important and they recognize that these go beyond gender and racial equality as well. Disability is an aspect that the youth care about when it comes to inclusion.
11. It boosts SEO and conversions
There is a positive relationship between accessibility and SEO. Making websites accessible improves its SEO and conversion rates. By introducing practices such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), you make your websites more searchable and usable for your users. This increases organic traffic and conversions (e.g. sign-ups, purchases) because more users are able to access your platform and its content and offerings.
In fact, Google Search looks for almost the same characteristics as those that the WCAG guidelines enforce. Publishing quality content through a platform that delivers it in an accessible manner factors into the search algorithm. This helps web content from sites that meet certain accessibility standards to be judged favorably, which positively impact its page rankings.
12. Otherwise, your business might get sued
There were 3,500 digital accessibility lawsuits in the US in 2020 alone. This is almost equal to 10 lawsuits filed each day. While legal obligations and regulations vary across jurisdictions, the growing awareness on digital accessibility increases the legal risks of businesses, especially those that have consumer-facing platforms.
In a case that set a groundbreaking precedent, Netflix lost against the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) in 2011. While their mail-order DVDs had closed captions, their early online streaming platform didn’t. This helped pave the way for closed caption features being an industry standard today.
In a more recent development, just this June 2022, member states of the European Union (EU) are required to have adopted and published domestic laws and regulations that comply with the European Accessibility Act, which is a common set of accessibility rules that must be implemented by 2025. This requires that all apps and websites in a number of industries must be made accessible with four WCAG standards in mind: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust (POUR).
This is a key piece of regulation that global technology businesses must monitor and act on immediately. Nobody wants their company or startup to become the latest cautionary tale on the necessity of digital accessibility.
Tips on beginning your work towards digital accessibility
Digital accessibility is a journey. While there are guidelines (WCAG) and legal obligations (e.g. European Accessibility Act) that can function as standards you can (and in some cases, should) follow, digital technologies evolve rapidly and so does the human experience of it.
As you begin your journey towards digital accessibility, it’s worth noting that at the core of this work is the consumer, the user, the customer, the human being who benefits from the accessibility features and ideas that you introduce. Even if the technologies and the standards change, you won’t go wrong by anchoring your work on the human experience of your product ideas.
With this in mind, here are some tips in beginning your work towards accessibility:
- Plan and implement strategically. If your product is already live, start with an audit and introduce accessibility fixes as part of your established development cycles. Review your product roadmap and find strategic points when it’s strategically and technically feasible to incorporate them with testable success criteria in mind. It’s not necessarily smart to go all in at once.
- Get your designers to study inclusive design. Or work with specialists already familiar with them. While most mobile and web accessibility features are introduced within the code, designers also play a meaningful role. Small design changes sometimes mean huge digital accessibility modifications that can make a significant impact for a lot of users. This includes using more contrasting colors, making clickable elements larger or more noticeable, designing clear layouts and logical navigation, and many more.
- Conduct user testing sessions with people with disabilities. Don’t take shortcuts and assume that it’ll work perfectly as you intended. Seeing how potential users (with different abilities) struggle with your product can be really eye-opening. Remember that for a digital product to be accessible, users must be able to successfully use it independently.
- Conduct accessibility audits. This is a combination of manual and automated testing through the use of assistive technologies. An in-depth accessibility audit will also combine professional knowledge from experts that will help you identify actions you need to take to increase your platform’s accessibility.
Making accessibility part of your corporate and digital culture
Digital accessibility can still be seen as aspirational or something that only bigger enterprises and well-funded startups can afford. With all the tools openly available, we assure you that it’s not. Sooner rather than later, it’ll be the other way around — your business won’t be able to afford not introducing digital accessibility standards.
This is why it’s important to view accessibility not only as something that your digital platforms should have, but as something that your company embodies. Accessibility shouldn’t just remain as a feature but as a culture that your company learns and adapts.
Hopefully, in due time, accessibility will come natural to product teams that it will no longer be an afterthought or an additional standard to comply with but as an inherent part of the design and development process.
When you’re ready to begin your next project, we’d like to hear more about it if you’d like us to be part of your journey towards digital accessibility.