Government data shows that there are 14.1 million disabled people in the UK — that’s one in every five. While the technology industry is full of excitement and innovation, relatively less energy is devoted towards making existing developments accessible. Unfortunately, some companies fail to make accessibility a priority until faced with the consequences, such as discrimination lawsuits. Disabled people are not a niche market, and given the vital role technology plays in our everyday lives, more companies are working hard to prioritise accessibility — let’s look at a few ways how.
Companies often comply with legal standards without encouraging the deep cultural change required to make accessibility a priority. Adobe Design decided to tackle this issue with education, by providing training for all employees to consider the possibilities of assistive technology. In 2019, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Adobe and Oath banded together to create a multi-day event to explore the field of accessibility. In addition, it’s important to help employees understand how accessibility applies to their role, rather than leaving the responsibility to a single accessibility employee or team. This approach means that employees become engaged in the process and excited to create accessibility that goes beyond compliance.
Another way to prioritise accessibility is to recognise the benefits of fully considering potential user difficulties. For example, captioning technology was created to assist people with hearing difficulties. However, there are several other situations where this is useful, including watching videos in public places or in other languages. This flexibility allows the consumer to use the product in their preferred way, potentially resulting in a superior product.
It’s harder to fix a problem than it is to prevent it. Altering technology after release can be expensive and time-consuming. Not to mention that the reputational damage has already been done. An accessibility first approach recommends building accessibility into the design process from the beginning of the product life cycle.
Apple is one example of a company who believe that accessibility should start at early stages of development, and it looks like this strategy has served them well. The Apple VoiceOver feature uses machine learning to create one of the most effective screen readers on the market, able to speak complete sentences and work on third-party apps (to a limited extent). It’s been a game-changer for those with visual impairment.
People who have direct experience with inaccessible technology are probably best placed to help fix it. So, listen to the knowledge and lived experience of disabled people, and use it to inform development. There are now several organisations available to support companies in this goal. For example, Fable, a platform that provides development and testing and support from disabled people, means companies can quickly access the people with relevant expertise.
Even if you’re committed to seeking advice and testing your technology, it can still be difficult to prevent bias seeping into the design process. Creating a diverse and inclusive culture will trickle down into the products and services an organisation creates. However, disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed compared to non-disabled people. Disabled people face a number of challenges during the recruitment process (e.g. inaccessible applications) and are also likely to encounter obstacles at work (in a recent survey, 38% of those with visual impairments reported an accessibility issue at work). In order to create a truly accessible culture that gets embedded into the technology, it’s important for organisations to recognise and dismantle these barriers.
These are just a few ways for an organisation to show they are committed to creating accessible technology. Ignoring the needs of disabled people can have serious moral, legal and brand consequences for a company. So, now is the time to embrace the message that technology should work for everyone.