Accessibility has become one of the newest buzzwords in innovation.
Businesses promote their commitment to accessibility by throwing around a lot of altruistic terms such as inclusion and equality when they talk about how they’re making it easier for individuals with disabilities to navigate their websites. And while everyone is on board with leveling the playing field to ensure unimpeded access to the web, it’s also just good for business.
Digital equality means making the internet accessible to everyone, regardless of their individual abilities—that’s just morally and ethically right. But your brand’s reputation would suffer if you shut out individuals who, for example, rely on assistive technologies such as screen readers. Costly lawsuits can be leveled at any moment if you fail to comply with your obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other ADA-inspired laws. And then there’s the sheer loss to your bottom line if you shut out a sector of consumers that accounts for nearly 25% of the American population.
There are nearly 61 million Americans living with some sort of disability, and the majority of these individuals are likely using computers, shopping online, and eagerly consuming digital content. In order to enable full, barrier-free access to information and services for individuals who are blind or visually impaired, those who are hearing impaired, those with learning or cognitive disabilities, those who struggle with epilepsy or other seizure-related disorders, and those with limited mobility in the hands and arms, special considerations must be taken into account by designers and developers of digital content and functionality. Providing this for your customers is required by law, in the ADA.
According to the American Institutes for Research, the disposable income of working-age adults with disabilities is nearly $500 million. But if they can’t access your site, they’re not going to spend, and neither are the friends, family, and other loved ones who care about them.
Accessibility also means visibility. The more accessible your website, the more likely you are to rank high in terms of SEO (search engine optimization) and get through to the vast and ever-growing demographic of individuals with disabilities who are active participants in the digital global marketplace.
Aside from missing out on a potential market of billions of dollars, refusing to get in line with ADA standards for compliance opens you up to a series of potential lawsuits, the costs of which could easily bring a small business to its knees. And they’re happening all the time. In 2018, there were 2,258 ADA website lawsuits filed in federal courts across the U.S., a staggering jump of 177% from the previous year.
Domino’s has been sued for failing to offer an ADA-compliant site. So has Parkwood Entertainment, owned by Beyoncé herself. If the King of Pepperoni and the Queen of Pop can both be taken to court for ADA violations, no business, no matter how big or small, should think of themselves as immune.
In addition to potential reputation damage—which can take years to rebound from—these lawsuits come with a price tag. Generally, they settle quickly for between $10,000 dollars and $90,000. If you go to court, the costs are significantly higher.
Some of the big tech firms and leading global brands are fully embracing the inclusion revolution. In 2018, Airbnb rolled out 21 new accessibility filters on its rental platform, allowing users to search beyond “wheelchair accessible” in terms of housing listings and now narrow down their options by factors such as special on-site disabled parking and accessible showers.
Tommy Hilfiger has launched Tommy Adaptive, a clothing line fully catering to the market of children and adults with disabilities. Uber offers WAV, which provides affordable rides in wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Netflix provides a voice-narration feature that will describe a television scene to those with visual impairments. Google, meanwhile, has added an optional layer of information to its Google Maps service so that users can search for routes that offer wheelchair accessibility, a helpful detail, especially in public transit stations.
But accessibility comes down to much more than welcoming a person in a wheelchair or offering audio description services to someone who cannot see. Accessibility means thinking in a bolder, wider, more radical way about what it means to interact with a website or application on a computer or mobile device. It’s remembering that, in the great human experience of navigating our expanding digital world, each one of us sees, hears, and experiences differently. And if we can open up our minds to that fact, we will welcome many more customers. And that is always great for business.
Sean Bradley is cofounder and chief strategy officer of AudioEye.