Stop Talking About Accessibility. Start Talking About Inclusive Design.

Paul Boag

By talking about accessibility we marginalise it to being about disability. In truth, making your digital services accessible benefits everybody.

Accessibility… Wait! Don’t stop reading! This post isn’t a preachy article about how you should design your digital platforms to be more friendly to the disabled. No. This post is a hard-nosed business article about maximising your potential audience and your profits at the same time. Keep reading; I promise it is worth it.

Look, I know accessibility has fallen out of favour. There was a time when accessibility was a hot topic. A time when the best and the brightest worked hard to ensure the accessibility of their websites.

But then things got complicated. We stopped just building websites and started building web apps. The webpage started to give way to the single paged app. Javascript and AJAX became dominant and accessibility got ‘messier’.

Google Maps brought AJAX to the mainstream. But it also introduced some challenging accessibility issues.

Although it was possible to build accessible web apps, some started to challenge the need. When I talk about accessibility today, many shift uncomfortably and try and change the subject. Some even go as far as arguing that accessibility is “holding back the web” because it makes development so much harder.

I am not unsympathetic to this view if accessibility is just about those with a disability. Although I believe we have a legal and moral obligation to the disabled, it can be hard balancing this with business reality.

But that is not what accessibility is. We need to realign our thinking or risk undermining the user experience for everybody.

We Have the Wrong View of Accessibility

When we think accessibility, we tend to think about the disabled. In fact, if we are honest, we tend to think of blind people.

Of course, disability is about a lot more than the blind. For a start, there are lots of visual impairments beyond complete blindness. There are also other sensory disabilities such as being deaf. Then there are motor skill issues and cognitive disability.

But even that is too narrow a view of accessibility. Accessibility is not just about those registered disabled. We all have ‘disabilities’ at times. The chances are you suffer from one right now; I know I do.

Did You Know You Have Disabilities Too?

I am shortsighted, which means I need glasses for using my Apple TV. But as I have got older, I have started to become longsighted too. That means I have come to hate sites or apps with tiny text or limited contrast. My parents have just given up on some websites entirely. They don’t want the hassle of getting out their reading glasses every time they use a site.

Although I am not disabled, this is what I see when I look at my Apple TV.

Of course, there are all kinds of symptoms of ageing. Poor hearing and arthritis is the most common. Are you ready to turn away anybody over 45?

It is also not just the elderly who suffer from these kinds of minor impairments. I once severed the tendon in my right thumb. It stopped me using that hand for six weeks. Using a mouse with your left hand is no fun I can tell you. Hell, even wearing contact lenses for too long makes text on a screen hard to read!

Sporting injuries, minor operations, or accidents. At times in our lives, we all suffer from disabilities.

But this isn’t just about your user's health and fitness. It is also about the device.

Mobile Has Made Accessibility Crucial Again

The explosion of mobile devices has once again highlighted the importance of accessibility. For a start, the smaller screens have further emphasised the need for large text that is well contrasted. Then there are the issues around touch screens. Tightly packed links aren’t just a challenge for somebody with motor control issues. Anybody using a touchscreen will struggle with these too.

But the most significant change mobile has brought is where we use them. We use them in noisy environments which creates challenges around hearing and concentration. In effect, we end up with hearing and cognitive impairments.

We also use them outside which leads to visual impairment as we struggle with screen glare.

Using an app or website outside causes us all to suffer from a visual impairement.

I could go on, but I suspect you get the point. We all face accessibility issues at various times in our lives.

Time to Rebrand Accessibility

It is time for us to stop talking about accessibility. The word accessibility just carries too much baggage with it. It seems limited to catering to the disabled, and that is like going to the gym. We all know we should do it, but somehow it is just too much effort.

Robin Christopherson, the head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet uses a different word. He talks about ‘Inclusive Design’. I love this term because it gets to the heart of what we should be trying to achieve. We want as many people as possible to use our digital services. That just makes good business sense.

Don’t Turn Away Revenue

Yes, we have legal and moral obligations to make our digital services accessible. But building for those with a disability can be a tough business decision. You have to balance the extra cost of developing an accessible service with the additional revenue disabled users will bring in.

But the decision becomes a no-brainer when you realise what accessibility means. That accessibility is about building for those over 45 or those with a temporary impairment. Why wouldn't you build with accessibility in mind? It is just bad business.

The spending power of households with a disabled person equates to over £200 billion in the UK alone. Add to that the considerable spending power of the elderly and the numbers become compelling. And that isn't even including those with temporary impairments or those sitting in the sun on the phone!

So next time a client or colleague says they don’t have disabled customers, ask them what they mean. Because they could be turning away more than 1 in 5 of their customers.

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