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Approaching accessibility: Building a compliant business starts with empathy

By Stanton Valentino / May 26, 2020

“The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone, regardless of disability, is an essential aspect.”
– Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web

In the summer of 2019, Vox reported on the inaccessibility of the 2020 Presidential Candidates’ websites. More specifically, many Americans with low vision or blindness were completely unable to view portions of a candidate’s website. As Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project noted: “All of the platitudes, mentions or policy statements about disability issues by candidates rings hollow when potential disabled voters can’t even access their websites.”

Those running for public office aren’t the only ones struggling with tech accessibility issues. The number of accessibility-related discrimination lawsuits grew almost 300% from 2017 to 2018, with the majority of complaints suggesting websites were built without support for assistive technologies. In other words, to ignore accessibility issues is to ignore the people who could be your customers or even your employees.

To be compliant with accessibility standards, brands need to lead with empathy and proactively seek out a more diverse audience to bring into the conversation. Once brands experience their services through the lens of their ability-diverse audience, then they can start to identify opportunities for improvement. Equally important is nurturing a culture of inclusivity that values accessibility; only after everyone on your team is bought in will you begin to see changes in your products and services that truly accommodate everyone.

And when businesses prioritize tech accessibility and inclusive web design practices, they’re better poised to reach a wider audience and unlock even more resources and opportunities than before.

Accessibility is a competitive advantage…

At its core, accessibility is about ensuring things are easy to access, understand and use. Take grocery stores for example, most consumers have a variety of options to choose from. But for individuals with visual disabilities, their decision about where to shop is largely informed by which retailers are most accessible.

Albertsons Co. is one retailer taking the needs of shoppers with vision issues seriously. The grocery chain worked with several non-sighted customers and followed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to ensure their online content was accessible and usable for people with visual disabilities.

The decision by Albertsons to prioritize accessibility is a win-win. For customers with difficulty accessing a physical store due to limitations like a lack of transportation, social distancing compliance or a disability, access to online grocery shopping is a huge benefit and a step towards levelling the playing field for all customers. As for the grocery retailer, they’ve positioned themselves as a realistic option for a consumer base with a disposable income of nearly $500 million.

In the United States alone, there are an estimated 61 million adults living with a disability, that’s 26% of the adult population. Additional research shows that when companies strengthen their inclusion of persons with disabilities, they are four times more likely to have shareholder returns outperform their peers. In other words, prioritizing accessibility is about more than demonstrating your commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion—it also makes good business sense.

…But it’s only successful when everyone is bought in.

As business leaders continue to recognize the value of prioritizing accessibility, it’s equally important to ensure those within their organization understand how accessibility practices are best-practice that benefit all—regardless of ability. Enhancing digital accessibility for everyone doesn’t happen within a vacuum. It requires the cooperation and support of multiple departments, teams and individuals across an entire business.

So how do you convince your department leaders and individual contributors that it’s worth investing the time and resources into reassessing your current infrastructure to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Start with education. Raise awareness around the various types of disabilities people may have, especially ones that are not immediately apparent or invisible. Inviting feedback from your customers and prospects, for example, can help contextualize what factors complicate their ability to access your services and where your website needs improvement. In most cases, companies aren’t actively excluding individuals with disabilities. They simply don’t realize the scale of disabled populations, or the scope of benefits and risks to both the business, and to those impacted users.

To inspire action from the ground up, those in leadership positions must demonstrate their commitment to accessibility in all that they do. For example, accessibility is a big area of focus for Microsoft thanks in large part to its hiring of chief accessibility officer, Jenny Lay-Flurrie. Since Lay-Flurrie’s appointment, Microsoft has rolled out new features like an Accessibility Checker in Powerpoint and a new app called Soundscape to help those with visual disabilities navigate their surroundings.

Finally, get in the habit of always questioning who your products and services are built for—and if they can all actually use them. At Sprout Social, one of our guiding tenets in how we approach design is the phrase “accessibility is for everyone.” In any design project, we make it a point to ask which contexts we haven’t considered in our designs, and how we can make our applications more usable for all.

A more inclusive future

With the accessibility revolution gaining momentum, we’d be remiss to not touch on the legal repercussions businesses face when they fail to accurately convey their compliance with standards defined in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Website lawsuits, for example, are a growing concern for businesses with many of these suits settling from $10,000 to over $90,000. In addition to the financial costs, businesses also need to worry about the damage their reputation may take if they find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit. For companies that have put off investing in accessibility, there are plenty of legal and financial incentives to get started today.

Above all, it’s important to remember that the root of all these efforts is to remove barriers for real people, so that they can realize their full potential through your products and services. Prioritizing accessibility is about far more than checking a box; it’s about openly embracing diversity through inclusion.

When companies open themselves up to address accessibility and move towards compliance, they stand to gain even more customers, exhibit their values, and support the professional and interpersonal growth of their team. As you think about your own organization and your customer base, it’s worth asking: Who else can we include?

Stanton Valentino

Stanton Valentino

Stanton Valentino is a Design Developer at Sprout Social and founder/co-leader of Sprout's Accessibility Business Resource Group. Stanton is passionate about bridging the gaps between departments like design and engineering, and is a self-proclaimed futurist and optimist. He can be found at home stargazing, re-watching Parks and Recreation and The Good Place, or mastering the art of playing in VR without setting on any cats.
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