Why we need to be strategic in our approach to accessibility
Emma Goddard and Taiyo Totsuka
Inclusive design and accessibility have come a long way in recent years, but lack of access is still a very real, widespread issue for people with disabilities
Most of the digital realm is off limits to people with disabilities, with less than 1% of websites meeting basic accessibility standards according to the WebAIM Million Report 2022.
Websites are rarely coded with the simple considerations needed to enable them for people who are blind or vision impaired, who navigate using a screen reader. While complex copy and language excludes people with cognitive disabilities, the (shockingly high) 40-50% of Australian adults with low literacy, and many more who simply don’t have the time or capacity to digest it.
The issue extends beyond disability to broader inclusion. Some examples are even life threatening – many cars are still designed using crash-test dummies based on the ‘average’ male, meaning if there’s a collision, women are more likely to be harmed.
The ways these barriers are affecting a diverse range of groups and individuals are significant. We now understand that disability and exclusion are a common human experience. Almost 18% of the Australian population are living with a known disability. These numbers don’t even account for the fact that our understanding of neurodiversity is continuously expanding, and exclusion can be situational or temporary – such as losing a pair of glasses, breaking a limb, being a foreign traveller in a new city or experiencing a bout of anxiety.
It’s clear that the way organisations are tackling accessibility for these groups isn’t working. In not addressing this, we’re not only failing some of our most vulnerable individuals – but organisations are creating expensive cost inefficiencies and limiting their own growth, reach and social impact.
The core problem is that accessibility is often treated as an afterthought – as a checkbox activity at the end of a delivery process, if at all. And it’s a costly mistake. This reactive approach leads to perpetual and expensive retrofitting loops that can often cost up to 1.4 times the initial budget. Not to mention the lost opportunity for creativity and innovation that comes from co-designing with people who can help you see things differently.
So, we need to re-make our approach to accessibility. It can no longer be an afterthought, but rather be addressed upfront and baked into organisational strategy, culture and delivery processes. This is the only way to shift accessibility from a reactive to proactive approach. In doing so, we reduce accessibility debt – potentially eliminating it – and minimise costly retrofitting to expand reach, impact and ultimately, the profitability of organisations.
5 WAYS TO START AN ACCESSIBILITY REVOLUTION IN YOUR ORGANISATION
Many factors come into play when starting this journey, but there are five top priorities to focus on:
Leadership awareness and commitment are essential ingredients to the success of this transformation. You need leadership support to establish the proper strategies, policies and metrics for embracing and embedding inclusive design and accessibility. A solid business case is needed that brings together both human, qualitative insight with the hard facts on how investing in strategic accessibility can benefit business profits, efficiencies, reputation and social impact
It’s nearly impossible to make true progress on accessibility when it’s done how it often is – as side of desk project, by a handful of passionate people. Leverage the commitment created by getting leadership on board to set up a dedicated team to focus on the delivery of inclusive design and accessibility initiatives. Note that it’s important not to create an over-reliance on this core, and therefore a bottle neck. These individuals must focus on empowering everyone in the organisation with sustainable tools, methods and capability, and should aim to design themselves out of the process over time.
Identify ‘champions’ in your organisation to build passion and skills to drive accessibility initiatives. Provide training opportunities to everyone so that accessibility is a shared responsibility, reducing reliance on the ‘core’ and eventually embedding it into your DNA.
Ideally our teams are representative of the 18% of Australians with a disability. Unfortunately, this is not often the case just yet. Therefore understanding the core needs of users is essential to designing inclusive products and services. By involving a diverse audience from the outset, you can conduct inclusive research and gather accessibility requirements – allowing these to be incorporated throughout delivery. Dedicate efforts to setting up channels for teams to easily access people with disabilities, and leverage training to build confidence and capability in how to do this in the right way.
This will be unique to each organisation, but examples include introducing accessibility reviews as a ‘definition of done’ and enabling ownership of the process for each specialisation. Setting up standards, principles and tools such as accessible design systems will allow for a more consistent approach and give the team confidence about the quality of their output.
In the short term, having dedicated accessibility specialists on board as part of delivery to build this capability is the ideal, but only if they focus on empowering the broader team and therefore don’t create the bottleneck mentioned earlier. When done upfront, accessibility isn’t a cost – it’s a driver of huge business value and transformational change for your customers, organisation and society.
This article was authored by Emma Goddard and Taiyo Totsuka.