Make space for all: Digital accessibility benefits everyone

If you want to build market share, make sure your app—and your organization—works for everyone

digital accessibility

One billion people—a seventh of the planet’s population—live with a disability.

Why is it that digital accessibility is something many companies still view as optional? Or at least not a priority? It’s time for this to change.

The truth is that we utilize accessibility features every day and don’t even realize it. Word prediction on your phone was originally created for people with dyslexia. Pinch and zoom on your tablet and dark mode on cell phones are accessibility features we benefit from on a daily basis.

When we start to think about digital accessibility differently, the whole concept becomes a little easier to understand. And that’s why, when I talk about the need for more accessible digital experiences, I focus on three critical motivators:

1) It’s the right thing to do

People who live with disabilities deserve to inhabit the same reality as those who don’t. We’ve developed amazing technologies that enable people to live, work, create, and communicate despite restricted mobility, hearing, sight, speech, and other functions non-disabled people might take for granted. Putting those technologies where they can make life easier for people is, quite simply, an ethical no-brainer.

2) The law increasingly requires it

Changes in regulations and mandates are what drive many companies toward addressing digital accessibility—and that’s fine if it gets more of us to embrace accessible design. Being on the wrong side of WCAG or public sector regulations will prevent you from doing business in an increasing number of places. So if idealism doesn’t motivate you, but legal compliance does, digital accessibility is, again, a no-brainer.

3) It’s a competitive advantage

The truth is, you can technically be WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) conformant, but still deliver a frustrating, disjointed user experience in which no one feels they’re speaking the same language. Having tools that don’t just tick the boxes, that truly provide a unifying, seamless experience, doesn’t just get you in the door on a compliance basis. It gives you happier, more productive users and employees.

Just as it’s a business advantage for your employees to do business in multiple languages, the ability to “speak blindness” or “speak cerebral palsy” gives us a vastly more sophisticated, more multivalent way of being. We reach more people, in more ways. It’s as simple as that. More expansive worldview, more nimble solutions—more business with more people.

From ramps to clicks

To deliver on these three areas, a digital accessibility program has to be crafted with care and executed with precision.

Principles of accessible design are well understood in physical architecture (a staircase excludes wheelchairs; a ramp doesn’t) and industrial design (if you’re among the 90% of humans who are right-handed, you’ve probably never noticed how many inherently right-handed items you touch in a day—removing “handedness” from things like scissors helps lefties and hinders no one).

In the digital space, there are many adaptive and assistive technologies in use, some of them with frankly amazing abilities—but very often the solutions are partial, or don’t interface well with each other. And unless you depend on them, you probably don’t think about them much.

We need to take that ambidextrous scissors concept and apply it to things like websites, portals, shopping carts, business software—and yes, social media and entertainment (looking at you, Wordle!) Because genuine accessibility helps everyone by removing barriers to receiving and delivering information, products, or services.

What does real accessibility look like?

Adding accessibility features as appendages to core functionality can enable more access for more people. But over time, incremental widget add-ons lead to complicated learning curves and increased complexity—the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do. Which is why organizations need to tackle digital accessibility with a comprehensive, platform-first approach.

Your platform needs to deliver without presenting obstacles to people using Braille keypads or screen readers, eye tracking technology, voice-to-text, and sign language.

This is especially true in the workplace, where you need seamless interactivity between people who use assistive features and those who don’t. Imagine working from home through the pandemic if you required closed-captioning and Zoom didn’t have that functionality!

Representation and training

People who live with disabilities, in a world that often doesn’t accommodate their constraints very gracefully, face social barriers in addition to physical ones. The workarounds they devise to navigate that world on their own terms are both instructive and awe-inspiring.

Organizations need feedback from people with disabilities to understand what’s working and what’s not. Better yet, they need to hire people with disabilities across the board. They should be embedded in our design teams, our customer success teams, our marketing teams, our QA teams, our developer teams—only then can we be truly inclusive of the accessible point of view.

Something else to consider: Just as organizations include unconscious bias training when they onboard new employees, the same can be done with accessibility awareness.

ServiceNow is on track to bake accessibility into all onboarding training. Depending on the discipline of each new hire—design, QA, development, marketing, program management—we’ll provide deeper levels of training to ensure they have the knowledge and tools to keep digital accessibility at the forefront of their job.

Making accessibility second nature

Moving into the maturation phase of our accessibility journey means embedding accessibility into the entire software development lifecycle.

It means close monitoring of what’s working and what needs improvement. It means putting people into positions where their insights can be acted upon. And it means documentation and training, until it becomes second nature for accessibility features to be a given in everything we make.

Working in the accessibility space has made me better at what I do. I see that happening with all of my team members when they start to look at our software with the eyes of someone navigating the world without the use of their hands, their voices, their eyesight.

It would be “enough” if digital accessibility features “only” benefited people with disabilities—it truly would. But the beautiful thing is, it inherently goes far beyond that. There is immense transformative potential in bringing digital accessibility to the core of your enterprise. For everyone.

This post originally appeared on Forbes BrandVoice.