From the UX professional perspective, we, as practitioners, have a significant role in supporting our organization in adopting accessibility products and services. Unfortunately, many of us struggle to influence our companies to make accessibility a priority.

 “Accessibility” has become a popular buzzword in UX articles, debates, and conferences which has empowered us to ‘fix’ the gaps in our approach to design. Still, we have not exercised good judgment when addressing the issue.

We have used elaborate theories to raise awareness of the problem, such as Design for All, Inclusive Design, Barrier-Free Design, Ethical Development, and Universal Design which only confuse stakeholders. We have used a multitude of terminology to bolster our credibility. Still, businesses are not taking accessibility seriously. Why?

The hard truth is that it is our fault. We have not taken the time to define the problem, collaborate with our partners, and present a compelling business case to our organizations. A foundational step in building the case for accessibility is addressing the common misconceptions businesses use to deprioritize accessibility.

Four accessibility misconceptions explained

“The accessibility business case always boils down to three things: the legal requirements, the commercial opportunity, and the moral imperative…Often organizations may be lazy and see accessibility as something legally you have to do, but they need to think more broadly and deeply about what it means and why it matters.”

Paul Smyth, Head of Digital Accessibility at Barclays

Misconception 1:  accessibility only helps a fraction of my users

an image showing a black woman in wheels as she reads the 4 accessibility misconceptions.

According to recent CDC statistics, approximately 61 million people in the US, live with disabilities. In the UK, over 11 million people, 17% of the population, are disabled according to the UNA-UK.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1 billion people worldwide, 15% of the total population, live with disabilities. In the US and UK alone, those are not small numbers and can equate to a significant amount of revenue lost if experiences aren’t designed for inclusivity.

Misconception 2: building in accessibility is expensive and time-consuming

Similar to UX and technical debt, accessibility debt can accumulate over time, having a direct impact on consumer experience and overall business KPI’s. Retrofitting current digital products is more time-consuming than building an accessible product from scratch. 

Product managers, designers, and developers can ‘bake in’ accessibility into their products and timelines from the beginning, which lessens research time and reduces rework. Building a design system is a way to standardize accessible components while increasing operational efficiency.

Accessible designs elevate experiences for people with and without disabilities. History has shown that products built initially for those with disabilities have become everyday products. Touch screens, text-to-speech, audiobooks, electronic toothbrushes, and voice controls were all born out of a focus on accessibility and are common among all types of users.

Subtitles were originally used for auditory disabilities, but now help everyone as globalization expands our media consumption. Quite simply, accessibility spurs innovation.

Misconception 3: we don’t need to be compliant

an image showing a disable person participating in the UX design process.

Since 2017, there’s been a 189% increase in accessibility lawsuits in US Federal Court, and those trends have continued into 2021. On average, accessibility-related cases cost organizations more than $350,000. This figure doesn’t include the loss in opportunity cost associated with freezing product roadmaps to address accessibility issues.

Phill Jenkins of IBM Research, Human Ability & Accessibility Center, estimates the average cost to address accessibility on five pages can cost $5,000 to $20,000 depending on complexity.

Compliancy should result in overall cost reduction and risk mitigation in most organizations; not building an accessible product or service from the start will cost you more in both time and money in the long term. The process should result in overall cost reduction and risk mitigation in most organizations; not building an accessible product or service from the start will cost you more in both time and money in the long term.

Misconception 4: there is no ROI on accessibility

As previously stated, 61 million people is a significant untapped market if your digital properties aren’t accessible. Looking at the top 10 online retailers in North America, recent data showed that two-thirds had severe accessibility issues, equating to $6.9 billion in potential lost revenues. Furthermore, 75% of FTSE 100 Index companies do not meet basic levels of accessibility, thus resulting in a loss of $147 million in revenue

The Baymard Institute conducted a study benchmarking the 33 top-grossing retail sites to assess their varying levels of compliance. Of the top-grossing retail sites, 94% of the retail sites were found incompliant with essential accessibility. Imagine how improving accessibility issues could impact revenue on these sites.

Reframing accessibility

“Design for older adults, and you design for almost everyone else.” 

Alan Newell, HCI Professor at Dundee University

One way to shift mental models to understand the impact of accessibility is to reframe it outside of our narrow perceptions. Many people tend to limit their perceptions of who benefits from accessibility rather than looking at it from a situational (bright light sensitivity) and temporary disabilities (a broken wrist) standpoint.

Of those in retirement age, 30% will have some type of disability (CDC) (Social Security Administration). Reframing accessibility around age-friendly designs allows us to observe it through the perspectives of how our decision might affect our grandparents, relatives, or ageing parents.

Who owns accessibility?

If you are involved in building products, services, or programs for consumers, you are equally responsible and accountable for the accessibility programmes. It is a shared responsibility across various roles many organization divisions. For instance, it could include: 

  • The development team writing semantic code for screen readers
  • The marketing team producing content that meets a 6th-grade reading level
  • The product managers building capacity to address accessibility into their roadmaps 
  • The UX/CX teams using a color palette that meets contrast rations for readability 
  • Legal and compliance’s understanding of accessibility laws and governance

Accessibility is a collaborative process and should have shared ownership between various teams.

Final thoughts

Our job as designers, researchers, and product management teams is to influence our organization to address accessibility issues. Sometimes, it takes reframing the problem to illustrate the cost/benefit analysis. There are no downsides to accessibility; however, there are real ramifications for business metrics, consumer experience, and brand loyalty, if not addressed. 

If businesses cannot sell their $5 product to 10% of the 61 million people with disabilities because their product is not accessible, they are losing out on $30.5 billion. It seems much easier to build the business case for accessibility now, doesn’t it?

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