In the past few years, you’ve probably noticed an increased concern for accessibility
at work, perhaps as concern over getting sued for your company’s website. But what is it exactly?
At the most basic level, digital accessibility is about removing barriers affecting people with disabilities. If everything in the digital world is man-made by definition, then it follows that all barriers are created by us humans as well.
Disabilities Are More Than a Medical Issue
Most of us today think of a disability as a medical condition – you’re either disabled, or you’re not—and that’s based on a doctor’s diagnosis. In this medical model of disability—your condition gets treated with medical procedures or medications. But there’s typically not a lot in the medical playbook to help you live with your condition, i.e., work and get around with your day-to-day tasks.
Most disabled people would agree that it’s not
the medical condition that disables you. It’s that the world isn’t designed to work with your body or abilities. If there’s a mismatch between your abilities and the task at hand, that’s where the disability arises. That mismatch
could be permanent
(as in being born with no arms), temporary
(having your arm in a sling), or situational
(one or both of your hands are occupied).
In an enterprise, it’s our content, our apps, and our software that disable people when the barriers and mismatches are left-in. The barriers can affect customers, employees, job candidates, vendors and anyone who wants to interact with your organization.
For decades, we’ve had technologies that help people with disabilities work on computers. Starting in the 90s, these assistive technologies (or AT) have been included in the operating systems to some extent. Today, you’ll find assistive technologies built into Windows
, Mac OS
, and iOS
and all the devices that run them.
Today, most barriers don’t come from a lack of assistive technologies. Instead, it’s that the systems, the websites, the apps, and the content we build don’t play nicely with existing AT.
Everyday barriers can come from simple omissions like missing alternative text
on images or missing labels for input fields
, which can prevent blind people from seeing content or completing forms. Many of these minor issues are easily detected through testing tools and accessibility scans, and should be treated as a routine quality control issue, like spell check.
Other barriers come from tech decisions that are larger in scale, like building a video or audio-only app without support for captions. Barriers can come with third-party tools like chatbots
, e-commerce tools, or hiring websites
. In U.S. courts, companies are expected to vet any components they use for accessibility, which means that it’s not the vendor that is liable, but the client who uses them instead. Poor accessibility decisions are difficult to correct, especially when resources have been committed, contracts have been signed, and launch dates have been promised.
The Human Impact of Accessibility Barriers
Accessibility barriers can be career-wreckers—from preventing candidates' abilities to navigate the hiring sites and forms needed to apply to preventing the candidate from presenting their best aspects in a job interview. Even if the candidate gets the job, they still face impediments to thriving in the workplace.
Let’s say your organization is hosting an important meeting online. You’re using a meeting platform that says it’s accessible, but captions haven’t been enabled. Any attendee who's deaf or hard of hearing won’t be able to follow the conversation. Even if they were to understand 75% of the audio, they’d still be struggling to keep up—and they’d probably not participate in a real-time discussion. When repeated, that lack of participation could lead to a false perception of disinterest or poor performance. Likewise, mandatory training also must be completely free of barriers—especially if it affects the employee’s performance evaluations.
How to Be Inclusive in the Workplace
Unless a vendor makes specific claims about their product’s accessibility, you should assume it contains barriers, as accessibility doesn’t happen by accident. Fortunately, some everyday products—like Microsoft Office—have made huge strides recently in improving accessibility and even building in assistive technologies, like Read Aloud
and the Immersive Reader
. Your staff will still need to learn to build accessible documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, but each product has built-in checkers
to check their work. Also, they’ll need to be up-to-date with product releases as new accessibility features roll out monthly.
On a larger scale, accessibility needs to be a long-term sustainable initiative on a par with privacy and cybersecurity to make sense. Short-term accessibility efforts tend to have short-lived results that are more costly and painful to implement. Instead, accessibility initiatives are best when they’re planned into the development process from the start, largely because it’s easiest and vastly more cost-effective to make corrections early on.
An accessibility program must be well-resourced and look beyond mere compliance with the American Disabilities Act (ADA), which is the bare-legal minimum—it’s the worst you’re allowed to do legally. That’s nothing to brag about: it’s like a restaurant boasting that they passed a health department inspection. And just as a restaurant isn't successful just by aiming for the bare minimum, neither is a company genuinely committing to success in accessibility by doing the least. Do more, do better, and don't stop.