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November 6th, 2015

Why Accessibility Is More Than A Social Responsibility

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Ignore accessibility and pay the price.

Remember the ALS Ice Bucket challenge? Of course, you do … you were probably nominated by a friend to take part yourself.

In the summer of 2014, it seemed that social media news feeds were swamped with videos of people pouring buckets of freezing cold water on their heads in a variety of ways with some participants taking the challenge to ever more impressive heights.

Over the course of that summer, hundreds of millions dollars were pledged to the ALS Association, ostensibly to fund research into treatments and a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that can affect anyone at any time anywhere and can have a devastating effect on how someone lives a life—Stephen Hawking is probably the most high-profile sufferer—and the challenge brought this disease (among others) into the public eye.

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Widening The Accessibility Debate

The most successful aspect of the ALS campaign was not the amusing sight of watching people tip water over themselves on social media. Far from it. What the ALS Ice Bucket challenge actually did was raise awareness and being part of the challenge gave people some idea into how many people are living with a disease that gradually takes away mobility.

Raising awareness is just one way to show why accessibility matters and what it involves in a modern tech-centric society.

Much of the current debate is tied to the technology and devices we use on a daily basis. Leading device manufacturers and app developers know that everyone is different, but it is the future needs of the differently-abled that are driving innovation.

accessibility_screen_reader

The number of people in the world that have some form of disability is already over one billion and that figure is not going to diminish. In fact, as the population ages and people live longer the chances are that more individuals will expect the devices and the apps that they use to take into account that not everybody will be able to access the information presented in the same way.

In 1990, President George Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. The ADA stated that people with disabilities should not be discriminated against in terms of employment, transportation, public accommodation, government activities and, crucially, telecommunications. The legislation was America’s first civil rights law that expressly addressed the basic human rights of those with disabilities and brought standards for accessible design into the public domain.

Over 25 years later, the evolution of the Web has made those standards a vital part of how tech companies build, develop and engage with the entire customer base. Interacting with the Web takes place on so many different devices—smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops and even TVs—that creating a one-size-fits-all app or device isn’t always possible.

In other words, it’s not just a matter of raising awareness of accessible features but ensuring that they work in the way that they are intended and don’t exclude a potential customer.

How Device Manufacturers Have Responded

In recent years, device manufacturers have taken the needs of the differently-abled into account when designing new products and much of the latest hardware that has hit the shelves in 2015 already has software intended to remove accessibility barriers … whatever the disability.

Assistive technology—software that’s designed specifically for disabled people—is included in Microsoft’s new line of tablets and laptops and Apple has made accessibility a key component of the iPhone 6S, iPhone 6S Plus, tvOS and iOS 9. Thousand of Android devices have built in-features that enhance the user experience and increase the potential for overall inclusion.

Even Amazon could be jumping on the accessibility bandwagon with its Echo. Wireless and constantly connected to the cloud, the Amazon Echo is a VoIP device that is always ready to listen for commands. Visually-impaired or mobility-restricted users can ask “Alexa” anything they need to know and the Echo even allows a user access to certain connected devices within the home.

All of these aforementioned companies are making great strides in making accessibility part of the ongoing development cycle but, as an acknowledged innovator, Apple is seen as a leader in terms of accessibility across its entire device range.

accessibility_apple

In June of this year, Apple was given the Helen Keller Achievement Award for its continued commitment to making technology accessible to blind users through its VoiceOver software. The App Store has an entire section dedicated to popular apps that work with gesture-based screen readers. Speech-recognition software such as Siri can aid users with daily tasks or communication and FaceTime is perfect for users who communicate with sign language. In fact, accessibility is baked into every aspect of iOS—including the ability to use braille devices.

Not to be outdone by their friends in Cupertino, Google has a number of resources available to developers for Android OS and Chrome OS that include screen reader TalkBack and switch access that lets those with restricted mobility interact with any device running Android 5.0 or above. Standard Google features like Gmail, Google Docs, Search and YouTube are all accessibility-enabled and these tools are part and parcel of lowering the bar for the previously excluded.

Accessibility As A Standard Feature

Much of the assistive software and technology that leading tech companies now include as standard in their devices has been the direct result of established industry accessibility guidelines and standards—Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, for example. The App Quality Alliance has a set of testing criteria that app developers should follow to ensure that an app is accessible to all and AQuA covers every base in assessing how a disabled user interacts within that app.

See also: Accessibility Requires App Developers To Consider Every End User

All of these ongoing efforts by the tech sector as a whole to raise awareness of accessibility issues must be applauded. But there is a very good reason why it is becoming a vital part of the technology landscape … the potential for lawsuits.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the telecommunication requirements of the ADA have (on occasion) been glossed over by businesses that operate websites and mobile apps, with a number of high-profile accessibility cases being brought against companies or organizations that fail to take this requirement into account.

accessibility_computer

In March 2015, online tax filing company H&R Block was sued by the National Federation of the Blind for not making its website accessible to those with sight restrictions—a lawsuit that needed the intervention of the Department of Justice. One month earlier, Harvard University and MIT were both sued by the National Association of the Deaf for not including closed captioning for video learning materials posted online. All three of these lawsuits did not seek monetary reimbursement and instead looked for a change in conduct, but they have highlighted just how important accessibility is.

Under the existing requirements of the ADA, accessibility lawsuits can be brought without notice. Florida disability-rights lawyer Nola Klein told the WSJ that most companies aren’t even aware that their websites and apps need to be accessible and assume that they’re covered by federal guidelines.

This is not the case. In the H&R Block lawsuit, for example, the DOJ had to step in and diffuse the situation by setting out a specific set of compliance standards for the tax firm and promise the NFB that official guidelines for all websites and apps would be posted in 2016.

Combining Common With Financial Sense

Since the start of 2014, accessibility lawsuits have been brought against online retailers and auction sites, colleges and universities, hospitals and transit authorities, said The National Law Review. The main bone of contention is whether or not websites and apps can be deemed to be “Places of Public Accommodation”—one of the guiding principles of the ADA—and if the rules of the physical world can be applied to the virtual.

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Making this distinction clear is going to be important for device manufacturers and app developers when it comes to accessibility in the very near future. Irrespective of when the DOJ publishes any website guidelines and amendments to the 25-year-old ADA, it is crucial to remember that accessibility is about removing all the barriers that will restrict a potential user from interacting or engaging with any application or device.

Factoring user requirements into account isn’t a new phenomenon within the apps economy. Making an app accessible for all is—after all—a socially responsible decision and ensures that nobody is excluded. The Web was founded on very similar principles and focusing on accessibility from the beginning should be the logical path for any developer or manufacturer to follow from day one. If that happens, barriers will continue to fall.

Images: “Grandpa Fedora Core,” by Flickr user prupert,”High contrast font and display,” by Flickr user cobalt123, “Tiffs Computer,” by Flickr user EasyStand, all images subject to Creative Commons