Unfortunately, many of today’s developers and manufacturers still rely on the “band aid” approach to achieving consumer accessibility for most of their products.
All too frequently, products, websites, and various technologies pass through all phases of design and development before anyone with significant influence considers attempting to ensure that a product’s accessibility and capabilities are responsive to those with disabilities. Yet, individuals with disabilities comprise the largest minority population in the United States.
While this traditional approach may satisfy baseline legal requirements, more often than not, the potential loss of market share and the negative press that can result are risks that most companies cannot actually afford.
When accessibility and adaptability are part of a comprehensive design process, companies can save time and money while producing more inclusive and ethically appropriate products. And with today’s interconnected world, where word of mouth advertising spans across the internet and consumer reviews are a click away for millions to see, the stakes are that much higher for those companies who are seeking product acceptance and sustainability.
Financially speaking, according to a recent report by Accenture.com, organizations most focused on disability engagement are growing sales nearly three times faster and profits more than four times faster than their peers.
Defining accessible technology
Confusion trumps ignorance as the primary reason that websites and devices fail to achieve true accessibility. Accessibility in this sense goes beyond cost and distribution and invokes usability. Too often, what’s missing is the recognition that devices must be able to be utilized to the full extent of their designed functions to people regardless of their physical and mental abilities.
According to Pew Research Center data, Americans with disabilities are three times more likely to never go online and are less likely to benefit from the most popular technologies due to a lack of practicality for their particular disabilities.
Equipping a mobile phone with verbal search dictation, for example, does little for those with a stutter or speech impediment, if the phone is not capable of functioning for these individuals. Similarly, launching an audio podcast that does not include closed captioning and/or text transcription eliminates the deaf population from being active listeners.
These examples show a lack of inclusive design standards.
The concept of inclusive design
Inclusive design invokes a process of arriving at an accessible solution to the overall capabilities of a particular product, technology, or website before it goes to market. The term has existed for decades, but remained largely an academic practice until recently. Inclusive design does not seek to design devices that are inherently meant to be used by all.
To design inclusively is to design in a diverse fashion that allows for meaningful participation to be expected by all of those who would be interested in utilizing that item. It takes into account the experiences of various populations, especially those with disabilities, while designing an item to foster a sense of belonging.
Whereas accessibility focuses on the outcome of a project, inclusive design furthers that notion and aims to recognize solutions that work for diverse populations as well as diverse environmental circumstances. Accessibility guidelines are bound by laws and don’t necessarily need to take into account the human experience.
An accessible solution for one disabled individual may not work for another disabled individual with the same disability. Yet, it may be the appropriate solution by law.
Hence, inclusive design can assist developers and manufacturers in identifying these differences by learning from individuals and making products more accessible to each group. Committing to an inclusive design is more of a self-governing ethical standard. One example of a company that recognizes the value of inclusive design is Microsoft.
Consider Microsoft’s inclusive design principles:
- recognizing exclusion,
- solving for one,
- extending to many, and
- learning from diversity.
Bryce Johnson, a developer based in Sammamish, WA, who’s credited with co-inventing the Xbox Adaptive video game console controller, says it is crucial for society to work towards including people with disabilities in all aspects. “This must be a priority for product makers,” he said. “I think the challenges lie in awareness, not just of need but how to address that need with products. It is not easy; it takes intentional work, but best practices and new technologies make certain things, such as adding captions to video, more approachable to all creators.”
Not all inclusive design leads to universal design, however. Universal design aims to accommodate a range of individuals, without the need for adaptation, and is typically a fixed-end solution. As a result, the needs of some disabled populations are inevitably left out.
Differentiating between inclusive design and “accommodating”
The ClubHouse social networking app is an example of a project that has become extremely popular recently that clearly did not consider inclusive design. A voice-based app where people talk and build friendships globally, provides no captioning.
When combined with using a captioning service on a secondary device, however, it does qualify as an “accommodation-based” product. This approach comes with its own set of disadvantages, most notably that the use of the accommodating device takes away screen time and, perhaps, profitability, from the social app.
Disabilities aside, this app would also lack the ability for one to utilize it on a loud train, for instance, which renders it susceptible to environmental factors from an accessibility standpoint as well.
Accountability and consequences to a lack of an inclusive design process
Samantha Soloway, accessibility specialist at Verizon Media, says that digital accessibility is more important than ever before due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“It has shown everyone how much we rely on online services for anything from ordering groceries to watching movies and video chatting with friends,” she said. “Everyone should be able to access the things they love, including those with disabilities. When you make something accessible, it’s better for everyone, and accessibility should be considered from the start: from ideation through implementation. If you want to make your company’s culture more inclusive and accessible, ensure that people with disabilities are involved in the conversation. Their feedback should be driving any change that happens.”
In 2010, the Department of Justice (DOJ) published the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Standards for Accessible Design, a set of regulations that state that all electronic and information technology must be accessible to those with disabilities.
These standards apply to commercial and public entities that have “places of public accommodation,” including the internet. Cases were brought against Netflix and Scribd in this regard.
According to ADA officials, self-regulation is encouraged while the DOJ develops regulations to provide guidance to entities covered by the ADA. Organizations are also encouraged to refer to guidelines until further regulations are defined. Any regulations initiated will always evolve as the internet and digital technologies continue to evolve. Technological accessibility is no longer considered an option, or “charity.”
The near future is likely to see inclusive design become more of an expected standard than a luxury. Accessibility is a necessity for some, but can be beneficial to all. Intentionally incorporating disabled perspectives into products will make products and services better for everyone.