Locked out: The invisible challenges of digital accessibility

by Mark Pound

In our increasingly digital world, accessibility should be a fundamental pillar of design and development. Yet, all too often, it’s an afterthought, if it’s considered at all. The reality is that digital accessibility isn’t just a nice-to-have; it’s a necessity for creating an inclusive society where everyone, regardless of ability, can fully participate. Tomorrow, May 16, is Global Accessibility Awareness Day, and it’s time for us all to do better.

Accessibility in the digital realm encompasses a broad range of considerations, from web design and software development to hardware interfaces and mobile applications. It’s about making technology usable for people with diverse abilities, including those with visual, auditory, motor or cognitive impairments.

Ensuring digital accessibility is a matter of basic human rights. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes access to information and communications technologies as a fundamental right. Denying individuals access to digital content and services because of their disabilities is a form of discrimination, plain and simple.

Moreover, accessibility benefits everyone, not just those with disabilities. Consider captions on videos, for instance. While they’re essential for deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals, they also benefit people in noisy environments or those who prefer to watch videos without sound. Similarly, features like voice recognition and dictation tools aren’t just convenient for people with mobility impairments — they’re also valuable for anyone looking to increase productivity or multitask.

Failure to prioritize digital accessibility also has significant economic implications. More than 1 billion people around the world live with some form of disability. The disabled consumer, along with their friends and family, account for trillions of dollars in potential sales with companies that are making year-over-year efforts toward being accessible. By neglecting to make digital content and services accessible, businesses are effectively shutting out a sizable portion of their potential customer base. This not only represents a missed opportunity for revenue but also undermines efforts to foster diversity and inclusion within organizations.

Furthermore, inaccessibility can lead to legal and reputational risks. Many countries have enacted laws and regulations mandating digital accessibility, and non-compliance can result in costly litigation and damage to a company’s brand reputation. Just as important, inaccessible designs can alienate users and tarnish a company’s image as a socially responsible entity. In fact, Domino’s Pizza, Beyonce and Harvard University have all been sued over digital accessibility.

Fortunately, achieving digital accessibility is not an insurmountable challenge. It begins with a shift in mindset — one that views accessibility not as an optional add-on, but as an integral part of the design process. Designers, developers, and product managers must begin to embrace accessibility guidelines and best practices, incorporating them from the outset of a project rather than as an afterthought because this is the wave of the future and here to stay.

In addition, leveraging technology itself can be part of the solution. From automated accessibility testing tools to built-in accessibility features in development frameworks, there are numerous resources available to streamline the process of making digital content and services accessible.

Ultimately, ensuring digital accessibility isn’t just a moral imperative — it’s a strategic advantage. By embracing accessibility, businesses and organizations can tap into new markets, enhance user experiences and demonstrate their commitment to diversity and inclusion. Moreover, they have the opportunity to contribute to building a more equitable and accessible digital landscape for all.

The case for prioritizing digital accessibility is clear. It’s not just about complying with regulations or avoiding legal trouble — it’s about fostering a more inclusive society where everyone, regardless of ability, can participate fully in the digital world. It’s time to recognize accessibility not just on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, but every day, as an essential component of design and development. We must commit ourselves to building a more accessible future for all.

Mark Pound is the CEO of CurbcutOS, an organization founded by people with disabilities that is making digital accessibility a reality.