While some see meeting the online needs of disabled people as a ‘ruinous obligation’, businesses would do well to accommodate the ‘blue pound’
Thursday 20 November 2014 14.45 GMT
In an era when the web is becoming ubiquitous, the implications of being on the wrong side of the digital divide seem graver than ever. Website accessibility expert Professor Jonathan Hassell’s new book on digital inclusion, launched this month, calls for a shift in the thinking of organisations over what has often been regarded as a somewhat burdensome and thorny issue.
Professor Hassell was the head of accessibility and usability at the BBC between 2008 and 2011 and now runs his own consultancy, Hassell Inclusion, which helps organisations ensure their digital products remain accessible for elderly and disabled users. He was also the lead author of BS 8878, the British standard for integrating web accessibility as a regular practice within corporations.
In his book “Including your missing 20% by embedding web and mobile accessibility”, Professor Hassell debunks some of the myths around the nature and the size of the potential audience.
“The Internet Association saying that accessibility can be a ruinous obligation is based on the idea that some features might be very expensive to implement with very little financial return. As the Equality Act now covers digital products, for some it merely boils down to a technical checklist and insurance policy against being sued.
“Accessibility has always been synonymous with blind people and screen readers because they have an exceptional lobby and tend to be fairly up front in expressing their needs without emotional difficulties.
The problem is that blind people only make up a small percentage of the 11 million disabled people in the UK. The people who are being forgotten are those with cognitive rather than sensory issues, for example people who are dyslexic or maybe have a learning difficulty. Groups that aren’t so used to fighting their corner and perhaps are less comfortable letting others know that they have difficulty using a computer.”
In his book Professor Hassell encourages a better understanding of the legal requirements and a return to core business principles.
“At the heart of the law is the notion of ‘reasonableness’. If it costs you millions of pounds to make something that works well for 10 users, that doesn’t sound too reasonable, but if it costs you £20,000 to make something work better for a million users then you really should be doing it.
“Some people bury their heads in the sand and don’t want to go near accessibility, and there are others who insist on compliance with WCAG 2.0 web content accessibility guidelines whether it helps loads of users or nobody at all. I believe that both of those extremes are stupid. People should not need to check their brains in at the door when it comes to accessibility.
“I want organisations to see the business angle on this to say some cost/benefits make sense and others don’t. For example, does it make business sense to have a budget in place to make your products work well for disabled people and then spend 90% of that budget on 2% of the disabled population?”
The book, which features a foreword by Ed Vaizey, the minister of state for culture and the digital economy, and Mark Harper, the minister for disabled people, maps out the accessibility journey through an organisation’s hierarchy.
Professor Hassell explains: “The start of the book, which outlines the business case for accessibility, is for the person right at the top of the company but the key figure for me is the product manager. The technology sector used to be run by IT geeks but a company like Apple is so successful today because in Steve Jobs they had a product manager who was utterly obsessed by giving users the best possible experience.”
With technology so rapidly evolving and an ever more pervasive web, the stakes in accessibility for users and corporations alike will continue to skyrocket. The trend towards a more mobile web experience may actually benefit disabled users by making altered sensory requirements more mainstream.
“The problem is that all of this new technology is being created by young, typically male individuals who think everyone is just like them. Mobile is giving us more of a level playing field. If you are a web product designer who is going on holiday next week and want to check those football scores or read your emails on the beach, you probably need to sort your colour contrast out because that sun is going to be really bright and for a while you are in the shoes of people whose needs you’ve been ignoring.
“With Google’s purchase of Nest this year we are also hearing more and more about the ‘internet of things’. So automated and connected fridges, kitchen appliances and central heating. Soon our mobile phones will become the remote control to our homes. If everything feeds through the internet then as a disabled person, all I need is an accessible internet. If I am blind and need everything to speak to me, in the past all of my household appliances would have to have a speaking chip in them, but if my mobile can do it – that is a huge game changer.
“The internet enabling real physical objects completely changes our thinking around accessible design. Software allows us to do more and more year on year, but we need to make sure that the direction we are going in is one that carries everyone out there with it.”
While the moral case for digital accessibility is clearly supported by an increasingly ubiquitous web, the obvious commercial benefits cannot be ignored either. The so called “blue pound” accounts for some £80bn in the UK on an annual basis. Moreover, brand loyalty is likely to be particularly prevalent within this sector of the market, which tends to place an especially high premium on feeling that their divergent experiences and requirements are appreciated and understood by others.
Gus Alexiou is a freelance writer