Digital Accessibility: Making the Case to Protect a Human Right

In this first of a 3-part blog series, learn why digital accessibility is usability, and consider the compelling case for protecting digital access as a fundamental human right.

Opening statement

In spite of overwhelming evidence, well-worn arguments against digital accessibility persist.
Some suggest the risk of litigation is low, or that the size of markets represented by people with disabilities “doesn’t justify the investment.” Others argue that they are not the “target of my product.” And even more offer the notion that this “feature” will be added to their roadmaps in later releases.

To me, accessibility is usability. It should not be mistaken for a “feature.”

Consider:

  • 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability. That’s ~ 1 billion people.
  • 51.4 million accessibility errors were detected among the top 1 million website home pages. That’s >51 per home page.
  • 62% of U.S. adults with any disability own a laptop/desktop computer compared to 81% with no disability.
  • In 2021, plaintiffs filed more than 4,000 ADA-based cases involving a website, mobile app, or video content. That’s more than 10 cases per day. (source: WebAIM 2021)

Access is about more than using an app to book a flight, order a pizza, or find a job. It’s about every human’s right to engage fully in 21st century society. Understanding the intersection of people and their environment. And witnessing how far we can go based on our unique abilities when our environment is not an impediment.

You’d think that, given the vital role that technology plays in delivering equity for all, support for digital accessibility would be unanimous. And yet it isn’t.

Even though each of us navigates our world with a host of permanent, temporary, or situational impairments, society continues to perpetuate practices that create life-limiting barriers. While the same barriers present no obstacle for some, they create significant challenges for others, including absolute exclusion.

In this 3-part blog series, I present 10 arguments that explain why accessibility is the smartest next step for your digital products. These arguments not only make the case that accessibility is an urgent and important matter, but they also represent 10 invitations to rethink our old ways, and 10 calls to action to change them.

So that is why I open this post with the first and most important argument: the moral imperative.

Strategic Context: The compelling case for change

The Moral Imperative argument.

When we think of digital access as a human, inalienable right, we take a big step toward understanding why it’s so important to protect. As a function of inclusive design, accessibility is the outcome we pursue when our empathetic mindset reminds us of our mission.

We’re not building products for technology’s sake.

We’re building products for a broad and diverse set of people whose lives we seek to improve.

If you are not actively including, you are excluding.”

Katherine Vargas
backend developer and accessibility activist who is blind

Somehow, we forget that all of us have impairments of one form or another; the person who can do everything does not exist.

Still, society fails to recognize people with disabilities despite efforts by this community to protect their human rights. Barriers that single them out render a large segment of our population largely “invisibilized.”

Regardless of whether the disability is permanent or episodic, or whether impairments are temporary or situational, they should not limit access to life’s amazing experiences. Nor should they deny fulfillment of most basic human needs: employment, education, health-related information and care, economic independence, etc. Disabilities are not impediments.

Impediments come from inaccessible environments that represent barriers for people with disabilities and impairments.

As a privileged generation who gets to build the digital world, we need to ask ourselves: will we repeat the errors and exclusions that exist in the physical world? Or will we commit to doing better?

The Legal argument

As with other human rights, accessibility is required by law in almost all countries in the world. Companies within their borders are learning the hard way that failure to comply with even the most fundamental principles of accessibility presents very real legal and financial risk.

ADA-based lawsuits have spiked 75% since 2018; in 2021, plaintiffs filed more than 4,000 cases involving a website, mobile app, or video content.

Civil litigation is hitting companies across a number of industries, from retail to hospitality to ecommerce. Complex websites, especially those that regularly release new code or utilize third-party vendors to do so, are easy targets. Especially if they haven’t deployed strong accessibility programs. (source: WebAIM 2021)

In many cases, the use of widgets, toolbars, overlays, and plug-ins – theoretically developed to enhance accessibility – actually exacerbate the problem. Not only do they not mitigate legal risk as they say they do, but instead of providing relief, they often serve as just another obstacle to website accessibility for persons with disabilities resulting in fully valid legal claims.

For example, overlays cannot add captions or transcripts to media. Sometimes they provide their own assistive technology, impeding a person’s right to use the ones they prefer. Overlays are unable to interpret context or add labels that would otherwise provide valuable information for screen reader users.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) “prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.” The Act is unequivocal; it tolerates no form of discrimination. It doesn’t define standards; the ADA is bigger than that. And that’s why you cannot comply simply by following a set of guidelines.

Digital equity is one among many rights guaranteed. Protecting that right is not only a moral imperative. It is a legal obligation as well.

The SEO Positioning argument

Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Google likes websites that help them achieve their mission. Not only that, they reward sites whose content is structured in ways that help Google algorithms do their jobs in a better way.

Accessibility and SEO work together for the benefit of both. Accessible websites help users of all abilities by providing design features and intuitive user interfaces that generally provide a more delightful experience. And well-ordered sites drive more traffic by optimizing their search engine rankings and improving SEO positioning organically.

Content design professionals play an important role in maximizing the overlap between SEO and accessible design: well-crafted page titles, heading tags, sitemaps, anchor text, and alt text work to boost traffic and enhance the experience for all users.

The Public Sector argument

Like all businesses, governments in the U.S. and around the globe use technology to conduct business and communicate vital information to its vendors, suppliers, and customers. As such, they’re required to make sure that opportunities to participate are granted equally – including to people with disabilities.

So, if your organization aspires to do business with a government entity – or receives any benefit from the state, such as tax breaks or other program credits – it must comply with the regulations that oversee these interactions. Working with the federal government requires compliance with HHS policy section 508 (Compliance and Accessibility of Information and Communications Technology (ICT)).

In closing

If this were a typical legal proceeding, I would file a motion for summary judgment and look to dispose of this matter. But this is not a courtroom.

As an Accessibility Professional and human rights activist, I have found it difficult to convince individuals, businesses, and government leaders to adopt accessibility without reiterating with every argument that “digital access is a human right.” But again I must.

The right to digital access is real and undeniable. And we must protect it.

Stay tuned for the second of my 3-part series, presenting the market-driven business case for accessible design. Would you turn away a 1-billion-person market?


HOW TO MITIGATE YOUR LEGAL EXPOSURE

Accessibility and product inclusion are human problems that require human solutions. ITX accessibility consultants and technologists offer a range of services – from website audits to 1:1 consultation and remediation – that will help bring your apps and websites to a broader market segment.


Portrait Susana Pallero

Susana Pallero is a CPACC-certified Accessibility Solutions Specialist. She is also Subject Matter Expert at the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) and Collaborating member of the Silver Task Force Community at the W3C. She applies accessibility principles to the most diverse environments and tasks.

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