The Business Case for Digital Accessibility

A business case is a necessary tool for organizations when planning for various initiatives. Whether an organization is commercial, educational, non-profit, or governmental, most require justification for dedicating resources such as money or effort in support of a specific organizational policy or goal. “Business” in this article refers to all types of organizations with the understanding that different aspects will be relevant depending on the organizational focus and purpose. For example, government agencies may be strongly motivated by legal and equity aspects. Commercial businesses may be more persuaded by innovation and market expansion opportunities. Educational and nonprofit businesses may be especially drawn to brand enhancement.

To create a compelling business case, it is important to highlight the most relevant accessibility benefits within your specific operational landscape. There are both tangible and intangible benefits to businesses that dedicate resources to digital accessibility. A frequent argument against the accessibility business case is that the direct return on investment (ROI) is too difficult to measure. ROI is important of course, but not by any means the only way to measure how an accessibility commitment benefits organizations of all kinds. A useful business case also presents the cost and risk of inaction. It is most likely your business will respond to a mix of motivating factors as you consider implementing an integrated accessibility program. This article provides research and examples to inspire confidence among leaders and decision makers that continued investment in accessibility is good for your business.

Businesses that integrate accessibility are more likely to be innovative, inclusive enterprises that reach more people with positive brand messaging that meets emerging global legal requirements.

A research study of Fortune 100 companies indicates that disability inclusion, as part of an overall diversity strategy, is common practice among high performing businesses.1

When accessibility is part of strategic planning, businesses are better equipped for success in our connected world of commerce, academia, and civic engagement.

Let’s look at some examples and research outcomes that will help you make the business case that is most effective in your business environment.

Accessibility is good for business

Many organisations are waking up to the fact that embracing accessibility leads to multiple benefits – reducing legal risks, strengthening brand presence, improving customer experience and colleague productivity.

Paul Smyth, Head of Digital Accessibility, Barclays

The sections below explore key advantages of web accessibility to businesses of all types. Real world examples are presented to show how benefits are realized in the global marketplace.

Drive Innovation

Integrating accessibility removes architectural, digital, and social barriers that can get in the way of innovation2, for example:

  • Accessible design thinking provides varied and flexible ways for users to interact with websites and applications, options that are useful for people with and without disabilities.
  • Design of user interaction considers experiences other than screens when accessibility is a consideration. The result is interaction that is more human-centered, natural, and contextual.
  • Accessibility is closely related to general usability – both aim to define and deliver a more intuitive user experience.
  • Innovations like the typewriter, telephone, punch cards, text to speech, email, and voice controls were initially meant to include those with a disability, and all have found a much broader application.3
  • Driverless cars, so promising for the independence of blind people, are projected to also help solve traffic fatalities and congestion.
  • Research and development of the artificial retina project to help restore sight for participants who are blind may also help future robots with real-time image-processing systems, effectively enabling them to “see.” 4

Accessible design is by its nature flexible, allowing content to faithfully render across a broad spectrum of devices, platforms, assistive technologies, and operating systems. In physical environments, everyone takes advantage of lower curbs, automatic door openers, ramps, and other features provided for disability access. On the web, accessibility features become options that are also often used more widely.

A compelling example comes from the early 2000’s, when people increasingly used mobile devices to browse the web. Accessible and standards-compliant websites were in many cases more mobile-ready as they did not rely on mouse input. Imagine the delight of those who were already committed to and had designed for accessibility! This revelation led to the responsive-design trend that has accessibility at its core.5

The following case studies from two large technology companies provide useful examples for companies of all sizes.

Case Study: Apple

Apple engineers have been innovators in the accessibility space since the inception of the company, both willing to listen and work with outside constituents. 6 The company also anticipates market direction by integrating disability needs into product development. Examples include:

  • iTunes U: In the early 2000’s, the 23-campus California State University system was unable to take advantage of Apple’s iTunes U educational program because the application was not fully accessible to blind students. Teachers within the CSU system were prohibited from using it. This was resolved by innovation, not litigation, as Apple listened to CSU’s concerns and worked to make iTunes accessible on both the Mac and Windows platforms. CSU System was soon able to use the program widely.
  • VoiceOver on iPhone: Early in the evolution of the iPhone, Apple began considering the implications that a touchscreen device would have on their blind customers. Iterating over several years behind the scenes, the company invested the resources to develop the voice technology that led to VoiceOver, the world’s first gesture-based screen reader. Within weeks of launch, Apple received a special commendation from the National Federation of the Blind “For designing the first fully accessible touchscreen interface.” 7

Screen readers on other touch screen devices have now become more prevalent in the industry and Apple has shown important leadership in the effort to ensure inclusion for all.

Innovation from voice interactions at Apple and elsewhere have contributed to the abundance of personal digital assistants now found in many homes and offices. Today millions of people use these devices, regardless of ability.

Case Study: Google

A 2016 article in the FastCompany online magazine8 highlights how Google’s investment in accessibility provides the company with an innovation edge in a broad array of products and services. Eve Andersson, the lead engineer, featured in the article, says “I’m passionate about accessibility, not just because I believe in a level playing field, but because (it) makes life more livable for everyone.” Among the innovations cited as examples are these:

  • contrast minimums, required for people with low vision, help all people see in bright light glare situations
  • auto-complete, initially provided for people with disabilities, is now widely used by all
  • voice control, implemented for users with physical impairments, has been more widely adopted as a great convenience by millions of others
  • artificial intelligence advances are based on research originally done to provide visual context to users with visual impairments
  • auto-captioning using machine learning has been problematic for the main target population of deaf users and many feel it is still inadequate to meet that need. However, work continues and machine learning itself is steadily improving and has found broader applications due to this effort.

Enhance Your Brand

Businesses need to protect and enhance their brands. A clear commitment to accessibility can demonstrate that a business has a genuine sense of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). As businesses understand and act on the diverse needs of their stakeholders and make the commitment to sustainable, inclusive marketing and employment practices, they can achieve a range of benefits. Potential outcomes for CSR programs include enhanced brand image and reputation, increased sales and customer loyalty, improved workforce diversity and many other benefits.9 Further studies10 emphasize the benefits to the brand of companies that institute policies of broad diversity.

Employing people with disabilities is an essential aspect of creating a diverse workforce. To be successful, the technology that employees use, including websites and applications, must be accessible.

Barclays shared their approach to diversity and inclusion through the accessibility initiatives in their company and how that approach has made them a better company.

Case Study: Barclays

Establishing an organisation-wide accessibility strategy for identifying, anticipating and addressing the additional needs of customers and colleagues with impairments contributes in several ways to our brand identity – through tailored services, fostering an inclusive culture, creating new ways to communicate and consult with existing and potential customers.

At Barclays, accessibility is about more than just disability. It’s about helping everyone to work, bank and live their lives regardless of their age, situation, abilities or circumstances.

Paul Smyth, Head of Digital Accessibility, Barclays

We want to leverage inclusive technology to enable and empower all people to bank, work and reach their full potential. The Barclays Accessibility team does this by supporting digital teams to embed accessibility into our services and culture through effective governance, partnering, training, and tools. Establishing an enterprise-wide accessibility strategy, standards and programmes coupled with senior sponsorship helps support our publicly stated ambition of becoming the most accessible and inclusive Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE) company.

When we shift our thinking away from the minimum legal compliance to focus instead on the commercial opportunity and the creative challenge of building better experiences for everyone, we create a more sustainable, customer orientated approach to digital information and services.

To help everyone understand Barclays accessibility-focused mindset, we’ve created a range of animations which help our colleagues understand what accessibility is all about, who benefits, and what the different types of impairments are. We’ve also shared these animations on our Accessible Banking YouTube playlist .

Barclays demonstrates how a strong commitment to accessibility results in distributed responsibility and shared understanding. Accessibility awareness permeates the company culture. The company is perceived as open and fair. People are proud to work there and to do business with Barclays. Read the full Barclays case study to learn more.

Another well-recognized example of how a brand can be affected is Microsoft. After long advocacy and some criticism by accessibility advocates 11, Microsoft made a real and appreciable commitment to accessibility demonstrated by genuine engagement with stakeholders of all abilities.12 The resulting improvements to products and services have strengthened its overall brand image 13, and accessibility efforts are now lauded in the community of people with disabilities.14

Increase Market Reach

The market of people with disabilities is large and growing as the global population ages. In the UK, where the large disability market is known as the Purple Pound, people with disabilities and their families spend at least £249 billion every year. In the US, the annual discretionary spending of people with disabilities is over $200 billion. The global estimate of the disability market is nearly $7 trillion. Consider these facts when estimating market size:

  • At least one billion people – 15% of the world’s population – have a recognized disability15
  • As the population ages, many more acquire disability and yet do not identify as a “person with a disability”16
  • In countries with life expectancies of over 70 years of age, people spend 11.5 percent of their lifespan living with a disability.17
  • Globally, the extended market is estimated at 2.3 billion people who control an incremental $6.9 trillion in annual disposable income.18

A Forrester Research Economic Impact Study commissioned by Microsoft concluded that accessibility could contribute to cost savings when it is integrated into existing and ongoing development cycles. 19 Technology updates and redesigns that include accessibility along with other best practices have demonstrated reduced costs for maintenance and service. Moreover, according to Microsoft, as accessibility features are included, overall customer satisfaction improves.

Designing inclusive software results in improved usability and customer satisfaction.

Microsoft’s app developer guide

Accessible design considerations often lead to improvements in general customer experience and loyalty. For customers with disabilities, such improvements are essential for equal access. However, accessibility provides options that are useful to all customers in various situations. For example, web accessibility also benefits:

  • people using mobile phones, smart watches, smart TVs, and other devices with small screens, different input modes, etc.,
  • older people with changing abilities due to ageing,
  • people with “temporary disabilities” such as a broken arm or lost glasses,
  • challenging situations like bright, glaring sunlight or noisy environments where audio can’t be heard,
  • those with a slow internet connection, limited or expensive bandwidth, which is common in rural areas and some geographical regions.

Case Study: NPR Weekly Broadcast

This American Life is a broadcast heard on more than 500 National Public Radio (NPR) stations by about 2.1 million listeners each week in the United States. In 2011, in response to new regulations around broadcast media from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the broadcaster committed to creating transcripts for their entire archive of recorded programs. A study by their media partner, conducted over several months, concluded that the provision of transcripts not only met legal obligations but returned significant benefits including:

  • search traffic increased 6.86%,
  • better comprehension for visitors who use English as a second language,
  • visitors were able to use transcripts in noisy or sound-sensitive environments,
  • ability to more easily translate, and
  • ability to search text to reference a specific section of audio.

The study, conducted over more than one year, used Google Analytics to capture the following data:

  • 7.23% of visitors viewed at least one transcript,
  • unique visitors increased 4.18%, and
  • new inbound links to transcript accounted for an increase of 3.89%

Read more detail and the full report of the This American Life Case Study  and how it was conducted.

Consideration of the cost and risk of inaction is a critical aspect of any business case. As web use is woven into modern life all over the world, governments and regulators began to mandate laws and policies that strengthen the rights of people with disabilities to participate in online digital information and services.

One of the earliest examples of legal consequences to web accessibility was a complaint put to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC) in 2000 about the inaccessibility of the website of the Sydney Olympics. The plaintiff, who was blind, claimed the site was a violation of the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992.21 The 2001 decision in the Sydney Olympics suit22 raised awareness of the need to address accessibility in the emerging practice of web communication.

Over time, the legal risk increased with the adoption of more specific laws and policies in countries throughout the world.

  • The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) is a comprehensive human rights document that includes a direct reference to the rights of all people to have equal access to communications technology. Passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations, more than 175 countries ratified it by 2018.
  • The European Commission adopted the European Accessibility Act, requiring ATMs and banking services, PCs, telephones and TV equipment, telephony and audiovisual services, transport, e-books, and e-commerce meet accessibility requirements.
  • In the US, the number of legal actions continues to rise and courts increasingly decide in favor of equal access23, often citing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Structured Negotiation is another way that legal pressure is effective, encouraging companies to meet accessibility requirements while avoiding litigation.24

In Norway where it is now illegal for commercial websites to fail to provide equivalent access for people with disabilities, the government fines commercial companies that do not comply.25 Austria has had customer protection regulation in place since 2006 requiring most public websites to meet accessibility standards. Customers that believe they have been discriminated against can take legal action. Parties meet in mediation before they are permitted to go to court. In the United States, by contrast, the regulation is less clear but legal action continues to accelerate.26

Between government oversight and regulation on the one hand, and increased legal action on the other, the legal landscape is rapidly changing in favor of equal access.

With legal risks increasing, smart businesses – particularly those with global activities – are creating accessibility policies and programs to mitigate risk to protect both their assets and their reputations.

Case Study: ADA and Website Accessibility

The blind plaintiff shopped at the local Winn-Dixie grocery store and pharmacy in person but was unable to access the website for information such as the store locator, coupons, store events, and specials. The historic suit was the first trial in the history of the ADA about the accessibility of a public accommodation’s website.

Winn-Dixie asked the court to dismiss the suit based on their argument that a website is not a public accommodation covered by Title III of the ADA. The court decided otherwise, allowing the plaintiff to recover their attorney fees. The decision included the following conclusions by the court:

  • The link between the website and Winn-Dixie Stores was a circumstance that made Title III of the ADA, applicable to “Public Accommodations,” relevant in this situation.
  • The website must be made accessible to “individuals with disabilities who use computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones.”

The court required the chain of grocery stores to

  • adopt and post an explicit Accessibility Policy “to ensure the persons with disabilities have full and equal enjoyment of its website and shall accompany the public policy statement with an accessible means of submitting accessibility questions and problems.”
  • conduct annual accessibility training for IT and web staff, so they learn to create and maintain content that meets WCAG criteria.
  • make sure that any third-party applications or content posted to the Winn-Dixie site must also meet WCAG requirements.

Share your experience

User experience research and case studies confirm the many ways that accessible design supports an organization’s ability to innovate, enhance their brand, increase market reach, and minimize legal risk – among many other benefits. The WAI is a global community of practice, and we encourage you to share your examples. If you have a story of how your commitment to accessibility improved your online business model, please submit it via email to wai-eo-editors@w3.org or post it to the WAI-Engage wiki.

Conclusion

Public use of the web is more than 25 years old. It is no longer a novelty but an integrated, critical tool of modern life. As smart businesses integrate accessible design into their development and procurement processes, they understand the need for equal access by all people. The legal risks of ignoring accessibility are significant, and the benefits have also been demonstrated by leaders like Apple, Barclays, NPR, IBM, Microsoft and hundreds more. Business leaders and the advocates who influence them can have tremendous social impact and a healthy return on investment as they follow a roadmap that leads to equal access. More than one billion people with disabilities in the world are eager to engage with you as customers, clients, partners, employees, and equal participants in civic and social activities. By developing a long-term commitment to accessibility and by using WAI resources to develop policy and implement a strategy to bring that commitment to life, your business will reach this market and is likely to thrive in unexpected and self-sustaining ways.

Resources

This article was written after reading and exploring many external resources that shaped our understanding of the current landscape. We have provided links and notes about our research in this Annotated Bibliography.

Also, the WAI website has an extensive library of useful support to help companies realize the benefits outlined in this article for integrating accessibility into their development, procurement, and general business practice. Listed below are a few of what we consider especially useful as you start your accessibility program.

These are suggested merely as a way to get started. We hope you will explore throughout the WAI site as you dive deeper into accessibility and begin to realize the related benefits for you and your organization.