Preword: The article isn't a 37 minute read, there is a long table in the middle of it, it is more like 20!
If you are in a rush I have added a contents section a couple of paragraphs down but I would encourage you to at least skim read the whole article!
Finally there are a couple of hard truths that may shock you when said so bluntly towards the end of this article. If you get triggered by that sort of thing please do not read this article, I wouldn't want to upset you.
You have hopefully had somebody at some point in your tech career tell you that "you must make your application / website / app etc. accessible", but did anyone ever take the time to tell you why?
And if you haven't had someone tell you that, or you are brand new to development - "You must make your application / website / app etc. accessible" - I have just told you and I am about to tell you why it is important! 😁
Hopefully this post will explain why I put accessibility (making things usable for people with disabilities) at the top of my list when making any decision relating to work and (if I have written it well) persuade you that you should do the same!
For clarity though, if you are looking for technical guidance, there isn't any here.
This whole article focuses on the approaches to disability inclusion that aren't working (that you may be guilty of yourself!) and how I approach persuading business owners that they must start considering accessibility for their own success.
Think of this article as a crash course in why disability (and therefore accessibility) often gets ignored and swept under the carpet and an approach to change that.
It is the foundation for a series on how to get people to take accessibility seriously.
- What is in this article?
- Just how many disabled people are there?
- Ok I get it, it is a big problem that isn't being addressed, what were you saying about the wrong approach?
- OK, yet again, I get it, there are lots of bad approaches that don't work, what do you suggest?
- starts by explaining the size of the problem / how many people are affected by the decisions you make regarding accessibility
- then covers why most people will never persuade you to actually do something about it
- finally my approach to persuading people that accessibility is important and focusing on inclusive practices helps them.
Hopefully by the end of it you will have a light bulb moment and join me in championing accessibility.
And once you do have that light bulb moment, hopefully you will follow me to learn more about accessibility and benefit from some future posts on things you can do to improve the accessibility of your site, as well as some articles on persuading your boss, your clients and your colleagues to join you in an "accessibility first" mindset.
If you are just starting out in development, take an hour or two (after reading this article) just to learn the basics of accessibility and what it is about. It will make you conscious of where you get code examples from while you are learning and will make you a far better developer than people who do not know / ignore accessibility.
This may shock you, but somewhere between 16% and 20% of people in the world have some form of disability, many people even have multiple disabilities.
That equates to somewhere between 1 billion and 1.4 billion people on this planet.
If you are one of the people who like to talk about "group identities", people with disabilities are the single largest minority group on the planet! Start advocating for them today!
You probably have and just did not realise it. This is because around 85% to 90% of disabilities are completely invisible.
You generally can't see if someone has poor vision, or has a hearing impairment. You also cannot see if someone has a cognitive (mental) condition (generally).
Also given the average age of people in tech, you may only be exposed to 1 in 10 or even 1 in 20 of your friends and colleagues having a disability, as the prevalence of disability increases with age.
Disability can affect anybody, regardless of other minority groups people may or may not belong to.
This makes it difficult to have a singular voice on disability and people get silenced very quickly if you try to talk about this and it doesn't fit a narrative.
As we aren't having the conversation nothing is changing, it is that simple! We need to talk about it as at the moment it gets swept under the carpet.
Another reason is it isn't "sexy" enough.
Companies want to virtue signal and show how wonderful and great they are, it is easy to do that to one "group" by changing their colour scheme or promoting "XXX month", but disability is really broad.
You could have "multiple sclerosis month" for example, but that affects only a few million people.
If you wanted to have a month for every disability it would take 30 years!
Maybe you could have "hearing impairment awareness month" as that is the disability that impacts the most people in this world, but that still excludes people with vision impairments, cognitive impairments, motor impairments, disfigurements etc.
To illustrate this point: It is far more trendy to say "now serving vegan food" at a restaurant (about 0.7% of the population) than to say "we have made our restaurant accessible" (25+ times the number of people affected) as veganism gets talked about all the time, it fits the narrative that is being talked about in the media and on social media.
Anyway, this isn't the place for any more detail on that conversation, let's sum it up as politics, virtue signalling and a broken narrative are the reason disability is not talked about enough.
Ok I get it, it is a big problem that isn't being addressed, what were you saying about the wrong approach?
Yes, that is the point of the article, but you did need to know how big a problem it is first.
Now as with a lot of things people have taken a few approaches to try and improve the situation, but they don't really work:
You probably didn't realise but your website / app is illegal.
Now I can say that with about 85% confidence without knowing anything about you.
97.4% of websites have accessibility issues (that can be detected automatically, and automatic detection only covers about 40% of all accessibility issues) so I am pretty confident your website has at least one accessibility issue (make that 50 accessibility issues....on just the home page...if it is an average site!).
The only reason I can't offer a higher confidence level is I do not know which Country you are from!
If you are from an EU country, the UK or the USA - it is a legal requirement that your digital product is accessible.
I am not entirely familiar with the laws of other countries, how much protection they offer and whether they apply to digital products, but the list of laws that protect people with disabilities is quite large (so I would imagine loads of them!):
That list is quite amazing isn't it? All those laws "protecting people".
The problem is enforcement. You can write all the laws you want but if nobody enforces them then they don't do anything.
In a lot of Countries hardly anybody actually gets taken to court over these laws. In the UK we have had...wait for it...2 total cases on digital accessibility issues (and they were all settled as quietly as possible to avoid any press about it)...and we have had these laws since 1995!
With that being said...watch this space, somebody not too far from you might be involved in something that may change that but they cannot talk about it yet! 😉
Now America, being the land of litigation, is at least starting to use these laws to sue companies that make their digital products inaccessible.
I won't comment on the 🤑 motives 🤑, because any action is better than no action as far as I am concerned and the end result is all I am bothered about.
There is a problem with litigation though:
The UK and the US (and I am sure many other Countries) have a "get out of jail free card" for accessibility issues.
You only have to implement them if it "does not cause undue financial stress" on the company.
Now a good solicitor will immediately see why the battle is difficult, that is a very hard thing to measure / quantify.
What if Big Widget Company made £1,000,000 profit last year?
They get taken to court over accessibility issues with their website and the cost to rectify is £150,000.
Now you might immediately think "15% of their profits, can afford that, case closed".
But it is easy to argue that they have shareholders who expect dividends and that sort of expenditure could cause investors to withdraw, damaging the company.
It is easy to argue that those profits need retaining for future growth and that expenditure would cause the company significant damage once again.
You hopefully get the idea, solicitors are clever! In fact if a solicitor (lawyer) ever reads this article, feel free to show the 20 other ways you could argue against such a flimsy exception!
Obviously I am just scratching the surface here and I am also over simplifying things.
But my opinion is that laws do not work as it is another "you must", and unless you actually enforce it then companies will do a risk assessment, realise that their odds of having a problem are thousands to one and decide it is not worth the expense to mitigate that risk....and it may shock you that I agree with that assessment.
The law is not a strong enough reason to implement accessibility for most companies as the risk of litigation is so low (not that I don't use it as a nice persuasion technique to scare people into action! Just don't tell people my little secret 😉)
And I didn't even get to the worst part of people telling you that "you must" for legal reasons...it encourages a mentality of "minimum standards", which is why so many people focus on "WCAG compliance"...compliance doesn't mean a great experience...but that is a conversation for one of my angry rants on accessibility when I find a new home for them!
You will hear lots of people telling you that you must do this as it is morally right.
And they are absolutely correct. We need to offer a level playing field to everyone in society, we should not participate in practices that exclude people.
In reality this approach does not work.
Instead of having a conversation with you, like I am doing now in the hope of showing you the size of the problem, they will chastise you and berate you from a moral high-ground they think they occupy.
They will silence you if you have questions as those questions may "offend", they will think you are a lesser human for not knowing things in the first place.
You will all be familiar with this narrative, unfortunately in an an effort to "protect" they just push the problem down the road. You (and I) will not learn without asking these questions.
Neither will we learn with someone wagging their finger at us. In fact for a lot of people the harder you wag a finger at them the less likely they are to engage.
Also, let's be honest, we have loads of moral obligations, more and more each passing day, we have our own struggles and we are just doing the best that we can.
We are, by nature, self absorbed. We have families to look after, personal problems, financial concerns and 100 hundred other things to deal with...whatever energy we have left after all that we can dedicate to making the world a better place.
As you can probably tell, I hold little faith in persuading you that it is your moral obligation to make accessibility a priority, especially as you probably perceive the extra work of learning about accessibility as something that does not benefit you.
It just won't work for most people.
We all want to be good human beings and help our fellow humans, but we have our own priorities and they will inevitably take precedence.
And if you are like me (but I am beginning to think I am in the minority here), people chastising you and telling you that "you may cause offence" when exploring these issues only serves to make you less likely to explore a topic and learn.
Nearly every article you read on accessibility is written from a "wagging your finger moral high-ground"...is it working? (NO!)
I will leave you with this thought: if moral obligations to protect people were an effective argument, would we have wars, or famine?
Now this one may surprise you (especially as education is key to success in removing inequalities in my opinion), but let me elaborate on the specific type of education that is problematic.
A lot of people like to run seminars that "put you in other people's shoes". They are workshops that allow you to experience what it is like to be blind, what it is like to be a wheelchair user etc.
They have their place and I will often show people the severity of the problems with their websites by firing up a screen reader (a piece of software that reads the website out, primarily used by people with vision impairments) and showing people what a person who uses a screen reader might experience on a poorly structured website.
The problem is if the whole focus of their presentation and their approach is to try and get you to experience disability in the hope that you will empathise and take action.
Do you know what this actually leads to? Pity!
People start feeling sorry for people with disabilities. People with disabilities don't want (or need) your pity, they just want you to be considerate when designing products and services so they can use them too.
Pity (and the approach of "showing people what it is like" to have a disability) doesn't actually help as it has an additional negative effect, it makes people think that people with disabilities are "less able" and things must be hard for them (which inevitably leads them to "moral obligations" type thinking).
For example: They cannot understand from a brief experience how someone with a sight impairment might be able to do tasks that they associate with their own sight.
Curiosity leads to (valid) questions like how can a blind person possible be a developer:
Sight is one of the senses most programmers take for granted. Most programmers would spend hours looking at a computer monitor (especially during times when they are in the zone), but I know there are blind programmers (such as T.V. Raman who currently works for Google).
If you were…
Easy enough to answer, but after "experiencing disability" people stop asking these sorts of questions as things seem impossible, they start thinking "it must be impossible for a blind person to be a developer".
It then adds an unconscious bias that people with disabilities are less able to complete tasks and that means that you are less likely to hire them.
It has further implications as you then start thinking "blind people can't enjoy movies" or "blind people can't play video games".
The good intentions have had the opposite effect, how can you possibly be friends with someone who can't enjoy a video game with you if you are a gamer?
Yes, he would beat me in Mortal Kombat without even breaking a sweat, and he is totally blind.
It makes you assume that people cannot do things because of their disability, because you could not do them with a 10 minute demonstration of what it is like living with their disability.
As I said earlier, it has its place but only to demonstrate how your actions can exclude, otherwise it actually has the opposite effect.
There is a second part to education that often gets abused and causes bigger problems:
Often when you go to some of these seminars we reach the section on "appropriate language".
Now, yet again, this part is important and has its place. But when people try and apply language rules as "definitive" (you must use this word) - it does not work.
I will myself include preferred language when doing a talk on inclusion.
Where it goes wrong is when people start discounting views, getting offended and complaining about language choice.
If someone was to raise the question:
"How does a cripple get up and down stairs" they would get lambasted for using a very out-dated and "offensive" word.
In the UK at least, we don't condone the use of the word "cripple".
But it is easy to tell people, in a polite and non-condescending way that if would be better to use a different word and that their language choice was not the best.
Instead people try and get people who use inappropriate language silenced.
It gets worse than that though, as they do this from the perspective of their own culture. They start imposing their own cultural views on others as that is what they believe / have been taught.
For example: "Handicapped" is a word that people in the UK are very likely to find offensive.
But in America it is a perfectly acceptable term and may even be the preferred term!
It is funny how it can make me twitch when I hear an American talking about accessibility and disability and they use "handicapped", but I understand that their choice of language is appropriate in their Country.
This is why people need to stop trying to police language as "it may cause offence", but rather educate them on what may be a better choice of language.
Instead I always look at the intention behind a person's questions. If someone asked me "what do I have to do to make my business more accessible for cripples" I wouldn't immediately try and correct their language choice.
I would educate them on wider doorways, turning circles for wheelchairs, unobstructed paths to facilities, accessible bathrooms, not leaning on a person's wheelchair when talking to them, having a lower section on their bar / counter for people who use a wheelchair etc.
Somewhere in there I would gently suggest that "cripple" is not a good choice of word and is no longer the socially accepted wording and that they should instead say "someone who uses a wheelchair".
If they slipped up again, I would not think anything of it, just keep going with the gentle nudges in the preferred direction.
Final point on this: I met a guy who wanted to be called "Crip Kev", it was an identity he had an affinity with and actual found it empowering...how can you possibly police language and not offend somebody? Context and situation are important so when I say preferred language, I am talking about in a professional setting / when addressing a general audience.
If you have a friend or colleague with a disability, call them whatever you both agree is acceptable.
Education does have an important role to play in improving things, but it needs to be careful not to introduce more problems than it solves.
Don't focus on trying to get people to experience disability for themselves as a sole route to trying to make them make a change, instead it will actually make things harder as they will immediately dismiss certain people as "unable" based on their own experience of disability through simulation, in comparison to their own experiences without that disability.
Also if someone uses out-dated language, don't worry about it if their question and intentions seem good. Just slowly drop it in the conversation as they engage with new ideas.
And above all when educating, let people ask questions, don't attack someone for curiosity.
It is the only way you learn (and the problem with attacking or silencing someone who is questioning things is that they stop asking questions...and that is the root cause of bias and exclusion.)
I focus on the money!
More accurately I focus on why thinking about accessibility has benefits to the person I am talking to.
Now I am going to do a whole series on how it benefits people with different roles in a company, but for now I will just touch on the things I talk about to business owners I work with (applicable to your company's clients).
I will focus on the size of the market (16-20% of the population) that they are ignoring. In the UK that represents 14 million+ people! (out of a population of 66 million).
I will focus on the spending power of that market (£250 BILLION + in the UK alone - which for comparison is more than the value of the UK exports each year!).
Those two points alone are enough to make business owners wake up, but there is a lot more we can say to really drive it home.
Not only is it a large market (the largest minority group in the world) but it is a market that is ignored.
A massive market that is mostly being ignored..is a fantastic business opportunity!
As I said earlier, 97.4% of websites have accessibility errors we can detect automatically. How does that translate into a competitive edge though?
Well what if your company was the only one with a fully accessible website in your industry?
Those people who struggle using your competitor's websites will hopefully find yours and keep coming back again and again, recommend it to others etc.
And if that is hard to understand - imagine if you went into 10 shops looking for clothes and they were rude, told you which products you could and couldn't buy, told you things were out of stock when you can clearly see them on the shelf etc.
Now imagine that you went into a shop that welcomed you in, showed you variations of items you liked, offered you a drink while you browsed etc.
Which shop would you return to the next time you need clothes?
The disabled community is a close knit community, the word of mouth potential is much higher with a customer with a disability than anyone else if you offer a great experience (especially as people with disabilities are so used to having a poor experience!).
In the example of different shops I gave in the previous section, which would you tell your friends about for example?
Once someone finds the shop that looks after them (to milk my previous analogy to death) they are likely exhausted with the poor experience they have had elsewhere.
They want to support the shop that looked after them and treated them well. So they may see if that shop offers other items that they require.
The average spend / basket value can be significantly higher because of this.
Now remember in point 2 I said moral obligations is a rubbish argument for implementing accessibility?
Do you also remember how I said that moral posturing by companies is just that, posturing for their own gain?
Well it is, but that doesn't mean you can't use it to your advantage!
Imagine if you can tell people that you are inclusive...and deliver on that promise. Imagine being able to (carefully) point out that you don't virtue signal, you actually do what you say.
Then imagine how many people who don't have a disability, but either know someone who does or is conscious about inclusion, would be more inclined to spend money with your company.
Being accessible gives you a marketing angle that very few are capitalising on. Use it if you can deliver on your claims!
I mean, most of the above is about gaining more money, which is essential! But what about on the other side of the equation, what about employing people?
Well, yet again, I will be writing about this in detail but "in a nutshell" people with disabilities have less options, this means that you can get talented individuals at good market rates, they are likely to stay longer as they are treated equally (and are used to being treated poorly / excluded) and because of this there are fewer options for them to jump ship to other jobs.
That may all sound horrendous (and it is) but it is a harsh reality of life. You can get an amazing pool of talent with some very simple adjustments to your business attitude, culture and practices.
I haven't even covered the diversity of your team improving creativity bit!
Some of the stuff in there may shock you when I say it so bluntly.
But that is the reality of things, I cannot protect your from harsh truths.
Do you think a business owner who hears all of that (when presented with a little more flair) has any issue with putting accessibility on their agenda...right near the top of priorities?
So that is my approach. As far as a business owner is concerned:
I don't care about the law, it is toothless and not something most businesses should even fear.
I don't care about your moral obligations, there are too many moral obligations for us all to adhere to and it is draining trying to keep up.
I don't care if you understand what it is like to be a person with a disability, in fact I would prefer you didn't as it leads to incorrect assumptions.
Nor do I care if you use outdated language, as long as your intentions are pure. (although I would suggest you outsource your marketing etc! 😋).
All I care about is your wallet and the success of your business.
All I care about is showing you a massive opportunity that is being ignored.
Now you tell me, who do you think a business owner is more likely to engage with? People wagging fingers or someone saying "look at all the benefits to you...oh and you get to do some good in the world at the same time!".
From a personal perspective, a side effect of this approach is that I get to help hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of people indirectly find a small corner of the internet where they are not excluded or treated like second class citizens.
I get to actually make a difference in the world, instead of just making myself feel better with moral posturing.
Basically I can use this technique to trick business owners into driving change in the world that I believe in!
Hopefully the cover image now makes perfect sense...it's a trap! (but a good one!)
If you think that this approach is the way to enact real change in the world, if you want to be a part of "improving inclusion without the wokeness" (and yes, I am actually toying with making that my new company mission statement!) then follow me:
There will also be an "angry rant" version of this article for those of you who enjoy that series, I just need a more appropriate place to put them that DEV.to, give me a couple of weeks to fix that 😁
My new sign off experiment!
If you enjoyed this article, give it a ❤, if you thought it was special give it a 🦄 and above all, don't forget:
Leave a comment for the algorithm! 😁 Do you agree with my approach or do you think I am wrong?