Last month, Whatsapp's 2 billion users worldwide experienced collective frustration after the popular app experienced a brief outage resulting in users having trouble sending messages.
Although it wasn't long before WhatsApp resolved the technical error and resumed normal service, it was long enough for public uproar and thousands of users globally to report problems.
For a brief moment, many experienced what it's like to encounter digital inaccessibility – something that for millions of disabled people is a daily occurrence. In fact, a staggering 98% of websites fail to meet the guidelines that would make them accessible to disabled people, who constitute roughly 15% of the world’s total population.
Brands are losing billions by having inaccessible websites
It's estimated that $6.9 billion a year is lost by brands with inaccessible website to their accessible counterparts, not to mention the potential costs of the lawsuits to which they may be subject. In the US alone, 2021 saw over 4,000 web accessibility-related lawsuits, where the Department of Justice has clarified that web accessibility is mandated under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In Asia Pacific, over 650 million people live with a disability. This means that one in six people in the region have some type of impairment that affects their ability to consume digital content. However, digital inclusion remains under-addressed. Much of the internet remains inaccessible, despite existing policies to make websites more accessible.
According to the 2019 Click Away Pound Report, 69% of people will click away from an inaccessible website, and 82% are willing to spend more on an accessible website.
Sena Pottackal, a junior associate at Current Global, is a blind person and says that the opportunity is clear: "Improve accessibility and increase your bottom line."
"Speaking for myself as a blind person, brands that neglect to add alternative text to their images on social media or fail to add audio description for video content immediately cut people like me out of considering them," says Pottackal. "As a result, they lose customers. It makes financial sense as well as being a moral duty."
Albert Nel, senior vice president, Asia Pacific & Japan at Contentsquare says that the argument for digital accessibility extends way beyond the moral obligation of building websites for all; it has huge financial and commercial implications too as the disability market is huge globally and in APAC.
"It doesn’t matter how much money brands have pumped into their homepage if they are losing millions of people in their audience because they can’t access their site and have therefore written off the brand as inaccessible," says Nel. "In such a competitive landscape, brands only have one shot at acquiring and converting a new user – and it’s even harder to convert one that’s been lost."
A report by Nielsen found that people with disability spend more per transaction and stay longer with brands compared with people without disability.
"This is gold for organisations looking for stable, low churn customers," says Sarah Pulis, co-founder and director at Intopia. "If you’re site isn’t accessible, you could be shutting out between 15% and 20% of customers. A better, more accessible experience could attract new customers, or give you a competitive advantage against your customers, particularly if their products aren’t accessible."
Accessible experiences result in a better experience for everyone
Accessibility is not just important for disabled people – it benefits a wider audience, from people using smartphones, to Asia’s ageing population, to those situated in areas with low Internet connectivity. Human-centred, accessible design naturally comes with fewer points of friction and frustration.
Take captions on videos as an example. People who are deaf or hard of hearing may rely on captions. However, someone who wants to watch a video on a noisy train or on a screen in the gym will also benefit from captions. People for whom English is not a first language often find it easier to understand speech when it is in both audio and text form via captions.
According to research from Stagetext, younger viewers prefer to watch TV with captions. They found that 4 out of 5 viewers aged 18 to 25 said they watch TV shows with captions all or part of the time.
"This also changes the conversation in organisations," says Pulis. "We are not just designing for people with disability. We are designing better experiences for everyone."
Likewise, accessibility marketing consultant Meryl K. Evans, who herself is a deaf person, believes everyone uses accessibility; it's not a disability-only thing.
"As a deaf person, I depend on high-quality subtitles. But all the time people tell me they use subtitles even though they're not deaf or hard of hearing," says Evans. "In fact, a study has shown that 80% of the people using subtitles aren't deaf or hard of hearing."
Evans says it demonstrates the power of what's called 'the curb-cut effect'. This is when something originally designed for a specific disability ends up being used by everyone, like subtitles or ramps on street corners and in front of retailers.
"Making accessibility part of a company's culture expands its reach," adds Evans. "The more people they reach, the higher the profits."
A risk to brand reputation
Brands that don't embrace digital accessibility run the risk of damaging their brand's reputation, particularly among today's social-media savvy younger generations.
In one example, social media giant Twitter released a voice note feature which allowed people to tweet voice recordings. The problem – there was no way to add captions. This was immediately taken up by the disability community sharing their disappointment about this and about Twitter’s initial response to the issue. Twitter later came out with a public apology and committed to working to fix the issue as soon as possible.
"When accessibility supporters discover a barrier or something that's not accessible, they will talk about it in public," says Evans. "It can lead to a David and Goliath situation where it's the accessibility supporters who are David and the brand is Goliath, the big bad company. Generation Z cares about social justice and doing the right thing. They'll more likely support companies that bake-in accessibility."
How can brands make sure they get their digital accessibility right?
"Just get started," says Evans. "I encourage a progress over perfection approach. If brands are serious and want to start strong, then there should be an executive champion with a backup. Once in place, hold accessibility and disability awareness training for all employees. Accessibility is everyone's responsibility."
Nel of Contentsquare says brands need to provide people the option to access their content in the way that suits them best. "Ensure anything really important on your website is available in a variety of ways, such as audio, text, and graphics."
Pottackal, who is a part of Current Global’s DEI and corporate communications consulting team, and has played a key role in developing industry guidelines for accessible communications, remembers that when Current Global first started out their website and logo were not as accessible as they could be, so they remedied those issues.
"Specifically, we replaced two of the four colours in our Current Global logo because they were inaccessible for colour blind individuals," says Pottackal. "Additionally, we worked with web developer Flipside to make our website more accessible."
Among numerous improvements, Current Global added detailed alternative text, meaningful hyperlink names, and accessible videos. To show these videos, they installed Able Player, which allows videos to be viewed with closed captions for the deaf and hard of hearing as well as audio description for the blind and partially sighted.
Pulis of Intopia says the best way to create accessible experiences is to do so from the start. "For every new product or service you create, ensure that you understand your customer needs and design the product or service to meet those needs. To do that, you must have customers with different needs involved throughout the entire process."
For existing products, often the first step to take is a technical accessibility audit against accessibility standards like WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). This often gives a baseline for how well you meet these standards, and identifies issues that can be fixed.
However, this is not the only part of the process. A technical audit doesn’t tell you how usable a site is for disabled people. Bringing in disabled people and observing them trying to complete key tasks on your product will provide valuable insights about what is working and what needs to be improved.
"You also need to make sure you have the supports in place so you can deliver accessible experiences," adds Pulis. "This includes the right governance, processes and training for all team members. Accessibility is as much a cultural issue as a technological issue for organisations."