Author: Suzie Miller, Solutions Architect at Amazon Web Services
20 May 2019
The European Commission estimates that 80 million EU citizens live with a disability, with this figure expected to increase to 120 million by 2020 due to the region’s ageing population. In 2010, when it accepted the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the EU committed to ensuring the social and occupational integration of those living with disabilities.
Globally, the World Health Organisation estimates that more than one billion people live with some form of disability – about 15 percent of the world’s population. In the UK alone, disability charity Scope estimates that 13.9 million people live with a disability, with more than 3.7 million disabled people in work. Sometimes referred to as the ‘purple pound’, the combined spending power of British families with at least one disabled person is more than £249bn per year (€285bn) – but charity Purple estimates that UK businesses lose £2bn (€2.3bn) a month by overlooking the needs of people with disabilities.
The influence of that spending power across Europe is growing rapidly as multinational businesses wise up to the lucrative market and potential benefits of catering for all customers. But this has not always been the case and more adjustments need to be made for businesses to become fully inclusive.
Businesses need to create the working conditions and internal culture that allows them to attract, recruit and retain employees with disabilities
Amazon’s People With Disabilities employee affinity group celebrated the eighth annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day on May 16 by pushing forward the agenda for accessible and inclusive design – otherwise known as universal design.
Living with ‘invisible’ disabilities myself – including Asperger’s, dyslexia, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and osteoarthritis – I have come to realise that accessible and inclusive design is not just the right thing to do, it’s also good for business. Businesses that do not cater to everybody could miss out on a huge and growing customer base.
Accessibility is a word that conjures different meanings based on your life experiences. For many people, it still means access ramps, dropped kerbs and screen readers, but it’s so much more than that. As such, accessibility must be given the same importance as other considerations, such as security.
The reality is that no person has full capability for every activity throughout their life. Accessibility issues can impact anybody at any point in their life, whether that’s through a medical injury, a temporary medical condition, language barriers or simply unfamiliarity with a new product or environment. And the definition of disability varies greatly – some people may not even consider themselves disabled.
The most relatable example of accessible design is the dropped kerb. These were introduced following the Second World War to aid the many thousands of people who returned in wheelchairs or on crutches, but we quickly realised that they were useful for bikes, buggies, trolleys and all sorts of other things. Subtitled videos are another example: they were intended for people with hearing loss, but they can be incredibly useful if you’re on the train, browsing social media or watching a film that’s not in your first language.
Designing products with accessibility in mind benefits all customers. If a non-disabled person cannot follow the flow of a website, there is a risk that consumers will feel alienated and not return to the site. Considering accessibility from the outset is a brilliant way to avoid ‘locking out’ certain audiences.
Businesses also risk missing out on unique expertise if they overlook the skills, perspectives and experiences of those living with disabilities. To facilitate accessible design, businesses need to create the working conditions and internal culture that allows them to attract, recruit and retain employees with disabilities. Having a diverse group of people on any project is the starting point. All team members must then benefit from an inclusive atmosphere that helps them feel comfortable voicing their ideas.
What’s more, accessibility shouldn’t be left to people with specific job titles; it’s important for all employees to be well versed in these concepts. As always, adoption and loud advocacy from senior management is the first step in changing work practices for the better.
Although the target audience of an event like Global Accessibility Awareness Day may be professionals working within design, development and usability, there is also an opportunity to extend that message to consumers. The reality is that users do not necessarily know how to request adaptations for accessibility, and they may not realise the growing movement among technology companies to cater to their needs. Working together, consumers and businesses can foster positive change that is both worthwhile and profitable.
For designers and developers, there are various tools that can help with this aim. For example, Amazon Polly is a text-to-speech service that can be incorporated into products, while Amazon Transcribe can be used to add captions to video content.
Features that enhance accessibility do not diminish, dilute or compromise the final user experience – they make it stronger for everybody. In our digitally-driven economy, that’s good for business. The opportunity is too good to ignore.