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Web accessibility – good for society, good for business

Making the Web accessible to people with disabilities is the right thing to do. For a business, it can also mean added revenue and protection from lawsuits.

Feature | 11 March 2013
GENEVA (ILO News) - For most of us, surfing the Web has become almost second nature. But for millions of people with disabilities, the Internet remains inhospitable territory.

This does not need to be so.

Huge strides have been made in technologies that help provide web accessibility for everyone. And many of the major companies that have adapted their websites say it was well worth the effort, in terms of good publicity, increased web traffic and, on many occasions, additional profits.

An accessible website is often the easiest way to do business with people with disabilities – for example, those who find it difficult to get to a physical store or cannot read printed material.

This is a huge potential market, considering that about one billion persons worldwide live with a disability.

And there are plenty of success stories.

Tesco, for example, implemented a fully accessible version of its British online grocery store. It cost £35,000 (USD 52,000) to develop and generates approximately £1.6 million in annual revenue, according to a case study cited by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Another British company, the Legal & General Group, says that after implementing accessibility changes in 2005, its website received almost double the number of visitors seeking quotes or buying financial products. The changes also cut maintenance costs by two thirds, according to the company.

Some of the technologies that make the web more accessible include:
- Speech-to-text, which enables people who are hard of hearing to read audio output from the computer.
- Voice input as an alternative to a mouse for people with mobility impairments.
- Screen reader software and text-to-Braille hardware, which make it possible for blind people to operate computers.

“Access to technology and telecommunications is vital to our success as a society and as a country,” says Jennah Bedrosian, of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD).

Long road ahead

Despite recent advances, there is still a long way to go before the Internet becomes a truly accessible place for everyone.

According to Nigel Lewis, CEO of AbilityNet – a UK-based charity that helps disabled people use computers and the Internet – “apart from a small number of good examples, many digital systems and content are inaccessible to the majority of disabled and older people.”

While accessible IT (information technology) and ICT (information and communication technology) are critical for people with disabilities to effectively use computers, they also benefit others.

As the population ages, for example, increasing numbers of people will need larger fonts on their laptops, tablets and smartphones.

Accessibility often overlaps with functions used by the general public. Magnifying, for example, is a function that is particularly useful for a person with limited eyesight, but also helps someone working with a handheld device, such as an airline maintenance technician.

A study conducted by Microsoft Research in 2003, showed that 57 per cent of US computer users in the 18 to 64 age group, or over 74 million people, were likely to benefit from accessible technology.

“Having accessible websites creates a level playing field for people with disabilities when it comes to information access, job-finding, social interaction and access to the marketplace --- to name a few crucial areas of online participation,” says Debra Perry, ILO Senior Specialist in Disability Inclusion. “Through accessible websites, companies demonstrate their commitment to equality and their understanding of the business case for accessibility in all realms.”

The ILO Global Business and Disability Network recently co-sponsored a webinar on the issue, in collaboration with the UN Global Compact and the Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs (G3ict).

“Businesses can achieve greater scale and realize significant cost savings by shifting content and services to the Web. However, it is essential they do so in a way that ensures full accessibility to all of their customers – regardless of their age, ability or preferred device,” says Rob Sinclair, Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft. “In addition to considering the impact on their customers, businesses need to pay attention to increasing legislation, regulation and procurement requirements that can punish or reward businesses for their decisions in this area.”

In the United States and the United Kingdom, there have been several high-profile court cases against companies accused of failing to make their public websites accessible to people with disabilities.

For Nicola Palmarini, Europe Director of IBM’s Human Centric Solutions team, accessibility is not just about profits or the law. “The web is very much embedded in our daily lives. Making it accessible is like making our lives accessible.”

And it should not be an afterthought. “It’s not a tool you add on, it’s something that has to be embedded right from the start.