Q&A: Why would I want to address accessibility in my organization?
This article was developed as part of
The Accessibility Switchboard Project
National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute
January 2017, Version 1.0.
Creative Commons License: CC BY-SA 4.0
Why would I want to address accessibility in my organization?
Because it’s bad business to consider the 20% of the population who have disabilities as an ‘outgroup’.
In-Depth answer: Why would I want to address accessibility in my organization?
Ingroup / outgroup
The very fact that you’re reading this article means that you have a question in your mind: whether the needs of this other group (with whom you don’t identify) should be brought into the day to day workings of your organization? The ingroup / outgroup phenomena has pervaded human behavior ever since one group of cave dwellers chose not to hang around the savanna roamers. Politics, religion, race, and even loyalty to one’s football team define who’s in the social group, and those outside it. But, common sense prevails and in most workplaces we wouldn’t dream of excluding someone based on which side of town their favorite team is from, but we might be susceptible to subconscious biases against other groups. This is why there are training courses within organizations to tackle biases based on race, gender, sexual orientation and so forth:
“As well-intentioned people, we believe we are inclusive of others and would conceptually support the idea of being inclusive. Yet, evidence abounds we are better at excluding than including others.”
—Helen Turnbull, The Illusion of Inclusion, p.xiii
Disability certainly falls under the same heading as other social factors that need to be consciously tackled to create a welcoming work environment for everyone. However, disability does differ in one key aspect. In order for disability equality plans to be effective, technology needs to be modified. For example:
- To provide an inclusive space, restrooms are modified to allow access by wheelchair users;
- To provide an inclusive intranet based time and attendance system, the day of the week tables are modified so that the coding of the header and data cells are accessible to non-sighted users;
- In company wide training videos captions are added to allow inclusion of people who are unable to hear.
In order to be truly inclusive, every aspect of technology in organizations should be considered in terms of whether it can be used by someone who doesn’t have the same functional capabilities as the majority of the population. The question that is presented to us is whether to make the conscious choice of opening up the spaces, the technologies, the social groups to the minority outgroup? We know that even with the best intentions, this is not necessarily a straightforward question. There are risks and opportunities to weigh, and costs and benefits to mull over. This article covers the main issues, and provides pointers to further information on addressing accessibility in your organization.
Adopting the ‘social model of disability’
There are two main ways to think about disability:
- The medical model. In the medical model, disability is considered to be caused by disease or injury. Access for people with disabilities is resolved by healing the cause of the disability, or by providing other medical interventions that help alleviate the symptoms of the disability.
- The social model. In the social model, disability is considered to be caused by the way things are designed. Access for people with disabilities is provided by modifying the technologies around us, and by changing social attitudes and behaviors.
Both models have their place, of course. If we are in the healthcare field, we care deeply about the medical model of disability to drive innovation, advance healing and produce better prosthetics and other aids to daily living. The medical model came before the social model. The old ways of thinking were convenient before the days of customization, and before the easy availability of technology solutions for access. For example, before the introduction of hand control options for driving cars, people who had no use of their legs were precluded from driving cars. Prior to hand controls as a solution, car manufacturers wouldn’t have considered people with paraplegia as part of their target demographic. In this example we can see how the medical model (not our demographic) gives way to the social model (technology modifications are available) over time as new inventions and innovations enter the market.
There are available solutions for technology access
“One could argue that inclusive design has become the new green, extending reach even beyond matters related to physical architecture or web accessibility.”—Kel Smith
The last few decades have seen a massive growth in the availability of solutions for providing access to technology. There are readily available solutions for computer access (the web, and desktop software), for hand held device access (smart phones), public use technology access (information kiosks, ATMs and ticket machines), and more.
Digital Outcasts: Moving Technology Forward without Leaving People Behind is a book by Kel Smith. The book covers the digital gaps that exist, the role of innovation in accessibility, and tackling accessibility strategically.
If someone is in mainstream business and they assert that people with disabilities are ‘not our demographic’, then they either don’t know how to use an online search engine to find examples of available technology access solutions, or they haven’t considered any of the many…
Compelling arguments for inclusion
- There’s an expanded market opportunity. Give or take depending on how you make your measures, approximately 20% of the population has a disability (a reduced ability to do something, or an inability to do something due to disease, injury, or as a natural result of aging). While there isn’t a magical bump of 20% additional sales when you make your products and services accessible, there is the opportunity to expand your market and surpass your competitors in new areas that you may not have considered before. For more, read Including Your Missing 20% by Embedding Web and Mobile Accessibility by Jonathan Hassel.
- Better accessibility can mean better usability for all. By making your products and services accessible, there can be fortuitous consequences for all users. For example, more people who can walk (but have their arms full carrying bags and phones) use automatic door openers (the ones labeled with the wheelchair symbol) than actual wheelchair users. The concept of ‘universal design’ is that accessibility features added to mainstream environments and technologies mean better usability for people experiencing temporary functional limitations that may not be traditionally considered as ‘disabilities’. The same features used for accessibility are expected best practices for use in mobile, responsive design, and functions all users expect. For more, read Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments by Ed Steinfeld & Jordan Maisel; and Universal Design for Web Applications by Wendy Chisholm & Matt May.
- A diverse workforce fosters diverse and innovative ideas. There’s a common but mistaken assumption that having people with disabilities in one’s workforce is going to be a hindrance. As a result, many companies hire people with disabilities based on minimum suggested quotas, if at all (as Helen Turnbull says, “Companies hire for diversity and manage for similarity”). Such misconceptions and missteps can obscure the opportunities that having a diverse workforce can bring. For more, read Tapping into Hidden Human Capital: How Leading Global Companies Improve their Bottom Line by Employing Persons with Disabilities by Debra Ruh.
- Corporate social responsibility counts. As the above quote from Kel Smith suggests, in terms of social responsibility, inclusive design may be the new ‘green’. It would be a bit out of place to say “We’re a socially conscious organization, but we just don’t care about whether we poison the atmosphere or not.” Recycling, energy efficiency, charitable giving, responsible investing, inclusive practices. That last one is becoming less of an omission in corporate life. Companies are realizing that promoting inclusion is not just good advertising, it’s good business. For more, read the Advertising & Disability blog by Josh Loebner.
- It’s the right thing to do. If accessibility has been an oversight in the past, it’s better to be late than never, to fix it. Other guides and articles in the Accessibility Switchboard (see links below) can help you figure out how to get started.
Developing a Web Accessibility Business Case for Your Organization is a website from the World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility initiative (W3C-WAI). The site includes guidance on various factors (social, technical, financial, legal/policy) and how these can be used in presenting a business case for addressing web accessibility in your organization.
These ‘compelling arguments’ have been built up over time, by people working in the disability and accessibility field, using case studies of successful activities in industry. But compelling arguments haven’t always proven sufficient to cause widespread change in industry. Consequently, it was also a necessary fact of life that there was a need to create…
Legal arguments for inclusion
Laws get made when there’s a difference between what society wants to happen and what is actually happening. In our consideration of ingroup and outgroup, we can reference early efforts such as women’s suffrage and racial equality through civil rights legislation. Disability laws have also been on the books in the US for decades, notably the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Laws and regulations can only exist where technological solutions exist. In other words, you can’t create a law that says that all car manufacturers must make at least one self-driving capable car, because currently the technology isn’t proven. One day it might be, and that would be the time to explore laws if compelling marketing arguments were not driving voluntary adoption of such a standard. The accessibility laws of 1973 and 1990 covered certain technologies and public use environments of their time, and have since been updated in 1998 and 2008 respectively.
The existence of a law or regulation is not enough on its own. Lawsuits and legal claims are brought by plaintiffs when companies resist their duties as described in legislation. While the general wisdom is that lawsuits should always be the last resort, they do happen, and are becoming more and more common when companies refuse to make their Information and Communications Technology (ICT) accessible with readily available solutions.
Compliance with legal regulations is therefore a means of lowering the risk of being the subject of complaints and lawsuits. However, we would assert that the business motivators given above should be given more weight than the legal arguments for compliance. Making adjustments to your daily operations, just because you are legally bound to, keeps the idea in place that you are doing something for this outgroup that is against your wishes. It’s better, easier, and more productive to stop thinking in those terms, and just think instead of having a more expansive, more progressive, more inclusive singular ingroup.
Ensuring Digital Accessibility through Process and Policy is a book by Jonathan Lazar, Daniel F. Goldstein, & Anne Taylor. The book covers US and international laws, regulation, and standards, as well as guidance for compliance monitoring and organizational culture change.
Structured Negotiation: A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits is a book by Lainey Feingold. This book came about through her work “to resolve technology and information access claims of the blind community” without resorting to lawsuits. “… it is a dispute resolution method built on the collaborative notion that if parties seek common ground, instead of digging their heels into legal arguments, solutions to even complex problems can emerge.”
About this article
This article is published as part of The Accessibility Switchboard Project, an initiative of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute with support from the members of the Accessibility Switchboard Project Community Of Practice, and from the Maryland Department of Disabilities.
The Accessibility Switchboard Project. Q&A: Why would I want to address accessibility in my organization?. January 2017, Version 1.0. National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. Available: http://switchboard.nfb.org/
Feedback, additions and updates
The authors welcome feedback on this and other articles in the Accessibility Switchboard. Use the feedback form to provide updates, new case studies, and links to new and emerging resources in this area. The feedback form can also be used to join the mailing list for notification of new content and updates from the Accessibility Switchboard.
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‘Ingroup/Outgroup Venn’ by Chris M. Law & The Accessibility Switchboard Project. CC BY-SA 4.0.