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May 16, 2023

An accessible digital experience: not just a checklist item

Global Accessibility Awareness Day reminds corporate leaders that accessibility for all is a key tenet of customer experience and inclusion.

More than a billion people worldwide—up to 15% of the world’s population—are affected by a significant disability. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) pegs that number as even higher, estimating one in four US adults has a disability.

But despite the massive number of people affected (and the corresponding market size), providing accessible digital experiences is too often an afterthought. With the 12th annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) on May 18, it’s time to embrace the fact that accessibility for all is a key tenet of both customer experience and inclusivity.

What accessibility looks like

Accessible technology experiences are focused on enabling all users to perceive, understand, navigate and interact with a website or application by accommodating a range of disabilities, including auditory, cognitive, physical, neurological and visual. Accessibility also includes users with temporary impairments, such as a broken hand, and situational impairments, such as a limited internet connection or the inability to play audio out loud.

An example of a digitally inaccessible experience would be a broken or mislabeled link that degrades the functionality of a screen reader for a visually impaired user. When the experience is hampered, it’s natural for the user to leave the site or discontinue the application’s use.

While businesses are certainly accustomed to providing digitally accessible experiences to their employees and end users, their focus is often on satisfying the minimum regulatory requirements to avoid fines and legal liability. Such fines can reach $75,000 per instance for the first violation and up to $150,000 for subsequent violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). And there is a lot of litigation in this area. More than 3,000 web accessibility lawsuits were filed in 2022—that’s more than 10 lawsuits per day.

‘Always-on’ accessible digital experiences

The fines, lawsuits and abandoned user experiences provide a compelling picture of the “stick” side of digital accessibility. But there are significant “carrots,” too, for going beyond minimal digital accessibility requirements. 

For example, providing a robust, “always-on” accessible digital experience not only improves the experience of users with disabilities but also boosts the overall customer experience because it results in clearer navigation. Further, by building in accessibility from the start, businesses can reduce design costs by avoiding the higher costs of repairing a broken experience after the fact.

Digitally accessible experiences also increase organic search traffic; one study found traffic increased by an average of 12%. Brand reputation can also be improved as businesses that provide accessible experiences are perceived as more inclusive. Lastly, accessibility addresses both the “E” and “S” in environmental, social and governance (ESG) efforts by recognizing diversity and boosting eco-sustainability with more efficient experiences that use less computing power.

Businesses are becoming more aware of the importance of pervasive digital accessibility. According to Forrester Research, eight in 10 companies are already working to achieve higher levels of digital accessibility, including building it in from the ground up. That’s an important advancement, as the cost of retrofitting accessibility after launch can be 100 times more than including it from the beginning.

To be successful, technology leaders should approach accessibility both strategically and programmatically, and implement accessibility measures as integral and ongoing activities. Organizations should continually assess their maturity in digital accessibility and explore more opportunities to raise their maturity to the next level—from focusing on legal compliance to user engagement to sustainability.

End-to-end accessibility in action

We worked with a British multinational publishing and education company to provide holistic digital accessibility to its very large audience of learners worldwide. The business wanted to make its digital learning materials accessible to all students to boost engagement and optimize the learning experience for all students.

The engagement involved assessing and remediating a wide range of learning documents, including more than 500,000 PowerPoint slides, 28,000 pages of Word documents, 170,000-plus e-Pub documents, 700 PDF files, 20,000 videos and 52,000 e-learning files.

In addition to providing a cost-effective solution delivered through onshore/offshore collaboration, we helped the organization speed time to market for its digitally accessible materials, improve quality and reduce testing iterations, which resulted in improved cost savings.

We advise businesses to take the AAA approach to boosting their digital accessibility:

  • Awareness. Create awareness about accessibility within your organization and establish the need for creating a digital experience that provides equal access to everyone regardless of their abilities. Emphasize the many benefits for accessibility, including enhanced market reach, greater competitive advantage and improved brand perception.

  • Assessment. Assess your organization’s maturity level with respect to accessibility from a legal, user engagement and sustainability standpoint. Align with global standards in accordance with digital-first scenarios.

  • Action. Make it everyone’s job to embed accessibility into every digital touchpoint for both internal and external users. Integrate accessibility at all the software development lifecycle (SDLC) phases, from ideation to delivery, and ensure all teams take ownership (not just those in technical roles). Doing so will establish accessibility as a de facto part of the business culture. Empower business analysts, product owners, designers, developers, content authors and testers to implement basic accessibility accommodations.

Subhashini Natarajan
Head of the Accessibility Center of Excellence
Digitally Cognizant author Subhashini Natarajan

Subhashini Natarajan works for the Cognizant Digital Experience Practice and leads the Accessibility Center of Excellence. She helps our customers build sustainable accessibility programs into their digital transformation imperatives.

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