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Digital democracy: How business and society benefit from more accessible digital services


Digital democracy: How business and society benefit from more accessible digital services

Published 28 February 2023 in Technology • 6 min read

Ensuring universal access to digital services is not just the right thing to do, says Tomoko Yokoi, it will also drive competitive advantage in the digital age

No organization or business would deliberately offer products or services it knew to be inaccessible to a quarter of its target market. Nevertheless, while data from the EU suggests 87m (around one in four) of its citizens has some form of disability, digital accessibility for this demographic is often overlooked. In the digital age, too few organizations are striving to ensure that everyone can participate.

But why should they? Well, clearly there are moral imperatives to improving access for disadvantaged groups; the EU’s data suggests half of people with a disability feel discriminated against, and that people with disabilities are 50% more likely to be at risk of poverty or social exclusion. But leaving aside the ethical dimension, there are other powerful reasons to promote accessibility.

Get ahead of the regulators

One imperative to improve is the growing regulatory and legal framework governing accessibility. The European Accessibility Act, for example, sets out a wide range of products and services that must ensure be accessible to people with disabilities. The list incorporates both manufactured equipment, including computers and smartphones, and services such as banking, telecoms and ecommerce. Businesses supplying these products and services have until 28 June, 2025 to ensure they are doing so in an accessible manner.

This Act is just one part of a raft of upcoming regulation aimed at improving digital accessibility for those with disabilities. Alongside the Web Accessibility Directive and an updated Audiovisual Media Service Directive, it sets the legal context for accessibility in Europe in the next decade.

In other words, the regulatory environment is getting harsher; organizations unable to meet the digital needs of all their potential customers and users will increasingly face regulatory sanctions, as well as suffering the reputational damage that inevitably follows such censure.

Expanding the market

However, there is a carrot as well as a stick to the tighter regime: improved digital accessibility can be a point of competitive advantage. This is true in the fundamental sense that organizations with more accessible services have a larger potential customer base. One recent US study found businesses were missing out on $6.9bn worth of sales simply because their websites were inaccessible.

Moreover, the excluded demographic are potentially some of the most valuable customers. Market research firm Nielsen has found that people with disabilities on average spend more per transaction and show more brand-loyalty compared to people without a disability.

Nor should organizations overlook the potential to burnish their brand profile; every digital action – or inaction – is perceived as an expression of brand values and consumers will be noting them for future reference. In an era when there is greater public demand for explicit inclusivity, brands need to be seen to drive this agenda.

Getting it wrong can be damaging. When Twitter released a new voice-note feature to enable people to tweet voice recordings, it faced significant criticism for failing to include a caption facility and was ultimately obliged to apologize publicly.

Benefits for one and all

Moreover, products and services originally designed for people with disabilities often turn out to be highly valued by people outside that demographic. As the Global Disability Innovation Hub points out in its Inclusive Design Strategy 2022: “Solutions that make life possible for persons with disabilities make life better for all of us.”

There are plenty of examples of this. Take the dropped curbs installed on street corners and at road crossings. Originally introduced to ensure wheelchair users could navigate the built environment more easily, they are hugely useful to everyone from parents with buggies, to travelers with wheeled suitcases, and even skateboarders.

This “curb-cut effect” has already found its equivalents in the digital world. Voice-to-text and voice-recognition technologies, now ubiquitous in mobile phones and personal digital assistants, were originally developed to support people unable to use keyboards or to write manually. The point is that accessible, human-centered design naturally comes with fewer points of friction and frustration for any user.

Big tech leads by example

Digital leaders recognize these benefits and are working hard to improve accessibility. In particular, the work of the world’s biggest technology businesses shows how much progress is possible with focused effort.

Apple, for example, has a long history of designing inclusive products. Recent examples include:

  • Screen reader, VoiceOver, which provides audio descriptions of images for the visually impaired.
  • SignTime, which enables customers to engage sign-language interpreters on demand when communicating with customer-service representatives.
  • And Assistive Touch for iWatch, which makes touch-free interaction possible for users.

Apple has also launched the first medically certified eye-controlled iPad for users with a limited range of motion. The device enables users with cerebral palsy, for example, to work with a tablet more easily and provides support in communicating with others.

Microsoft has also been a long-time proponent of accessible digital design. In 2021 it laid out in a new strategy the principles of a five-year commitment to improving accessibility.

Microsoft’s initiatives include live captioning and transcription capabilities in Teams, its video conferencing tool, and the use of AI-powered tools in Word to detect and convert heading styles for blind and low-vision readers. Microsoft has also worked hard to make its hardware easier for disabled people to use, and introduced sign-language support in its physical stores.

The other tech giants have also focused on accessibility improvements. Meta, for example, has introduced technology that can recognize hundreds of objects and concepts in photos on Instagram and Facebook, so they can be identified for visually impaired users. Amazon, meanwhile, has added new options to its Alexa app to ensure people struggling with speech are allowed more time to express themselves.

Towards better accessibility

For organizations keen to become more accessible, the first step is to seek help. One option could be a technical audit of existing accessibility; standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines provide a baseline against which to measure current levels of accessibility and thereby to identify potential issues that need to be mitigated.

Advice and support are available from a wide range of organizations, including charities and other not-for-profit groups that work with disabled people and understand their needs. In most cases, it will be possible to adapt existing products and services to improve accessibility.

The biggest opportunity, however, lies in embedding accessibility in the design principles for new products and services, so that the needs of all end-users are top of mind right from the start. Some organizations have begun to work specifically with disabled product testers in order to understand specific challenges faced by different groups.

This shift in mindset will require a change of culture. Accessibility as a guiding principle will struggle to gain traction without improved training, processes and policies to instill the concept throughout organizational structures. It also requires organizations to be inclusive about how they define disability, considering those facing cognitive and mental-health challenges as well as users with physical issues.

Despite the obstacles, the reality is that every organization is required to make this effort. As aging populations and the pressures of modern living increase the number of people facing physical and mental issues and for whom, therefore, digital accessibility is essential, organizations are best advised to start thinking about how to meet their needs, both from an ethical perspective and for the market health of their brands.


Tomoko Yokoi

Tomoko Yokoi

Researcher, Global Center for Digital Business Transformation, IMD

Tomoko Yokoi is an IMD researcher and senior business executive with expertise in digital business transformations, women in tech, and digital innovation. With 20 years of experience in B2B and B2C industries, her insights are regularly published in outlets such as Forbes and MIT Sloan Management Review.


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