The relationship between technology and autism services has been a focus of my thinking and writing lately. It’s an urgent topic that I feel deserves attention, but it’s also led me to a broader conversation about inclusivity (or lack thereof) of technology for the larger disabled community. As our lives become increasingly enmeshed with technology—phones at our fingertips, brick and mortar retail locations rapidly disappearing, the supremacy of social media and e-commerce—the need for technology that can accommodate the disabled community is at once something that must be a priority, yet is often either left ignored by businesses or unaddressed because they lack the knowledge and ability to make their websites ADA compliant.
In search of more information about this landscape and the “state-of-play” when it comes to websites and online life generally becoming more accessible for disabled individuals, I spoke with WCAG (Website Content Accessibility Guidelines) Compliance Specialist and Founder and CEO of Zenyth Group, LLC, Daryn Harpaz. Our conversation revealed some curious information, statistics that should scare and incentivize business leaders, and insights that should give us all a better idea about the status quo informing current inclusivity efforts for disabled individuals online.
The first thing to know is that it’s impossible to have this discussion without mentioning the Americans with Disabilities Act which passed in 1990. As Daryn explained it, officially, there is no legislation holding private sector websites accountable for accessibility, as the law predated the prevalence of the internet as we use it today. However, guidelines put together by the World Wide Web Consortium have essentially been adopted as precedent, and those guidelines are confirmed by the Department of Justice. Lawsuits pursuant to accessibility compliance are being upheld by the courts, so while nothing is instantiated by law, it’s becoming a must for businesses to ensure their websites are fully accessible to the disabled community.
“Currently there's a [accessibility] lawsuit being filed at the rate of one per hour in America. And these are lawsuits most prominently bought by the plaintiff side—a blind plaintiff who is not able to access a website using a screen reader and a keyboard,” Daryn told me. While vision impaired people (4.6% of the disabled population in America) struggling with assistive technologies online represent the majority of the lawsuits we’re seeing, guidelines cover a much wider spectrum of conditions, and so solutions need to address the same.
Individuals disabled in some way—including autistic individuals or people with epilepsy—comprise about 15% of our population in America, or 61 million people. Add to that the fact that 40% of US adults over the age of 65 have one or more disabilities (many of whom would benefit greatly from more accessible websites due to vision loss and motor functioning complexities) and the market is too large to be ignored. Yet, many businesses still aren’t addressing the issue properly.
I asked Daryn what would constitute an ADA violation in our current moment. “If somebody visits your website and can’t buy a product successfully, they are essentially being denied an equal shopping experience. That’s considered a violation of the ADA.” he said. Furthermore, if your website directs users to a physical location which they then can’t find, that would also be considered a violation.
With the right insight and expertise, these are all avoidable problems that could easily create a more equitable world for all. But, many either are either openly hostile to accommodating disabled individuals or seem to be acting only out of fear of being sued. A lot of these attitudes are born of ignorance, and businesses should be highly incentivized to accommodate such an enormous market.
“If you consider the spending power of the disability community, you're talking about a half a trillion dollar industry: $490 billion. That's what people with disabilities spend a year in consumption. So why wouldn't you want to be one of the brands that cater to that demographic? Parallel to that, it is well known that people within the disability community are one of the most, if not the most loyal brand advocates. A lot of companies do not cater to them, so when they find a company catering to their needs, they are very loyal, often becoming brand ambassadors.”
While I’d prefer that the current conversation was starting from a place more anchored to the humanity of these individuals, motivating startup retailers just trying to get by and monolithic corporate entities all at once is difficult work, and any progress in the right direction is still progress.
Ultimately, change will require a shift in mindset that Daryn tells me he and his company are working hard to achieve, “My platform is to move that conversation from the defensive framing to an attitude that’s more proactive, one with which organizations embrace accessibility as a best practice, and deploy technology and messaging that is inclusive,” he explained. “If we're going to really move the needle in our industry, it has to be a conversation around humanity.”
Our conversation goes on to unpack the more technical aspects of the work ahead for disabled individuals and website accessibility. Those details and more will be shared in an upcoming blog, so keep an eye out for the conclusion of this important discussion.
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