Inclusivity in the Digital Age: The Importance of Accessibility Advocacy

October 9, 2023

In the digital age, it is impossible for individuals, organizations, or institutions to thrive without utilizing technology and the many services it provides. As technology advances, reliance on and demand for it grow. Thus, technology now plays a central role in global workflows and daily communications. According to a 2023 digital business study, 93 percent of organizations have adopted or have plans to adopt a digital-first business strategy.

With technology a crucial component of success, it is essential for all users and employees to be able to easily and effectively access the tools that best suit their unique, individual needs. Regrettably, some people with disabilities do not have equal access to these capabilities. As the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) has reported, “In 2020, more than 2,500 federal lawsuits were filed claiming Web sites were not designed to be accessible to people with disabilities.” It is essential that technologies ensure equal opportunities for all, at home and in the workplace. Therefore, accessibility advocacy remains a relevant issue across the globe.

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Within the context of software and technology development, an accessibility advocate is someone who raises awareness and increases Web-accessibility literacy. Accessibility advocates promote and support the principles of fair and equal accessibility in several settings, including advocacy organizations, government agencies, corporations, and educational institutions. They may also work as independent consultants, helping businesses and organizations to create more accessible products, services, and environments. Within today’s digital landscape, it is essential that the role of the accessibility advocate does not go unnoticed.

The Impacts of Accessibility Advocates

To fully evaluate the impacts that accessibility advocates can have within an organization, it is important to understand their specific responsibilities in the workplace. Accessibility advocates are responsible for ensuring that the entire business or institution is aware of the consequences of noncompliance with the necessary laws and regulations relating to the accessibility of technology. Raising awareness is often the first step of this process, and it is the responsibility of accessibility advocates to help everyone in an organization to understand the need for accessibility, while also ensuring that the necessary technology products follow accessibility standards.

To ensure that every aspect of an organization’s Web presence and technologies is equally accessible to every user, accessibility advocates should direct members of product-development teams to an accessibility resource center that provides all the necessary information. Depending on the various roles of Accessibility team members, they might also conduct accessibility evaluations of every team’s projects and provide accessibility questions for use in interviewing potential job candidates. It is essential that everyone be able to participate in completing the necessary tasks, while making the proper technology modifications for new and future employees who have any disability.

In the world of technology and software development, there are accessibility advocates who concentrate on the user experience and Web or online accessibility. Although many of the same principles apply in both of these domains, minor elements differentiate the two. When ensuring UX accessibility, accessibility advocates must guarantee that every user or employee has the same or a similar experience. Often, designers are temporary contractors who may have little or no experience in creating technology with disabilities in mind. For that reason, it is important to make sure that UX designers have both the awareness and the experience to strengthen the accessibility of user experiences. At the same time, accessibility advocates need to collaborate with front-end developers and framework teams to ensure that they adopt W3C standards in the early stages of the software-development lifecycle.

It is essential that we not overlook digital equity and inclusion when the goal is to provide equal opportunities for everyone. The Web provides an extended level of independence that could overcome the challenges and obstacles that come with certain disabilities. People with disabilities can accomplish everything from working and shopping to banking and entertainment from a computer screen. Still, if we do not design Web sites and software with inclusivity in mind, they could be virtually useless for individuals with disabilities.

Beyond our moral obligations and just doing the right thing, technology must be open to every user, delivering the same freedoms and opportunities to all. Those who are seeing or hearing impaired already struggle every day, so it is crucial that we provide them with technology that gives them a seamless user experience. Accessibility advocates play an important role in championing the rights of people with disabilities, promoting accessibility, and working toward a more inclusive and equitable society for all.

Accessibility Advocacy Best Practices and Certifications

The International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) provides certifications to those striving to make a difference in several aspects of accessibility. Certifications cover accessibility in core competencies, Web/technologies, documents, and built environments. Students can expect to study these respective areas extensively before taking the necessary exams to earn their certifications. Once students receive a certificate, it is valid for three years, with renewal possible by earning continuing-education accessibility credits (CAECs), primarily through professional development or knowledge sharing. Depending on the field, the maintenance of each accessibility certification differs.

Disabilities and Everyday Solutions

Disabilities are diverse and varied, covering a wide spectrum of conditions that can affect individuals physically, mentally, or emotionally.

Some common disabilities that digital accessibility can serve include visual impairments, motor disabilities that limit range of motion, cognitive and learning impairments, and deafness or hearing impairments. Solutions for these four types of disabilities include the following:

  1. Visual impairments or disabilities—Alternative text for images, text-to-speech technologies, adjustable font sizes, audio descriptions, and compatibility with assistive technologies such as screen readers can assist people with these disabilities.
  2. Motor disabilities—Keyboard navigation and assistive-technology features such as alternative input devices or voice-recognition software can aid people with motor disabilities.
  3. Cognitive and learning disabilities or impairments—Assistive-technology features that cater to a specific disability or impairment include alternative Web navigation strategies, access to information in multiple formats such as audio and text, and alternative presentation methods.
  4. Deafness or hearing impairments—Closed captioning, video transcripts, talk-to-text apps, and other text-based options let people who are deaf or hard of hearing read all text.

Challenges and Benefits of Accessibility Advocacy

The need for accessibility advocacy in technology is growing exponentially. As society becomes increasingly reliant on technology and its functions, individuals with disabilities require further technology developments to accommodate their specific needs. In today’s digital age, development of new technologies shows no signs of slowing down with the current boom in artificial intelligence (AI), neuro-language processing, machine learning (ML), and advanced smartphones. It is crucial that we ensure everyone can enjoy these developments and opportunities. Still, progress in the accessibility of any of these technologies will meet its fair share of challenges along the way.

As exciting as it can be to live in an age of rapid technological advancements and innovations, this also presents significant obstacles to achieving accessibility for people with disabilities. Digital accessibility standards must evolve as technology and software changes. This requires accessibility advocates to push harder on organizations and institutions to devise new standards and enforce them. New laws and legal requirements for accessibility require constant changes and updates—both to an organization’s internal processes and the technologies it uses. Digital advocacy is an ongoing process, so it is essential that technology and business professionals give accessibility measures the attention they deserve.

While the challenges of keeping up with ever-evolving accessibility standards can be a struggle for accessibility advocates, several benefits come from raising awareness of these issues. The expected benefits of implementing an accessibility program include the following:

  • legal compliance—It is essential that organizations comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) laws, standards, and regulations. Doing so ensures an organization’s positive reputation in the marketplace, while avoiding costly lawsuits and unnecessary damages.
  • improved user experiences—Improving the overall experience for all users by providing accessibility options and solutions increases the trust and loyalty of all employees and consumers.
  • wider audience reach—Optimizing for current digital accessibility standards dramatically boosts an organization’s audience reach through inclusivity. Those with disabilities have a big reason to trust an organization that accommodates their unique needs, as opposed to their having to deal with the common barriers and challenges they would experience in accessing nonadaptive products and services.

Impacts of a Lack of Accessibility

The US government protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination in education, the workplace, and other areas of public life. According to the ADA, “disability rights are civil rights.” Those who fail to comply with modern ADA standards suffer consequences that include major lawsuits, penalties, and reputational damage. Not only can noncompliance cost an organization millions of dollars, it can also significantly impact how potential and existing customers see them.

When the court case against Domino’s Pizza was initially submitted in 2019, they were accused of violating the ADA and California law because their Web site was inaccessible for those with disabilities. The court case also determined that their mobile app did not align with ADA standards. When the case finally settled in 2022, the involved parties issued the following statement: “The parties have amicably resolved this matter. Domino’s has confirmed its commitment to maintaining the accessibility of its Web site and mobile applications to individuals with disabilities…by utilizing policies, procedures, and internal training to ensure their long-term accessibility….” Not only was Domino’s ordered to pay the plaintiff but it also received heavy criticism from the disabled community.

Lawsuits such as these and the progressive changes they bring for individuals with disabilities would be impossible to achieve without consistent accessibility advocacy. Accessibility advocates stand up for those who receive unfair treatment because of circumstances that are out of their control. In the past decade, the total number of ADA Title III federal lawsuits filed annually has drastically increased—from 2,722 cases filed in 2013 to a staggering 11,452 reported cases in 2021, and the numbers continue to rise.

As disability research advances in the coming years, we will continuously make significant changes in the worlds of Web and technology accessibility. In 2023, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has made major strides in the right direction by updating core guidelines and developing new standards that present a more personalized experience for individuals’ distinct disabilities. For example, the WAI now provides those with severe language impairments, who use symbols to represent words, the option of changing text to symbols and, thus, enabling content to be fully comprehensible. WAI is also providing aid to those who are easily distracted or overwhelmed by extraneous Web content by giving them the ability to hide any additional, nonessential information so they can focus strictly on a page’s main content. Disability accessibility is now receiving greater attention and being regarded far more seriously, thanks to the relentless efforts of accessibility advocates. It is their dedication that has led to a continuous increase in awareness and progress in this crucial field.

The Future of Accessibility Advocacy

The US strives to create more productive organizations and institutions through technical advancements. With the public quickly becoming aware of continuous new developments, accessibility advocates are working to ensure that these achievements are usable and available for every citizen. Modern organizations and facilities are implementing effective accessibility programs that align with current policies with the goal of reaching a wider audience. With more than one billion people living with a disability around the world, major enterprises such as Microsoft are creating new features that are “accessible by design” through AI and other technologies. Innovative minds and measures such as these are paving the way for a more productive and inclusive future.

With technology rapidly advancing and health professionals continually discovering new information about the various disabilities, accessibility advocacy remains a critical issue. We need to do more work to ensure fair and equal rights for everyone through software and technology development. As organizations and professionals increasingly understand the obstacles that individuals with disabilities constantly face, companies and institutions continue to implement effective solutions that address these glaring issues. People with disabilities can rest assured that accessibility advocates are always in their corner, ready to make positive changes. 

Senior Software-Development Engineer at Aetna

Burlington, Massachusetts, USA

Durga Ramakrishna GadirajuKrishna is an experienced accessibility specialist who promotes accessibility for all users, by conforming to regulatory standards such as Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA), Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. He has a proven track record of collaborating with cross-functional teams and senior leadership to optimize products to meet accessibility standards and enhance processes across test automation and UX design and development.  Read More

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