COMMENTARY: We have a long way to go toward digital accessibility

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In the 33 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted, life in America has drastically improved for everyone with a disability. From ramps on city streets and at the entrances to buildings, to assistive listening devices at events and more inclusion in the workplace, there are more accommodations than ever for persons with disabilities.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the digital world. In fact, digital accessibility is practically non-existent and having a good user experience with many websites, apps and other online programs can be frustrating and overwhelming. This is reprehensible and embarrassing for living in the so-called “digital age.”

For perspective into how significant an issue this is, consider this:

– More than 96% of websites and apps are not accessible to those with disabilities.

– There are 1.3 billion people living with a significant disability. That’s 16% of the world’s population.

– People with disabilities account for more than a $1.9 trillion-dollar market opportunity.

– There already is prominent case law against the likes of Beyonce, Domino’s Pizza and HarvardUniversity.

There will never be 100% compliance when it comes to digital accessibility. Unfortunately, consumers and businesses alike are being deceived by companies that claim their plug-ins can quickly and cost-effectively solve the problem.

Digital accessibility can improve in many ways, starting with closing the gaps in compliance. Laws and guidelines exist, but compliance with digital accessibility standards is not universal.

There’s also a lack of awareness. Many developers, designers and content creators are not well-informed about digital accessibility and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines that ensure websites are perceivable, operable, understandable and robust for all users. This includes things like providing alternative text for images, captions for videos, clear navigation and proper heading structure. Mobile accessibility is often overlooked for digital compliance by developers as well.

We know from other industries that practice makes perfect. Regular user testing with individuals with disabilities can help identify accessibility barriers and usability issues. Actively seeking and incorporating user feedback can lead to improvements and better overall accessibility. Successful ADA-compliant companies already incorporate this into their digital programs.

Finally, digital accessibility is an ongoing process. Embracing the principles of continuous improvement allows for the identification and remediation of accessibility issues over time. Regular audits, monitoring and updates to address emerging technologies and changing user needs are necessary.

Disabilities oftentimes are chronic. As we rely more on digital technology like websites and apps to live our lives and complete professional tasks, it’s imperative we do better and make sure digital accessibility is at the forefront of the national conversation.

The ADA wasn’t passed with digital accessibility in mind 33 years ago, but in 2023 with how heavily we rely on digital products, it’s time for change.

Mark Pound is the CEO of CurbCutOS, an organization in St. Louis, Mo., working to make the digital world more accessible for people with disabilities.