According to the World Health Organization, roughly 1 in every 6 people (about 16%) has a disability of some kind. This is the world’s largest minority group with over a billion people worldwide, spending nearly $2 trillion annually.
In today’s evolving technology landscape, accessibility compliance has emerged as a crucial aspect for institutions and edtech businesses in the education market. As technology and learning methods advance, we need to prioritize accessibility to ensure that everyone, regardless of their abilities, is able to access education resources. Here, we highlight the positive impact of accessibility on students, organizations, and the bottom line.
Education is a fundamental human right. Accessibility compliance and inclusive education help organizations uphold this principle by ensuring their resources are available to all learners, regardless of disabilities. Different learners’ life experience, interests, and skill sets contribute to the learning process and shape how they acquire knowledge.
Universal Design is a proactive approach to designing solutions that apply to people with or without disabilities, to the benefit of all users. The practice aims to eliminate accessibility barriers in the learning environment to improve the learner experience. It does this with 3 core tenets:
- Multiple means of representation focuses on delivering instructional content through a variety of mediums, such as electronic text, visual or aural representations, or print.
- Multiple means of action and expression is about giving learners multiple opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge. Some learners may be more successful when demonstrating through a crafts project over multiple choice quizzes, for example.
- Multiple means of engagement refers to different opportunities for a learner to be involved in their education. Some may latch onto experiments and research projects, while others may prefer lectures or discussions.
The idea of these multiple means is that many different learners would benefit from diverse options for different personal reasons. Universal Design for Learning seeks to provide flexible learning opportunities and environments to accommodate a variety of individual needs. In practice, this gets at the “spirit” of accessibility and civil rights laws by promoting inclusivity and removing barriers in the educational process.
Legal and Ethical Obligations
Accessibility is not an optional process for institutions or businesses. Many countries and regions have established legal frameworks and guidelines that mandate accessibility compliance by law. Within the United States, for example, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) specifically targets the education market. The goal of this law is to provide learners with disabilities the same opportunity for education as those students who do not have a disability.
The US federal government is required to buy information and communication technology that is accessible per Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. An organization can publicly show its compliance by publishing a document known as an Accessibility Conformance Report (often called an ACR or VPAT). This report is generally considered a bare minimum to be considered for adoption by a federal agency.
According to Level Access, legal actions have continued to rise, and courts have increasingly decided to favor equal access. In 2023, a unanimous decision from the Supreme Court of the United States sided with a student who is deaf and wanted to sue his public school for failing to provide him an education tailored to his needs.
Businesses that adhere to these regulations can avoid legal complications, but also show their commitment to ethical business practices. This dedication to inclusivity can bolster a company’s reputation and attract customers who prioritize socially responsible partners.
Enhancing Reputation and Brand Value
A business’s reputation is more critical than ever. With the prevalence of social media and online reviews, demonstrating a commitment to accessibility compliance has been shown to reflect positively on an organization’s overall brand. When potential students or partners see that an institution or company values inclusivity, they are more likely to trust that the education offered is high quality and genuinely caters to individual needs.
Enhancing reputation with accessibility is about progress over perfection. It is incredibly difficult to be perfectly accessible for all possible users, but showing that an organization is intent on improving and demonstrating real progress communicates to its learners that accessibility is valued and practiced. For starters, having a public accessibility statement (likely on a website) can tell people what level of conformance to expect. Along with this statement, it is often recommended to provide a way for users to contact the company to report accessibility issues or errors so that the company may address a new or unknown problem.
Organizations that actively engage with the accessibility community can establish valuable partnerships with advocacy groups and accessible technology experts. Collaboration with accessibility experts can lead to the creation of innovative solutions that address specific challenges for learners.
Embracing accessibility challenges can lead to innovative solutions that improve the overall design and functionality of a product for the benefit of all users. For example, accessible websites and digital content tend to perform better in search engine rankings. Through semantic markup and best practices such as titles and alt tags, search engines can index accessible content more effectively. This makes it more discoverable and drives organic traffic to a business's digital assets.
Designing for accessibility often requires creative problem-solving. For example, how can a graphical math problem be represented to a learner who is visually impaired? With innovative approaches like using an audio trace, a learner can explore a graph by sound rather than sight. This aligns with the idea of Multiple Means of Representation under Universal Design for Learners.
Another example of this innovation is the closed captioning software developed for YouTube by Google. Originally intended for users with a hearing disability, the company realized the software could be used for translating languages, and today it allows content creators to add captions for multiple languages to their videos instantly.
Preparing for the Future
As technology continues to evolve, so does the way in which educational content is delivered. By focusing on accessibility compliance now, a business can position itself to adapt to new technologies and platforms, ensuring that its offerings remain relevant and accessible in a changing industry. In industries where accessibility is often overlooked, an organization that offers an accessible product or service gains a competitive advantage.
In contrast, attempting to retrofit accessibility conformance into a product that was not designed with accessibility in mind can be a lengthy and expensive process. It is far more efficient and cost-effective to integrate Universal Design at the beginning of the process. Handling accessibility after the fact often requires additional design or development refactoring to implement, and the potential retraining of entire teams to take accessibility into account. Content, in particular, should be handled with accessibility in mind from the start. For example, developing video assets with accessibility in mind, such as supporting captions and descriptive transcripts, can avoid having to do expensive reshoots down the road.
A Forrester research study commissioned by Microsoft concluded that teams that integrate accessible design and development practices into their workflows could contribute significantly to cost savings. Updates and redesigns that integrate accessibility practices have been shown to reduce costs for both service and maintenance.
What to do
So, what does a business do with this information? To get started with Digital Accessibility, first, a business needs to know where it is, and where it needs to be. Then that business can build a roadmap to get it from point A to point B.
Where a business needs to be largely depends on its products and services. An accessibility expert can help determine what regulations and standards apply to its digital assets, but a good place to start is the WCAG (v2.1) AA. This is currently the industry standard and comprises an entire section of the government Voluntary Product Accessibility Template. In order to do business with any federal agency, additional requirements are outlined in the VPAT, and it is important to evaluate what guidelines each offering must adhere to. As of the writing of this article, there are 4 versions of the VPAT:
- WCAG - Includes only the WCAG requirements.
- Section 508 - Includes the WCAG requirements plus additional guidelines to which federal agencies (or their vendors) must adhere.
- EU - Includes the guidelines required by the European Union (or their vendors), based partially on the WCAG specifications.
- INT - A relatively newer version of the template, the INT version attempts to include both the EU and Section 508 guidelines, and is often the most difficult to accomplish, but would be required for any product used by the governments of both the EU and the US.
(The above templates are available at https://www.itic.org/policy/accessibility/vpat)
These templates serve as good guidelines for a business to use as a baseline. However, even when a product adheres to the letter of regulation, it may not be accessible to everyone, as they are not perfect documents.
To find out where a business stands, an accessibility expert should perform an audit of its product(s) and services. These can include (but are not limited to) digital applications, marketing websites, documentation, and digital assets such as PDFs. Documentation of the results of this audit can be used to construct an accessibility conformance report and to fill out a backlog of items in an issue tracking system (ideally along with specific standards requirements).
Not every accessibility issue can be fixed at once, but a prioritized roadmap can help plan what issues should be addressed first. Assess which items will have the most significant impact on users with the least effort, and prioritize them first to get the best bang for your buck.
A business must make accessibility a priority, and to do this, accessibility must be embedded into an organization’s culture. This requires awareness and training at every level through collaboration, research, and discussion. Formal training in accessibility can go a long way to help integrate best practices into a team’s workflow. In the long term, this costs less because accessibility is considered throughout the design, development, and quality assurance processes.
Just like security, accessibility is never “done.” It should be integrated into a team’s process, and requires maintenance and review. In order to keep up with changing content, staff, and technology, an organization should regularly review and audit their products for accessibility and include regular training for their teams. A feedback mechanism should be provided for internal and external users, and a process to address this feedback will help an organization avoid litigation while improving customer satisfaction.
Accessibility is not just a regulatory requirement. It is a transformative practice that empowers businesses to create more inclusive, innovative, and impactful learning environments. By prioritizing accessibility now, a business opens its doors to a broader audience, enhances its reputation, and creates innovative solutions in an evolving industry.
- W3C - The Business Case for Accessibility
- Deque University IAAP Certification Course
- WHO Accessibility Disability Fact Sheet
- Accessibility Conformance Reports
- Level Access: Web Accessibility Lawsuits: 2022 Recap and What to Expect in 2023
- W3.org - Barclays Case Study
- Perkins - Desmos Audio Tracing: Introducing Sonified Graphs
- Forrester - Assessing The Value Of Accessible Technologies For Organizations