Digital accessibility – not just a duty, but an opportunity

Authors: Christiane Hahnsch & Marko Kreuzmann

“We must now, the law stipulates it” – this is the tone of many enquiries that we, as a digital agency, are now getting on the subject of accessibility. These show that accessibility to online content is still seen as an obligation, if anything. As something that is dictated from the outside. Companies and organisations therefore need to view digital accessibility as an opportunity. Because barrier-free products and services that allow all users to participate in the digital world are not only mandatory, but above all advantageous. In this article we would like to discuss why.

What is digital accessibility and what laws demand it?

We are currently receiving numerous requests to test the accessibility of websites, apps and specialist applications. New services and products are to be accessibly designed, and existing products and services are to be made barrier free in retrospect. This development and overwhelming interest is wonderful because it shows that the existing regulations and legal provisions are working.

The legislation on accessibility includes various sources that approach the issue from different perspectives.

  • The desire for an accessible and inclusive society in which no-one is excluded is already enshrined in the German Constitution (GG): “No-one may be disadvantaged because of their disability.” (art. 3, para. 3)
  • The Disability Discrimination Act (BGG) describes the idea of a barrier-free society in digital and analogue space: for people with disabilities, systems should be “findable, accessible and usable in the generally accepted way, without particular difficulty and in principle without outside help” (BGG §4). Accessibility on the web can therefore be understood as making all content accessible to all members of society.
  • The international standard for accessibility on the web is the European standard 301 549, which is derived from the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 (Level A and AA).
  • Specific to Germany, there is also the Barrier-free Information Technology Ordinance (BITV), which refers to EU guideline EN 301 549 and therefore also to the WCAG 2.1. With 60 testing steps at the current time, the BITV test of the BIK (barrier-free information and communication) Association specifies in detail the properties and functions that websites are required to have in order to be accessible.
  • The accessibility of websites and apps is already mandatory for public bodies and this will also be the case for the private sector which must follow suit by 2025 at the latest (EU Directive 2019/882).

These various legal regulations are important and effective, because on the one hand they oblige public bodies to think holistically when it comes to inclusion, and on the other hand they have a high external impact and emphasise the importance of accessibility to society.

The users in focus: accessibility is becoming increasingly relevant

Accessibility is however not only a duty but rather an opportunity. It gives companies and organisations the opportunity to reach more members of their target groups and to simplify the use of digital products for them and everyone else. In collaboration with our customers, we act according to this principle:


“Design to reach every human being on the planet.“

Phil Gilbert
General Manager, IBM Design

It’s not just about pure design in terms of the concept and visual layout. The term “design” covers the entire process of a project, which all functionalities help to shape and to which they all make their contribution: from consulting and conception to editing, design and implementation in the frontend. The principle also implies that people with and without disabilities can use (digital) areas of life on an equal footing. This (albeit unconsciously) builds a bridge to the BGG – in keeping with the spirit of a solution for everyone.

When working in digital space, people with the following disabilities in particular must not be forgotten: blindness and visual impairment, deafness and hearing difficulties and people with cognitive impairments or limited motor function in their fingers, hands or arms. They each perceive web content differently, need alternatives to certain media formats and navigate differently to prototypical users, for example with a screen reader or magnifying device and with a keyboard instead of a mouse.

Disabilities in Germany and globally – what do the numbers say?

A look at the numbers shows the relevance of the issue of accessibility: in Germany alone, there are 7.9 million severely disabled people, which equates to 9.5% of the population having a severe disability (Destatis, 2020). Important to note: disabilities do not have to be reported in Germany. We can therefore assume that the actual number of disabilities of different degrees of severity is higher. Globally, the rate is even higher than in Germany: around 15% of the world’s population has a disability (WHO, 2018). In addition, we live in an aging society and 96% of all disabilities are only acquired during the course of life, mostly due to illnesses (German Federal Statistics Office, 2020).

Why is accessibility useful and important for businesses?

Apart from the legal regulations and the numbers, there are other good reasons why digital accessibility is already relevant and even profitable for every company.

1. Accessible products widen target groups

In addition to permanent disabilities, there are also those that are temporary or only present in certain situations. Because accessibility also depends on context: an arm injury, a noisy environment, an accent that is difficult to understand or a heavy bag in your hand – in many everyday situations even people without disabilities can suddenly be restricted. All interactions with technology depend heavily on what we can see, hear, say and touch. In certain circumstances or situations not all of these senses and abilities are fully available to us. Therefore, if you start with the assumption that users cannot always use all their senses, a much larger group of people can be convinced by offers and be included.

2. Thinking about accessibility saves costs

Not new, but still relevant: if you plan accessibility into a project from the beginning, you save both time and costs. This is because the potential optimisations necessary to make a product as accessible as possible are much more complex and time-consuming than a clear commitment to accessible design and the corresponding planning for all functionalities from the outset. Whilst accessible content can also be written and entered subsequently if necessary, a website that is not cleanly implemented programmatically and lacks valid and semantic HTML, or the ability to operate the website via the keyboard, often leads to extensive and therefore expensive improvements.

3. Accessibility strengthens branding

The awareness of consumers and users is expanding in such a way that not only its products and services, but also the values behind a brand or organisation, are becoming increasingly relevant. Currently, a third of Germans state that their purchasing or usage behaviour also depends on the socio-political attitude of an organisation or brand (Mindline Media, 2019). To date, there is no existing widespread standard for dealing openly with the issue of accessibility; actively and consciously including people with disabilities; making products accessible to a larger target group; and questioning ongoing processes. This makes it all the more important for a brand or organisation to show understanding of the target groups and be a forerunner in setting the tone for an inclusive society.

4.  Accessibility is good for search engine optimisation

An accessible website structure also ensures search engine optimisation of the content and thereby a higher visibility for your own products and services on the web. Because well-structured texts with a functioning hierarchy of headings and correctly marked structural elements, such as tables and lists, can not only be better understood by screen readers but also by web crawlers. And search engines also read alternative texts and the file names of images in order to record and index them correctly. In addition, short blocks of text that are easy to understand and read not only ensure a positive reading experience for users, but perhaps also a top ranking on Google and a prominent display as a featured snippet ahead of all other search results. This also makes it more likely the result will be read aloud when using the increasingly popular voice search.

Accessibility at IBM iX and IBM – developing inclusive digital products together

As a Berlin agency and a subsidiary of IBM, we guide the digital transformation of larger companies and organisations. In doing so, on the one hand we gain insights into issues that move the market, and on the other, we do our part to promote issue that are currently relevant from the user perspective. Increasingly, this includes digital accessibility. We ourselves, for example, did not think about the extent to which it would be necessary on our own website – but we have since learned, are constantly improving, and are spreading empathy for and knowledge about accessibility in our agency.

An important step for us was to stop regarding the issue of accessibility as a silo. We don’t want just a few people to specialise in this area, rather that all employees have a basic knowledge of the subject and know what they can do. It is important to us that everyone contributes. After all, keeping all the knowledge in one place, in the worst case with just one person in the company, doesn’t benefit anyone. One person can never be a specialist in the field and all subsections. The company would also lose all its knowledge in the event of illness, prolonged absence or a change of job. That’s why we at IBM iX have created a working group with members from different disciplines who meet regularly to drive the issue forward within the agency and beyond. In this group we are tackling key issues:

  • We are changing the perspective towards the users.
  • We are building up in-depth knowledge and continue to educate ourselves.
  • We are sharing knowledge across the board and raising awareness among and empowering our colleagues.
  • We are establishing accessibility in everyday project work and making it a matter of course.

Accessibility has therefore become a steadily growing and integral part of our work. This approach is bearing fruit: clearing up prejudices in organisational units and passing on knowledge in interdisciplinary teams. And our customers are also benefitting from our constantly up-to-date expertise and our growing practical experience. Aside from implementing accessible products and carrying out tests, we train project teams on the subject of accessibility in a general or trade-specific manner and have been able to observe a great deal of interest and a change in perspective on the part of the customer.

By now it should be clear to everyone: accessibility is not just an obligation but also an opportunity for companies and public bodies. In addition, it is an important investment in the future, a gift to ourselves as it were: because when we develop and design without barriers, we are not only doing it for our grandparents, friends and our company’s target groups, but also of course for our future, aging selves.

About the authors:

Marko Kreuzmann is Associate Director and Account Partner Team Lead at IBM iX Studio in Berlin. He works mainly in project management with clients from the public sector. He is also the founder of the Accessibility Working Group at IBM iX.

Christiane Hahnsch is a junior content designer (online editor) at IBM iX. Her main task is the analysis, conception and creation of editorial content for websites. As a member of the Accessibility Working Group, she regularly trains agency colleagues and clients on accessible content.



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