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.
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.
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.“
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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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