Accessibility Is Good Business


Maximum Accessibility: Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone
By John M. Slatin,, Sharron Rush
Table of Contents
Chapter 6.  The Business Case for Accessibility

The Internet has become a central business tool and, despite the excesses and recent gloomy reports from the dot-com sector, its use continues to grow. As online business models mature, smart businesses are realizing that the prosperous baby-boomer generation is aging and that, like every other generation before them, they have an increased likelihood of experiencing disability. When these numbers are added to the numbers of children born with disabilities and people who acquire a disability as the result of an injury or disease, they reflect a large and growing market. Accommodation for the needs of this substantial population is therefore a good business strategy as well as a civil rights issue. The facts are given below.

  • More than one in five people experience a long-term disabling condition at some point in their lifetime [LaPlante and Carlson 1996].

  • These numbers are increasing as the population ages [Desai et al. 2001].

  • More than 750 million people worldwide have a disability, including more than 55 million Americans [McNeil 2001].

  • In the United States, the percentage of those who are self-employed is 12 percent higher among people with disabilities [Singer 2000].

  • The aggregate income in the United States of people with disabilities exceeds $1 trillion [Gingold 2001].

A market of this size is of great interest to any business. This chapter examines the growing market of computer users with disabil ities and offers some insights into effective means to reach them via the Internet.

With over 750 million people in the world experiencing a disability, this is a substantial market. Figure 6-1 shows estimates of the numbers of people within different categories of disabilities in the United States. To compile this chart for AIR trainings, Phill Jenkins of the IBM Accessibility Center used statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau [McNeil 2001].

Figure 6-1. This pie chart depicts the following percentages of people with different types of disabilities in the United States: mobility limitations, 29.8%; limited hand use, 24.8%; cognitive disabilities, 16.4%; hearing impairments, 13.4%; visual impairments, 11.9%; speech and language impairments, 3.7%. Created by Phill Jenkins, based on statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau [McNeil 2001]. Chart used with permission.


As we learn to accommodate this significant population, we also learn that the accommodations made for this group will nearly always provide unexpected benefits to the broader population. It has become the standard since the passage of the ADA in 1990 for architects and builders to incorporate physical access into building design. Public buildings now are designed to facilitate access by people with various disabilities through halls, doorways, staircases, and elevators. Our society is now coming to understand the importance of similar access standards for public places that happen to be online. We are agreeing on standards and developing techniques that will facilitate access for a greater number of users of Web-based information, goods, and services. If you construct a building, it's easier and cheaper to put in access for people with disabilities during the initial design and construction than to add it on later. The same is true of Internet and other software accommodations.

Tools Created for One Group Can Serve Everyone

Consider some physical accommodations. The entry ramps that are now routinely provided in public buildings or the curbcuts that allow navigation on city streets are examples of accommodations that were created for people who use wheelchairs and walkers or who cannot otherwise use steps easily because of impairment. Take a moment to think about who uses these accommodations most often. Parents pushing strollers, young children, the elderly, and mail carriers pushing bins of mail use them. Bicyclists and skateboarders use them, and you can bet that the delivery driver who unloads the soda truck is very happy that curbcuts are available.

The telephone and the transistor were both the result of inventors trying to improve conditions for people with hearing impairments. Closed captioning on TV was created so that this group of people could have equivalent access to television programming. However, closed captions turn out to be very helpful for those who are learning English or who are learning to read. And by far the most common use of closed captioning is found in airports and restaurants with television displays that allow all customers to follow a television broadcast despite the noise of the crowd.

The lesson here is clear: the computer tools that you develop with accessibility in mind will ultimately serve a much broader audience. Throughout history, the need to accommodate people with disabilities has spurred technological invention. You will find that many of the suggestions we make throughout the book provide Web authors greater control over pages. Accessibility techniques often shorten download times for all users. Many accessible design practices have the additional benefit of allowing improved access by those who use wireless devices and cell phones to browse the Web.

Some designers initially think that making a Web site accessible is going to mean curbing creativity and fun in designs. Not so! These techniques absolutely do not discourage the use of any particular design element. Rather, we emphasize flexibility. We encourage you to learn to provide alternative ways to achieve the desired effect, thereby allowing greater numbers of people to have access to your work.

Making an accessible site does not limit your creativity; in fact, many Web sites that have won awards for their designs are also fully accessible. In an accessibility training that we conducted, one designer objected to the curtailment of his creativity. "No one ever told Michelangelo what to paint," he claimed. Never mind the leap he made to equate himself with one of the world's great geniuses clearly this developer had never heard of Pope Leo! Our trainee was therefore unaware of the fact that Michelangelo created breathtakingly imaginative and creative works under the strict oversight of the Catholic Church. Considering that, he might have taken this lesson instead: inspired achievements can be attained within defined limits. Not surprisingly, this lesson holds when it comes to Web site design.

Growing Markets

U.S. census data indicate that one in every five Americans has a disability at some point in life. Statistics also show that the tendency to experience a disability increases with age. Our society is growing proportionately older, and the chart in Figure 6-2 demonstrates that this is happening at an accelerating rate. We can easily see that the need for disability access will increase along with the numbers. As the technology evolves, we must ensure that disability access is a prime consideration in the delivery of the technology to everyone in society.

Figure 6-2. The bar chart pictured here was developed for AIR accessibility trainings by volunteer Phill Jenkins of the IBM Accessibility Center. It shows that the percentage of the U.S. population over 55 has increased dramatically since 1900. Based on U.S. Census data [McNeil 2001], population growth is depicted by a series of segmented bars, with a different colored segment to indicate ages 55-64, 65-74, 75-84, and 85 and over. In 1900, less than 10% of the reported census population was over 55. By 1960 the number of people in this age group had nearly doubled to 17% of the population. The percentage continued to increase throughout the 20th century. As the baby-boomer generation ages, more than 30% of the population is projected to be 55 or older by 2030. Chart used with permission.


People with disabilities want the same things as anyone else in society the opportunity to learn, to work, to contribute to society, and to earn a higher standard of living. Dr. James Caldwell, Chair of the Texas Governor's Committee on People with Disabilities, whose story we related in Chapter 3, asserts that "the current potential for using technology to level the playing field for people with disabilities is unprecedented. We must create systematic ways for communities to realize that potential" [Caldwell 1998].

The need for accessible information technology is predicated on an implicit logic of resource management. Despite the economic downturn in 2001, the number of people accessing online business services is increasing. While we can recognize that many Internet business models were unrealistic, the fact remains that people are eager to use the Web for educational, recreational, and employment purposes. Thousands of jobs remain unfilled, even after company layoffs, because of the lack of qualified, trained technology personnel. Since the passage of the ADA in 1990, the number of patents for assistive technology devices has exceeded 40,000. Technological devices, including many that are used to provide access to the Web, are being introduced, improved, and used at an accelerating rate. The New York Times estimates that the market for assistive technology devices, software solutions, and services will exceed $4.3 billion by the end of 2002.

There are sound reasons to make every effort to ensure that our high-tech workplaces as well as the public spaces on the Internet are fully accessible to people with disabilities. The value of increased public awareness will be measured by a growth in the economic independence of people with disabilities who are given access to employment and educational opportunities. These are practical reasons that will contribute to the bottom line and justify the costs involved in making them so. We have the technology to engage the skills and talents of millions of people who are eager to participate. And we must not overlook the human costs involved if we neglect this responsibility.

Accessibility as a Component of Usability

Usability is a quality of Web design that is widely studied. Usability engineering has become central to the process of virtually all commercial Web development. Coyne and Nielsen [2001a] indicated that the Web's current usability is about three times better for users without disabilities than it is for users with disabilities. Users with disabilities were able to complete assigned tasks less than 25 percent of the time!

A more general study of user challenges by usability guru Randolph Bias and Deborah Mayhew [1994] demonstrated that usability barriers result in lost efficiency, decreased sales, and fewer return visits for sites that contain barriers. Features that slow visitors down, confuse them, or otherwise impede their ability to accomplish their tasks actually cost a company in lost business. Here are some common findings of these and other usability studies.

  • The Bias and Mayhew study showed that incorporating usability features into the design process can improve brand image, customer satisfaction, and customer retention.

  • According to researcher Elizabeth Millard, "The best sites we've found are usable only 42 percent of the time, and none that we have studied are usable a majority of the time. . . ." [1]

    [1] Quoted in "How Can I Encourage People in My Organization to Conduct Usability Engineering and Testing?" Accessed June 12, 2002, at

  • Studies by Forrester Research [Souza et al. 2000] estimate that sites can lose up to 50 percent of potential sales and return visitors if customers can't find merchandise or become frustrated with the process.

  • A study by Zona Research [Mackenzie 2000] found that 62 percent of Web shoppers have given up looking for the item they wanted to buy online.


    Maximum Accessibility(c) Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone
    Maximum Accessibility: Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone: Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone
    ISBN: 0201774224
    EAN: 2147483647
    Year: 2002
    Pages: 128

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