‘Accessibility’ for people with disabilities is a term much talked about, but many businesses are still missing something quite fundamental, according to Dr Nasser Siabi, the chief executive of
assistive technologies specialist Microlink PC, OBE recipient, and government adviser on the subject.And one of the most obvious clues is right there, on screen, in front of them.
Take websites, he says, which are often challenging for people with dyslexia and visual impairments to read. For example, if a picture is not tagged correctly, blind people will not be able to know what it’s about.
Similarly, on some websites it’s impossible to increase the font size without changing the device settings.
“Having a disability hinders your access to information,” Dr Siabi says. “I have a visual impairment, and if I struggle to read a website I won’t bother.
It’s so easy to design a site so that visitors can increase the font size. Similarly, imagine you are designing some e-learning content based around video. How does a blind person know where the start and stop buttons are? It’s easy to design things so that when the mouse hovers over the button a voice says ‘start’. But most companies don’t even think about things like that.” Dr Siabi says issues like this are among the reasons why digital marketing doesn’t necessarily work, no matter how good the content or visual material.
He goes on: “Regardless of how clever you are with your messaging, people won’t read it if the screens are difficult to navigate.
If you make it accessible and design a platform that is suitable for everyone, you make it easier not only for disabled people but also for non-disabled people to trade with you.”
He cites supermarket chain Tesco, which designed a version of their website to make it easy for blind people to navigate. But customers without any visual impairment also found it easy to use, so much so that Tesco later changed their main site to the ‘blind’ format. “It’s the equivalent of the fact that everybody wants to park in a disabled car parking space,” says Dr Siabi. “Why? It’s simply the one that’s the most convenient.”
He believes everything an organisation does should be accessible, whether that’s education, recruitment processes, entertainment, building design or their websites and other digital communication.
Yet in practice there’s a widespread 80:20 rule: in other words, most of what organisations do is appropriate for only 80% of their potential users.
That theory is based on the estimate that 20% of the population has some kind of disability, whether that’s diabetes, hearing loss, visual impairment, arthritis, dyslexia, a heart problem, or musculoskeletal conditions.
“By designing jobs, buildings, websites and other facilities so they can be used by everyone, you not only capture the 20% who have special needs, you appeal to the 80% as well.”
And Dr Siabi makes the point that many disabled people are from older generations, who are the very ones that find it difficult anyway to navigate websites - and the ones who often have the most disposable income. “Unless companies design their digital communication with older people in mind, much of their messaging will be lost,” he maintains. “Keep the message simple and make sure everyone can access it. That will create loyal customers.”
Used well, he says, technology can be “a liberator and a lifesaver” for disabled people, for instance where businesses have the forethought to use voice features. But when it’s not done well it becomes an inhibitor. Some banks’ websites, for example, make it difficult for blind people to get through the security procedures.
It needn’t be like this, says Dr Siabi. “There are ways of ensuring security without making it so onerous for people who can’t see or remember things. For example, voice, fingerprint, and facial recognition are becoming increasingly common as security methods and could replace the need for passwords.
“Companies don’t deliberately make their sites inaccessible; they are merely trying to be clever with design and by cramming a lot of information into a tiny space.
“Website designers, like architects, like to design something beautiful but there’s no reason why a website can’t be both beautiful and functional.”
The most successful sites are the simple ones, he says, where visitors can get wherever they want to go with the minimum number of clicks.
Dr Siabi makes the point that if information is not easy to find and read, no-one will read it, whether they have disabilities or not. “Make sure no-one is hindered by the way you present your information,” he urges.
He gives the example of putting PDFs on a website. Not only can these make the information more complicated to get to, but also they are treated by Google as images, not text, and consequently do not show up in search rankings.
Dr Siabi believes that companies which are able to harness the purple pound - the spending power of the older and disabled people sector - will make it rich, though given the pace of change of technology, fortunes can change very rapidly. “Some businesses have had accelerated growth and others have had accelerated demise,” he points out. “Look at the reversal in fortunes of Yahoo and Google. And twenty years ago, shares in Apple were worth $18 and now they’re the richest company on the planet.”
The wrinkle, he says, is that an organisation can tend to always think the same way. “They become very insular and narrow minded by doing the same thing over and over again, and then wonder why they don’t get different outcomes. So having somebody who can think outside the box is very useful.”
Technology will increasingly help people with disabilities to achieve more, both inside and outside the workplace,” Dr Siabi believes.
“For example, voice recognition, online literacy tools and mind mapping software can give dyslexic staff a way to express their thoughts and ideas. And a camera clipped onto a visually impaired person’s glasses ‘reads’ what is written on the screen and ’speaks’ it into the user’s ear-piece.”
He credits Steve Jobs of Apple with bringing about huge improvements to the accessibility of digital devices.
“Jobs himself was dyslexic and had a kind of autism so he wanted his products to be simple to use and accessible to everyone.”
Technology will be of particular help in the education sector, Dr Siabi maintains. “There has always been this notion that one in five children has inadequate literacy skills. It is no coincidence that one in five children have dyslexia.
They don’t have access to information in a format they can understand so reading and writing are the hardest things for them. They might not grow up to be writers but they can grow up to be engineers. It’s early years education that would stop them achieving that ambition.”