For the 7 million adults with disabilities, smartphones and technology are essential to everyday life—yet too many businesses still have not made digital platforms accessible.
One night during the coronavirus pandemic, JoAnn Becker’s phone buzzed, notifying her that a local restaurant was open for delivery orders. Becker was thrilled, until she realized that the app the restaurant was using was inaccessible to her. She’s blind and it was impossible for her to make out which restaurants were listed, never mind what was on the menu.
For a growing number of Americans, smartphone ordering apps, or any technology that provides a service, has become an essential, not a perk. Still, some 7 million adults in the U.S. who have a visual disability are unable to use digital platforms because businesses have not made them accessible. But that’s just bad business, when you consider that there are 61 million people with disabilities who spend $1.2 trillion globally online.
Thirty years after it was signed into law, the future of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), at its core, is about dramatically changing technology so that it offers independence and improves quality of life for this growing population. It has also become a business imperative: lawsuits over digital accessibility have increased 571 percent since 2017 and research shows inclusive companies are more profitable.
Nowhere is that new normal more apparent than at Perkins Access, a branch of Perkins School for the Blind founded in 2017. The Access team of consultants helps companies not only comply with but embrace the ADA’s mandate that services and products, including all things digital, be accessible for people with disabilities.
“Our goal at Perkins is to prepare our students for the world, and the world for our students. That is why we’ve designed our digital accessibility consulting services to help businesses support all of their users,” says Jennifer Sagalyn, director of strategic partnerships at Perkins Access, who has worked with industry giants including Spaulding Rehabilitation Network and Amica Health Insurance to support accessible design initiatives.
Today, the disabled community stands on the shoulders of lifelong disability advocates including Judith Heumann and Steve Brown, who organized, protested and persisted in fighting in Congress and on the streets to bring attention to their right to attend school, use transportation, live within a community and find meaningful work. In her book, Heumann writes about fighting for three things; respect, acceptance and inclusion in society.
The stakes today are the same if not higher. During the pandemic, digital access has often become a lifeline, helping Americans to shop, work, access therapy, find emergency resources and connect socially. There is still a lot of work to be done to fulfill the four pillars of the ADA, say experts. Two pillars—equal opportunities and economic self-sufficiency—are still out of reach for a majority of disabled Americans. (The other two pillars include full participation and independent living, per Senator Harkin).
It’s not all bad news. “The conversation is changing and becoming more inclusive,” says Sagalyn. “The 30th anniversary is a time to pause and celebrate progress, but also a time to look at emerging technology and instill in the business world the idea that now is the time to serve everyone.”
“We believe that digital accessibility done right can reach every human, every time,” says Luiza Aguiar, executive director of Perkins Access, who oversees the development and marketing of assistive technology products and consulting services. She says businesses are motivated because they care deeply about customer service and want to invest wisely in their future.
Examples of the rewards of this type of industry innovation and inclusion are everywhere. For example, if you help someone who is blind to access reading materials, you also help the person who has trouble reading or turning pages. That means you may also be helping someone with a learning disability or a mom using a device while holding a newborn. If a self-driving car is designed and tested with blind users in mind, it could also mean millions of people who are aging also have a new source of independence.
“When business interests align with the original intent of the ADA, they worry less about complying with the law and more about the opportunities to serve people with disabilities,” says Aguiar. Another perk? Proximity breeds understanding.
“Involving people with disabilities in our partnerships with businesses, bringing users and experts together to evaluate products and services and provide insight into the user experience, benefits everyone,” says Sagalyn. “The work we do with companies is strategic and design-centered. It’s not about tacking on accessibility as an afterthought.” Consumers today favor companies that do the right thing. In a recent survey, 88 percent of people say they would buy from a purpose-driven company and 66 percent say they would switch to one.
In the next decade, says retired Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who introduced the ADA into the Senate in 1988, as new technologies develop, we must make more of an effort to be inclusive. “Bring them in and ask them, What would you like to see?” he said. “We should focus in the future on creating training so that people in this new gig economy have opportunities to learn how to do competitive work.”
To learn how to make your company or website accessible for all, visit Perkins Access.