When they’re new to the topic, many organizations approach digital accessibility as a compliance mandate, helping them meet obligations under laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. There’s no question—meeting those obligations is important. But what companies new to digital accessibility sometimes miss is that those laws are in place for a reason: to protect people’s rights and promote equality. So, by committing to digital accessibility, they’re doing much more than checking a compliance box.
In this blog, Director of Accessibility Advocacy Corbb O’Connor explains how accessibility is fundamental to ensuring individuals’ rights to privacy and security and why it’s a priority organizations can’t afford to ignore.
When it comes to web accessibility, most organizations want to do the right thing. Few teams would actively want to exclude people or cause frustration for users with disabilities. But we in the digital accessibility business also know that, practically speaking, organizations are highly motivated to deliver on their large-scale digital compliance objectives, such as privacy and security. Therefore, we meet our customers where they are. We start by comparing accessibility to other important digital compliance obligations.
“Digital accessibility is just like digital privacy and security,” we say. “You need to plan for it early, test for it often, and you can’t allow digital products to be released without it.”
We’ve been making this comparison for years, and all this time, we’ve been getting it wrong.
Digital accessibility is not like privacy and security. It is privacy and security.
This point was made by Lainey Feingold, the pioneering civil rights lawyer, in her keynote address to the Level Access team at our recent company kickoff event. As a blind person, I’ve experienced this connection throughout my life. But I never heard it put so succinctly.
Accessibility doesn’t just mitigate legal risk for organizations. It’s fundamental to protecting the privacy and security of people with disabilities.
Inaccessible experiences put people at risk
Let’s start with privacy. Take this example.
At my neighborhood pharmacy, a touchscreen shows the name of a prescription, its price, and a place to acknowledge pickup with a signature. For people without reading disabilities, this technology provides a private, convenient way to review prescription information without printing forms or squinting at labels. But if that touchscreen doesn’t have a headphone jack or can’t connect to a smartphone, people with reading disabilities (including those who are blind or have low vision) can’t access their prescription details in store—unless, like I often do, they ask the pharmacist to read this information aloud.
Sure, with help, I can get the information I need…but so does everyone else within earshot.
When it comes to security, people with disabilities are constantly forced to put ourselves at risk due to the pervasiveness of inaccessible systems.
For example, I have yet to find a self-checkout kiosk at a grocery store that’s fully accessible. And depending on the store or the time of day, these kiosks are often the only checkout option. This means people with many different disabilities may need to rely on a store employee—a complete stranger—to complete their transaction. I fear especially for my blind friends in these situations. In some cases, they may choose to hand their card to the employee to ensure it’s inserted correctly, putting their payment information at risk. There’s also not much to stop an untrustworthy employee from requesting cash back during the transaction and keeping it for themselves. In a café, inaccessible touchscreens also increase the opportunity for baristas to add a big tip without the customer’s knowledge.
These scenarios highlight difficulties for people who are blind or have low vision, but this is an issue for people with all types of disabilities. For example, few telehealth platforms support the use of captions or ASL interpretation during appointments. That leaves people who are deaf or hard of hearing either relying on lip-reading, which can lead to inaccuracies and dangerous misunderstandings, or asking family members to interpret this otherwise-private information.
When it comes to finances, many investment platforms don’t conform to the standards set out in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG ). For people who use a keyboard instead of a mouse to navigate online, this means they may need to share their password with a family member or trusted friend to set up and manage their portfolios.
From retail to health care to banking, inaccessible technology removes the right to privacy and security for people with disabilities, along with their autonomy to live independently in the world.
Accessibility is privacy and security for everyone
Privacy and security barriers caused by inaccessible experiences are certainly not new. They are, however, intensifying as more of daily life moves online.
We now go online to manage our money, connect with friends and family, book essential appointments, and access the goods and services we need. When these experiences are not accessible and compatible with assistive technology, the number of privacy and security threats increases for people with disabilities.
Even if you don’t have a disability today, these threats are likely to impact your life soon. In 2040, the Urban Institute estimates that one in five Americans will be 65 or older. As we age, more of us will inevitably need larger text, audio output, simpler interfaces, and other accessibility supports to access digital experiences privately and securely.
This means that, unless more companies start prioritizing digital accessibility, more of us will be relying on younger family members or caregivers to manage our finances and our medical affairs in the long run, as well as (let’s face it) our access to the latest Amazon original series, or that guilty-pleasure audiobook we’ve been wanting to stream. Accessibility means being able to do all this independently—it’s our human right.
Double-check your priorities for 2023
The bottom line is, we wouldn’t let a product out the door with a gaping security issue or a glitch that meant customers’ privacy was directly at risk. We should therefore also block the release of products that aren’t accessible.
Accessibility is privacy and security.
My suggestion for every organization is this: double-check your priorities. An accessible experience ensures the human right to privacy and security for millions of people with disabilities, and ultimately, for everyone. Without accessibility, the experience is not equitable. So when it comes to serving your customers and users, accessibility, privacy, and security are equally critical.
Take your privacy and security commitments to the next level
If you understand the importance of accessible digital experiences but aren’t sure where to start tackling this priority in your organization, we can help.
Our platform and services provide all the tooling, technology, and expertise to help you handle the technical aspects of digital accessibility efficiently, without constant re-work or unnecessary disruption to existing processes. Our team of experts is also here to help you launch and grow internal programs, turning passion into advocacy…and advocacy into action. Engage with our team today.
About the author
Corbb O’Connor leads accessibility advocacy for Level Access. He thinks like an economist, writes like a journalist, and facilitates meetings like a party host. Corbb taught himself web programming languages and Adobe Photoshop so he could build a resource hub for webmasters in 1998. Since then, he’s started a business-to-business communications firm, U.S. Bank’s accessibility initiative, and a manual testing team. Over the years, he’s educated thousands about creating inclusive environments alongside others with disabilities in the United States, Canada, and Jamaica.
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