18 May. 2023fiber_manual_record4 min read

Digital accessibility needs a rigorous new approach

Most organizations — from Fortune 500 corporations to nimble startups — fail to prioritize inclusive design. It's time for that to change.
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In brief

  • Many organizations have come a long way towards more inclusive design. This momentum is critical and encouraging on a global level.
  • Even so, making additional progress will require organizations to strike the balance between thinking inclusively at a cultural level, and providing dedicated ownership and oversight for this area.
  • Inclusive design requires both wide-spread understanding and accountable leadership in order to truly take route, and generate sustainable, positive results over the long term.

Hit up a busy sales team on any given day, and I’m willing to bet most would be unwilling to give away nearly one-fifth of their addressable market without a good reason.

Even so, most organizations — from Fortune 500 corporations to nimble startups — do exactly that, year over year, simply by failing to prioritize inclusive design. It’s time for that to change.

Some 1.3 billion people the world over — about 16% of the global population — live with a significant disability. But as recently as 2021, only 45% of websites operated by Fortune 500 companies had good accessibility scores.[1] That’s a real gap, one that we tend to hear about only when things go wrong. The problem is: if we’re not doing something to transform inclusive design between the emergence of daunting headlines,[2] we’re not really making any progress at all.

As an industry, we absolutely know that designing inclusively is the right thing to do. Where there is greater inclusion and belonging, communities are more capable of delivering innovative solutions for the world’s most complex challenges.[3] Unleashing that potential requires accessibility — digital and otherwise — at scale.

We also know inclusive design makes good business sense. Over the last five years, the market — from regulators to investors — has gone through a fundamental shift. Environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations now influence stakeholder sentiment and decision-making across a long list of dynamics — including financial:

And still, we haven’t been able to make meaningful progress on digital accessibility through inclusive design. Why? Because we’re baking accessibility in, when we should be drawing it out.

Pitch after pitch, decade after decade, I hear folks across the design ecosystem echoing the same thing: “We’ve embedded accessibility across our entire way of working. It’s always top of mind.” But from where I stand, we need to go beyond that. Digital accessibility and inclusive design require ownership and accountability. We can no longer take for granted that everyone is thinking about accessibility. Instead, we must double down by encouraging that cultural uptake for inclusive design through clear and compelling oversight and leadership.

Many of us have heard the classic example of the US Air Force’s early attempts to design a perfect cockpit by taking 140 measurements of over 4,000 pilots. In the end, their design didn’t match a single pilot — because when you attempt to design for everyone, you really design for no one. That rings true for the way we’re approaching inclusive design today.

Yes: we need everyone to be thinking about accessibility, organically, all the time and at every stage of design. But even more than that? We need someone to own this domain, govern progress and challenge assumptions each and every day. Much like the advent of the Chief Sustainability Officer or Chief Inclusion Officer, inclusive design needs a rigour and a drive of its own.

There is so much talent across the design world right now. Purpose-driven and grounded in a true desire to make positive change, today’s designers demonstrate a deep commitment to creating sustainable, long-term value through their work. The innovation momentum we collectively witnessed during the pandemic years proves that we really are capable of achieving incredible digital progress, at speed and scale. Imagine what we could do by applying that same focus to solidify our inclusive design capabilities — and really change digital accessibility once and for all?

This Global Accessibility Awareness Day, I’m willing to embrace the opportunity and find out. How about you?

[1] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/leap.1501?af=R#leap1501-bib-0008

[2] https://hbr.org/2021/11/4-common-ways-companies-alienate-people-with-disabilities

[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesinsights/2020/01/15/diversity-confirmed-to-boost-innovation-and-financial-results/?sh=16a37ebc4a6a

Waleed El Zoghbi is an EY Canada Executive Creative Director, EY Design Studio. Creator. Innovator. Collaborative leader who builds inclusive teams and nurtures talent. Thinks global, acts local. Equally passionate about great design, great music, and really great guitars.
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