Rethinking Accessibility

Published September 22, 2020

There is a notion that has been circulating for the past few decades, which is that technology is a democratizing influence on the world. This idea is charming, and quaint. It almost approaches the reality of the world which is that access to technology is a democratizing influence on many societies. The irony of this notion is that in so many cases, access itself is the gatekeeper, and it is access that becomes the source of inequality for many individuals.

Accessibility is, in far too many cases, an afterthought rather than a central tenet of the world. Unfortunately, the word accessibility has become associated, negatively, with those who are otherly-abled, and may have special requirements for accessibility. And so, this concept of democratizing the world has fallen short, shunted aside in the name of homogeneity. Accessibility has become a service provided by businesses to customers.

But, imagine for a brief moment, a paradigm wherein accessibility was seen through the proper filter, which is that accessibility is not a service to a customer, but is rather, a portal for new customers to approach a business. What would that world look like?

Take a hypothetical entrepreneur, opening a new brick-and-mortar business. Under the current paradigm, this enterprising individual would work with an architect and builder to create the desired physical space, and then, in order to meet building codes, will shoehorn in the legally required minimum changes necessary. Then, only potential customers who are abled in respect to the business’s limited access will be able to partake in commerce with that business.

Now imagine an entrepreneur that envisions accessibility as they key to a successful enterprise. This entrepreneur would consider that all people, regardless of any other factor have different accessibility requirements than others. So, for example, while there are individuals who can access an entrance to a building using stairs, those same individuals would not suffer if the location were equipped with other modes of entry rather than stairs. And in that moment, access to the location is no longer a factor, meaning that an unlimited potential client base could fully partake in commerce.

To a large extent, a great deal of the world in 2020 is visually oriented, meaning that those with impairments of vision are less able to access much of the world, particularly in the digital realm. And while devices exist to aid those who have a visual impairment, those devices are consumer products that struggle to accurately provide the richness of experience that all individuals are entitled to.

In the new paradigm of accessibility equaling customer engagement, businesses will begin to reevaluate their digital content, and start reworking their content to effectively partner with accessibility devices. This will open up digital content and marketplaces to a universal audience, which can transform a business’s selling landscape.

Or consider any of the various entertainment industries that rely heavily on an audio component such as theaters, whether showing live performances or cinema. There are many steps that could be integrated into the initial design of those spaces so that any individual with a hearing impairment could enjoy the performance as fully as those without an impairment. An entirely new segment of the population could instantly become fully engaged customers.

In all of these cases, it is the integration of universal accessibility that has created a new market for the businesses willing to make these initial investments. There is also the consideration that word-of-mouth advertising will generate a much greater customer base for those businesses that show themselves to be concerned about the accessibility of all of their potential clients.

The technology of accessibility has grown ever more enabling for larger and larger groups of individuals over the past thirty years, thanks in large part to the ADA. However, without a paradigm shift, wherein accessibility is seen as an opportunity, rather than an obligation, much of the democratizing effect of those technologies will be muted. Creating a shift in culture is never an easy thing to accomplish, but given the acumen of many entrepreneurs, this kind of shift is possible, and needs to be actively encouraged. For it is going to be accessibility technology that will drive the next generation of businesses and consumers in their complex relationships. Those businesses that are able to adapt to this change will thrive, while those who limit their client base will diminish and fade away.

It is, therefore, up to advocates of accessibility to begin pushing for this paradigm shift, so that sooner, rather than later, accessibility will be given its proper place in the considerations necessary to operate a successful business.

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