General overview of Accessibility : Why and How
While being regarded as accessible is becoming a greater priority for many bodies and entities in both public and private sector, their efforts are often insufficient due to a lack of understanding of what accessibility actually means. This issue is often coupled with a reluctance to adopt accessible solutions due to the perception that they are unnecessary, costly, hard to implement, and inconvenient for those who do not require them. This often leads to half-baked measures, aimed at checking the box rather than engaging people who will not be able to use the services otherwise.
Understanding your audience
Broadly speaking, accessibility is a general quality of service, premises, or information that lets them be accessed and utilized by as many users as possible. A narrow understanding of accessibility mistakenly implies that the only dimension to be considered is physical accessibility of the premises, and the main audience to think of is people using a wheelchair, and thus having a ramp is enough to call a business or service accessible. That is simply not true, as, in the era of digitalization, equal access to information is no less crucial.
Moreover, other types of disabilities, apart from physical one, need to be taken into consideration as well: visual, intellectual, psychosocial, and auditory disabilities. Besides that, people with disabilities are not the only audience to keep in mind, as other groups often do not get equal access to services too, for example - older people, people who underwent surgery, people with little children, or even children themselves. Counting these groups together will give a better understanding of how many people can make use of accessible service. According to different statistics, Ukraine has:
- around 2,6 million people with disabilities;
- around 6,5 million children from 0 to 14;
- and around 7 million people older than 65.
While some of these groups might have an intersection (for example, older people with disabilities), the population to consider is still pretty big, and it is still a non-exhaustive list. It is important to see the real numbers, as relying solely on personal experience can lead to a vicious cycle of invisibility: the less accessible is infrastructure, service or information, the fewer people from the mentioned groups would use it, so next time their needs will be taken into consideration even less as they are not visible compared to a general audience. To break the cycle, we need to start with the root cause: treating accessibility as a luxury demanded by a tiny minority.
Improving the accessibility of premises, services and information is beneficial not only for the clients. In fact, it is a big asset for the service providers as well, both in the private and public sector. In the private sector, improving accessibility can:
- increase the number of customers who would not be able to use your services otherwise, both offline and online;
- make a positive impact on customer satisfaction for those clients who face difficulties using the services but remain loyal to the brand;
- decrease bounce rate among new potential customers who considered the brand but instantly start looking for a more accessible alternative;
- acquire customers from less accessible brands.
As for the public sector, accessible solutions can:
- increase participation and involvement in the decision-making processes of those who would not be able to get access to them otherwise;
- raise public trust and support, promote constructive feedback-based cooperation between citizens and authorities and as a result, grow further incentive for responsible citizenship, including tax payment.
It is much more cost-efficient and time saving to make something accessible during development according to predefined accessibility criteria rather than adjusting it later for the benefit of each group mentioned earlier. For a general reference, one can apply 7 principles of universal design introduced in 1997 by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University (more information via the link):
- Equitable Use;
- Flexibility in Use;
- Simple and Intuitive Use;
- Perceptible Information;
- Tolerance for Error;
- Low Physical Effort;
- Size and Space for Approach and Use.
Implementing the universal design principles would mean that all people, regardless of their height, size, or ability, can access the services facing no barriers. The ideal way to apply the principles is to find identical solutions which accommodate everyone and apply similar ones when a universal solution cannot be implemented. Accessibility is tightly related to inclusion and should be achieved without segregating any group of people as exclusive users of an accessible option.
- For example, organizing home-voting instead of making voting stations accessible is a practice that segregates people with disabilities from the majority of voters. As a contrary, applying universal design principles would mean that all voters, regardless of their abilities, can vote at the fully accessible polling station and share this experience with others.
- Having accessible toilet rooms only on one floor of the multiple-floor building (for example, conference hall) makes people waste extra time in searching for them, whereas making all toilet rooms accessible for everyone would make venue logistics and navigation much easier.
In some cases, identical solutions are difficult to apply. For example, having information in Braille would benefit some blind people, however, there are many people with or without visual disabilities who do not read Braille, so this format will not fit everyone. In such cases, the best solution would be to duplicate information in various formats – text, audio, and Braille would work together just fine. Also, people with different types of visual disability might require different accessibility solutions: while larger font size will be helpful to those with a light to moderate type, people who are completely blind would not benefit from it and thus will find Braille or audio formats more useful.
Speaking more about information accessibility, it is important to remember that people with auditory and visual disabilities are not the only audience that requires accommodation. People with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities often do not get equal access to information. The best accommodation would be a text in plain language (guidelines outlined here), combined with other formats, such as pictures or video materials. Regardless of the target audience, it is better to reduce complexity where possible. Besides, these simple rules can benefit other groups as well, for example, children, illiterate people, or people who do not have full language proficiency.
The key to providing accessible services is an empathy-driven approach. While the service, premises or information may seem completely accessible for some users, others will find it at best useless. As a rule of a thumb, it is highly recommended to consult on accessibility features with people who will be actually using them. Another good solution is to ensure diversity in the workplace and make sure that the team has an opportunity to provide their feedback regarding the accessibility of the service or information to be offered to customers.