People with disabilities often use a range of products and equipment to interact with their environments, from wheelchairs to prosthetic limbs to hearing aids. On the computer, they might use devices like pointing tools, or specialized software such as voice controls or screen readers. These are known as assistive technology (AT), and they’re often essential if someone with a disability is to participate fully online.
When customers with disabilities purchase products, use services or otherwise go about their everyday lives, they have a right to a barrier-free experience. This right is protected by legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and consequently, companies and organizations that provide these products and services are obliged to ensure they’re accessible – or risk violating the law.
What’s not always outlined in those laws, however, are the methods by which a barrier-free experience is delivered. It may be up to the organization itself to figure out how best to meet its accessibility obligations. Its solution could include an evaluation of and ongoing monitoring on all its digital properties, such as websites and apps, to ensure they’re usable by people with disabilities – and having barriers, when found, removed by an expert firm.
It may also include establishing a way to tell people with disabilities about the range of accessible services available and how to use them, such as publishing an accessibility statement, or engaging customers on a dedicated web page that highlights disability-specific services.
We think your organization should also be providing software to make it easier for people with disabilities to access your website.
An AT app or suite of tools can help people who have difficulty moving a mouse, typing on a keyboard, reading the words on a screen, or using a touch screen. It can enable them to navigate a website and conduct transactions effortlessly.
As you consider whether free assistive technology should be another component of your outreach to customers with disabilities, here are a few questions you may be asking yourself.
Why would people with disabilities need AT if my website is already accessible?
Perhaps your website has been checked and remediated, and is currently completely barrier-free. Excellent work – but can you guarantee it will still be accessible next month? Websites are dynamic, and if they’re only monitored for accessibility every quarter, barriers can crop up in the meantime.
Besides, customers browsing or shopping on your site might need to refer to other online sources as part of their purchasing experience. What if they want to read product reviews before they buy, or check a region’s weather forecast before they book their travel?
There are over 1.2 billion websites in the world, and unfortunately, a great many of them are riddled with unnecessary barriers. A California state auditor report in 2014 found that not one of the government sites it reviewed was fully accessible, despite a state law requiring compliance with the Rehabilitation Act’s Section 508.1 For example, the audit discovered it was impossible for someone who couldn’t use a mouse to apply for health insurance online. In this scenario, an AT app could have made it possible after all.
When you provide AT, you’re helping your customers with disabilities to access other websites more easily, not just yours.
Keep in mind, too, that some accessibility features are designed to work in combination with AT, such as the requirement for descriptive alt-text wherever images are displayed. Those alt-text captions may be no use at all to someone who is blind if they don’t have the software to read them.
Don’t people already have their own assistive technology?
In a word, no. Studies demonstrate that a significant number of people with disabilities don’t have the assistive technologies they need.2,3 Often it’s because they feel they can’t afford it, especially when multiple costs start to add up, such as $900 for the JAWS screen reader and $600 for ZoomText software.
Even if AT isn’t costly, people may not know what’s available. According to the World Health Organization, lack of awareness is one of the top reasons why not all people with disabilities have the assistive technology they need.3 People may not realize what AT can do for them, or what new innovations have come out since the last time they looked into it.
Aren’t people with disabilities highly skilled at sourcing out whatever AT they need?
In a survey conducted by WebAIM, only 52% of screen reader users – just over half – considered themselves “advanced” in their proficiency with this type of AT. And only six out of 10 considered themselves advanced in their ability to use the Internet.4 Having a disability doesn’t automatically make you more adept than other consumers at finding and using products and services.
In addition, people who do already have AT may be using outdated versions. They could have an older interface that’s less user friendly, for instance, and more cumbersome to use. Or the version they have may not be compatible with all the devices they use to go online. In the WebAIM survey, at least one in six people had not updated their screen reader within the past year. They were least likely to have updated software if the brands they were using had costs associated with them.4
Why should my organization offer AT, if people can get it elsewhere?
It’s true that assistive technologies, even many free options, are available from other websites or vendors. There are several reasons why it can benefit people with disabilities, however, when you offer free AT from your own website. As we’ve already noted, people don’t always know where to find free assistive technology. They may not realize what apps exist, the range of functions that they can help with, and what a difference AT can make to their online experience. When you provide free AT on your website and draw attention to it, you’re highlighting a solution for people who might not otherwise have known about it or downloaded it.
Offering AT doesn’t just benefit people with disabilities, however. Remember, when you welcome your customers with disabilities and take steps to enhance their experience with your brand, you are connecting with a vast and growing market that currently has more than $200 billion in discretionary spending. Thus when you offer free assistive technology as part of a broader strategy for engaging this market, it also benefits your company’s own bottom line.
An Innovative Solution
eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web compliance evaluation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.
- California State Government Website California State Auditor, 2015.
- Assistive and Mainstream Technologies for People with DisabilitiesThe Future of Disabilities in America, 2007.
- Assistive Technology World Health Organization, 2016.
- Screen Reader User Survey WebAIM, 2015.