The Big Business of Digital Accessibility

Glen and Krissie sitting next to each other at a glass desk in the Channel 5 News studio, with a purple backdrop behind them.

The internet is an amazing resource, enabling people to instantly access products, services, information, communication, entertainment, etc, anywhere and at any time. And it’s especially useful and important for disabled people, for whom such a direct connection with the world around them plays a vital role.

However, there are still many websites, social media feeds and apps, and other technologies such as self-service checkouts and kiosks, that are partly or wholly unusable by disabled people, due to poor accessibility. This means they cannot access information and purchase products from many retailers and service providers, as they are unjustly hindered or prevented from doing so. As a result, they either don’t buy anything at all, or find accessible competitors instead. Which means many businesses are missing out on the benefits of a huge market worth £274 billion a year!

The same logic also applies when disabled people are prevented from gaining physical access to buildings, facilities, transport, etc, which is a vitally important and huge issue in itself. But for this post I’m focusing on the digital side.

Disability charity Scope have therefore released the findings of their survey on inclusive design, which illustrates the impact of poor digital access. This is to help them publicise The Big Hack, a comprehensive online resource advising businesses on best practice for digital accessibility and inclusion. And to help with the promotion, Scope invited me to take part in some media coverage, which included my first ever TV appearance! Check out my little bits of stardom here:

So in this long post, which I’ve divided into sections to break it up a bit, I want to:

For clarity, I have not been paid or gifted for my interviews or this post. This is just a topic I feel strongly about, so I was happy to take part in the media coverage, and all opinions here are my own. I also encourage you to research the subject of accessibility further, including the resources on The Big Hack, as there is no way I can cover everything, and no single person is a complete authority on the subject. I’m just talking about things from my own personal perspective, so I hope my thoughts and experiences are useful.

Big Spenders

Scope’s survey asked disabled people about their experiences of buying goods and services using technology. The respondents could pick multiple answers depending on their experiences. And the results suggest that if disabled people had difficulty buying goods or services due to inaccessible websites, apps, self-service checkouts, etc…

  • 50% chose not to buy the items
  • 48% found an alternative provider where they could buy the items more easily
  • 32% had to ask someone in their household to buy the items for them

So half of people have given up without spending any money at all, and just under half have paid their money to a competitor instead. Aggregate that up to the 13.9 million disabled people in the UK, and the numbers become all the more significant.

Consequently, we’re not talking small losses here. UK businesses are missing out on a market worth £274 billion a year by excluding disabled people (according to Scope’s analysis of the ONS, Household Below Average Income Survey, 2017/18). That’s a rather good market to get a foothold into, so it’s foolish to ignore it. 75% of disabled people believe businesses are missing out, according to the Scope study.

A large cash register till in a glass case at the Science Museum. It has many rows of buttons on the curved central section, a draw at bottom, and a narrow screen at the top with white numbers on a black background.

Being unable to access retailers and service providers makes disabled people feel unfairly excluded and penalised, purely because of our conditions, This is deeply frustrating, especially when we know the problems aren’t difficult to fix, and even more so when the businesses have been informed and they still haven’t acted on it. It can lead us, rightly or wrongly, to form the impression that inaccessible organisations don’t care about us or feel that catering for our needs is too big a burden. And in many cases it hasn’t even crossed their minds that disabled people want to shop with them in the first place.

Inaccessibility also causes negative publicity, because disabled people often share their bad experiences, especially as we now have huge communities on social media, in addition to the people we know offline. Word of mouth is an extremely powerful form of marketing, for both good and bad purposes. There are countless examples where people have gone online to have a rant about a website or app they can’t use, and in many cases people have recommended alternatives that are more accessible.

Just recently, for instance, there have been multiple discussions in a popular Facebook group about a major UK supermarket chain, whose website and app isn’t labelled for screen reader users trying to navigate using speech, and they haven’t fixed it despite being told. So the thousands of people in the group now know that they should avoid that retailer, and have also been told of competitors who are more inclusive. Even if they fix it now, many people in the group won’t know because they’re now shopping elsewhere, so the retailer will have to work harder to win disabled customers back – which is very possible, but it would have been a lot easier if they had been accessible to start with.

Cash machine embedded in a tall red phonebox.

So we basically want businesses to acknowledge that disabled people exist, to recognise that we are a market worth appealing to, and ensure that their websites, apps and other technologies are accessible. Because we really do want to check out their products and spend our money with them. According to the Scope study, if websites were more accessible then 67% of disabled people would spend more on entertainment, sports and leisure, 53% would spend more on clothing and footwear, and 44% would spend more on hotel bookings, to name the top results. Again, these aren’t small numbers.

Ultimately, good accessibility benefits SEO and sales. Not only does it help and encourage disabled people to shop with you, but it also makes it easier for everybody to access you. Because access is for all, that’s the bottom line. And if you embed accessibility into the ethos of your organisation, making it a key priority in everything you do in your digital and physical environments, it’ll improve your bottom line. It’s win-win for all involved.

That’s why Scope have presented such a strong business case. It’s also important to be aware of W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and read their business case too.

Myths & Misconceptions

Businesses and designers often make assumptions about their websites and apps, and have misconceptions about disabled people, which contributes to poor accessibility. We’ve already established that the disabled market is far bigger than many businesses appreciate, but there are other misconceptions too. Here are five examples.

“Disabled people haven’t complained, so we must be accessible.”

No, that doesn’t prove a thing. Only 1 out of 10 disabled people who encounter problems will complain, while the other 9 out of 10 will click away because they’ve given up or have gone to a competitor. So if you’re not getting complaints from disabled people, there’s every chance it’s because we’re not using your site in the first place. We may not have complained because it’s just quicker and more convenient to shop with someone else, or your site is too inaccessible to find how to contact you, or we don’t have faith that you’ll change things, because lots of companies promise to make updates but don’t follow it through. Check out the Big Hack’s Complaints Guide for how to give feedback on inaccessible websites.

“Automated accessibility tests say my website is accessible.”

Those tests can be a useful start, as they can spot some things that are missing, like image descriptions (alt text) and form labels, along with other formatting errors. But they don’t tell you if the site is actually useable. You need to ask disabled people directly if your website is accessible for them, and act on their feedback. Hopefully there are disabled people in your company who you employ – and if not, you seriously need to rectify that – but also consult the wider disabled community as well, as we’re potential customers. You might be surprised at what we tell you. User testing is vital, so don’t neglect it.

“Disabled people aren’t interested in our products.”

This can be based on misconceptions that disabled people only have a limited income from benefits, and only spend their money on assistive gadgets and health items. However, assumptions like these are not true. Many disabled people have jobs for a start. Not as many as there rightfully should be, as unfair work discrimination is still a big problem, but there is nevertheless a very large disabled workforce. And we spend our money on the same things as everybody else – food, fashion, homewares, entertainment, sport, travel, phone calls, utility bills, health services, property, etc. Sure, we buy some assistive gadgets as well, but that is only one part of our expenditure. We still want to live, work, play and relax too, we’re human beings after all. So assuming we have no desire or ability to buy your products is very narrow-minded.

“Accessibility ruins the appearance of websites.”

I’ve seen an article saying this recently, claiming there’s a paradox between accessibility and aesthetics, and that both can’t go together easily. Those who have read the article and politely pointed out its flaws have had name-calling and abuse from the author in return, further undermining his credibility. According to his comments and tweets, “accessibility extremists” like me want to alienate the majority by making things “too accessible”, as we’re “snowflakes” with “low self esteem”. Unprofessional and dismissive attitudes like this are one of the reasons why campaigns like Scope’s are necessary.

Truth is, there’s no such thing as “too accessible”. And nobody’s asking for a website that is purely black and white with no graphics. That’s not necessary. You can absolutely still use your brand’s colours and imagery, while also being accessible. Scope have managed it just fine. They wouldn’t lead on a campaign like this if they couldn’t do it themselves. Designers who don’t know how to create a site that’s both accessible and visually appealing need to update their skillsets. There’s no shame in that – we don’t expect all designers to know everything, we just want them to be willing to listen and learn.

“It’s too expensive to make things accessible.”

If your website or app is designed with accessibility in mind from the outset, then there won’t be any additional costs in the future. Retrofitting an existing website will cost a bit more, of course, but it’s well worth it in the long run. Just putting in the effort to make some relatively simple fixes can make a huge difference, such as clear text contrast, image descriptions, icon labels, form labels, video captions and easy to navigate menus. Accessibility is an investment, as it ensures customers are much more likely to come back repeatedly, and recommend you to others. So it has huge benefits in the long run.

The Big Hack explains these and other misconceptions in more detail, so do check out their post on the subject.

My Accessibility Issues

Standing in front of a large church, Glen is wearing earphones and sunglasses while looking at his phone.

As a visually impaired person, I use special accessibility features on my smartphone and computer to help me read and navigate websites. These include inverting the colours (giving me a dark background to reduce glare), text enlargement, zooming in on images, using speech to read text back to me, and so on. You can read more about these features in my guest post on The Big Hack. Everybody has them built into their phones and computers these days, but able-bodied people don’t tend to know about them.

However, despite using these adaptations, some websites and apps are still difficult for me, which can either hinder or prevent me from using them. There have been many cases over the years where I have abandoned a website or app for this reason, sometimes shopping elsewhere if I can find the items I want more easily. So here are some examples. Some fully sighted people may also share some of these frustrations, which further proves the point that good accessibility benefits everyone.

Colour Contrast

I can only read text easily if it’s clearly distinctive from its background – i.e. dark text on a light background or vice-versa. For example, black text on a white background, the traditional appearance of many web pages, is ideal. Other good combinations include white against red, or yellow against black, for instance. And as I said earlier, companies can still use their corporate colours for graphics and backgrounds on their websites, as long as they choose a colour for the text that stands out clearly.

However, I’ve seen many websites using colour combinations that are difficult to read and more straining on my eyes. For example, red or brown text on a black background is awful, as is yellow or grey text on a white background. They don’t stand out well at all, and inverting the colours makes no difference. Some websites even use 2 shades of the same colour for the text and background of some elements (e.g. light blue text on a dark blue background), which again isn’t easy to see. It’s also difficult if the text is placed over a busy image, with lots of colours that make it even harder to interpret.

Colours

Text Size & Layout

Although I have settings to enlarge the text on my devices, some apps and websites enforce a font size of their own, ignoring my own settings. This fixed size is usually quite small, meaning the app is harder to use. Alternatively, some apps and websites do obey the larger text setting, but their layout isn’t capable of adapting to it properly, so the whole thing becomes a mess.

For example, in one very popular app, I found that the larger text in a dialog box, combined with a map below it, resulted in the confirmation button at the bottom being pushed off the screen, and I couldn’t scroll down to it. So I had to switch out of the app to reduce my text size, go back into the app to click Confirm, switch out of the app again to increase my text size, then go back into the app to continue using it! To their credit, that has since been fixed, but it still sticks out as one of the more frustrating experiences I’ve had recently.

Image Descriptions

This isn’t something I personally use, but it’s absolutely vital on social media and websites, so it needs highlighting. People with severe sight loss and blindness rely on screen reader software to speak descriptions of images to them, but this can only happen when descriptions are provided. This is done in the form of “alt text” (short for “alternative text”). Unfortunately, many people aren’t aware of it, so they don’t do it.

When images are not described, severely sight impaired users can’t navigate pages, find the right icons to click on, understand what products look like, or access any text embedded in images. This therefore prevents them from using websites and understanding social media posts. So you’re locking out many of the 2 million people with sight loss in the UK by not describing your images.

Everybody should be using image descriptions on social media and websites. Descriptions should be concise, pointing out the most important details to give a good overview of the image. It takes practice, but it’s very important to get into the habit of doing it. Visually impaired people will be happy to check your descriptions and give advice if you ask them.

Please follow the instructions to add alt text on WordPress, Twitter, Facebook & Instagram. Or if you’re writing HTML directly, use the alt attribute for each image. For more information on alt text, please read the alternative text guide from WebAIM.

Other Issues

Navigation must be simple and intuitive. It needs to be easy to locate the menus, and within them find the products, services and information that I want easily. Links shouldn’t take me to invalid pages, and if I type something in the search box I should get meaningful results. Boxes on forms should also be labelled so that screen reader users can work their way through them using speech.

Pop-ups for cookies, adverts, mailing lists, promotions, etc that obscure the content of the page are a hurdle to navigation. I can tolerate one or two if they’re easy to dismiss quickly and don’t reappear, but sometimes it’s nigh on impossible to find the close button, as the link is poorly contrasted or too small or in an unusual place. So if the pop-ups are too numerous, or too difficult to get rid of, I’ll click away and go somewhere else.

Captchas are the little puzzles you have to solve to prove you’re not a spambot, and they’re really hard to get past. I always struggle to read the scrambled text, or  click the correct boxes in a grid of images. And the audio alternatives are sometimes too obscured to be heard clearly as well. So if I can’t get past a Captcha, I’m forced to give up on my purchase and go elsewhere.

Captions & audio descriptions on videos are essential for hard of hearing and visually impaired users respectively. They may take longer to produce than other fixes, but they will greatly expand your audience. For captions, don’t rely on automated voice recognition, as it’s not perfectly accurate. Type the captions yourself, or pay a transcription company. For audio description, often the simplest solution is to post a second version of the video, adding audio description in gaps in the dialogue. Organisations like the Audio Description Association, VocalEyes and RNIB can advise in this area.

Self-service checkouts are a big problem in addition to websites and apps (although payment screens online must be easy to navigate too). It takes me a while to familiarise myself with the interface, locate and scan the barcodes, make my payment and figure out which section is the bagging area. That isn’t helped by the pressure of people queued behind me, and my own desire to get my shopping done quickly. So I only use shops with a regular checkout, as it’s much simpler and faster. Technologies like this, that disabled people use in the real world to buy things, are also part of Scope’s accessibility study.

There are other things I could mention of course, and other people will have frustrations of their own that need addressing. But those are big issues for me that spring to mind.

My Media Appearances

BBC World Service

View of BBC Broadcasting House, arching all the way around the path to the entrance ahead. The BBC logo, each letter in a white square, is over the doors. The bottom half of the left wall is from the old stone building, with row of windows for each floor. The rest of the building is a tall, modern glass structure, with a mixed pattern of opaque and clear windows.

When I was first contacted by Laura Burnip, a media officer at Scope, to ask if I’d be willing to do media interviews about the issues I face with digital accessibility, I thought I might end up chatting to a journalist or two for newspaper articles, or just giving Scope permission to use some quotes of mine. And after a lovely chat with Laura on the phone, that seemed the likely outcome. TV and radio appearances were an outside possibility, but I wasn’t expecting it. That kind of thing happens to the professional disability advocates out there, not a hobbyist blogger like me!

So imagine my surprise when Scope’s press release went out with a few quotes from me, and the BBC quickly responded! They asked if I wanted to record an interview for Tech Tent, a weekly show about technology on the BBC World Service. That was an easy decision. How could I refuse an offer to appear on the BBC to promote accessibility, in a programme that’s broadcast all over the globe? It’s a golden opportunity.

I’ve done a couple of podcast interviews in the past, when I spoke to Leonard Cheshire about assistive technology earlier this year, and gave my thoughts on the Naidex event in 2018 for a Canadian show. But I’ve never been to a radio studio or met anyone from the BBC before, so this was an exciting next step.

So on Thursday 28 November I made my way to BBC Broadcasting House, where I got to meet Laura from Scope for the first time, along with her colleague James Taylor, Scope’s Head of Policy. I did feel a bit nervous, inevitably, not really sure what I was letting myself in for! But the two of them instantly put me at ease, they were really friendly and professional.

We were then met by the show’s producer and taken into the offices, where we met the host of the programme – technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, who is well-known to anyone who watches or listens to BBC News. As expected, he was as cheerful and friendly as he comes across on his broadcasts, it was a delight to meet him. He also has first-hand experience of disability due to his Parkinson’s diagnosis, and it’s great that he’s been so open about it to help raise awareness. I wish him all the best with his treatment for that.

The five of us went into a small studio together, and we were only in there for about 15 minutes at the very most, as we flew through the interview. Rory spoke to me first about my own experiences, which felt very easy for me to talk about, and then James did a wonderful job explaining Scope’s study and The Big Hack project. This was a follow-up to an interview Scope had done for the show earlier in the year, to bring people up to date. And that was it. As soon as James had finished, Rory applauded us for being so eloquent and detailed in our answers. I guess not all interviews are that quick and easy!

Laura and James were also very complimentary about my performance, which was very kind of them. I was still a bit nervous about hearing the show back though, as it does feel weird listening to myself sometimes, added to the fact that this was being broadcast worldwide. But when the show came out the next day, I was very happy with it. Naturally they’d done a bit of editing to squeeze us into a 4 minute segment, but they’d kept in all the important points, and I came across well.

You can stream and download the show on the BBC website if you log in with a free BBC account. Or you can search for Tech Tent in your podcast app, and download the episode from 29 November entitled “TikTok restores teen’s viral video”. Either way, jump to 13:08 to hear my interview.

5 News

The exterior of the very wide and tall ITN Productions building. Tall glass windows span the entire width of the brightly lit ground floor, with 2 revolving doors in the centre, while there are smaller office windows in the floors above.

As if a pre-recorded BBC appearance wasn’t enough, I was also invited to appear live on TV by Sky News & 5 News. Again, while a bit nervous at the thought of it, I was happy to agree. Laura’s encouragement and faith in my abilities was a big persuading factor, and I also knew it would be an exciting experience to go on TV and see behind the scenes. I might never get such an opportunity again.

I also had recent experience of being interviewed by professional filmmakers, courtesy of the student documentaries What Is Normal? and See Differently, which were made about me a few months ago. I’m very pleased with how I came across in those films, so that gave me a lot of confidence that I would be fine in front of a TV camera. Had those films not been made, I might have felt much more apprehensive about going on TV. And, as it happens, my main contact for the first film, What Is Normal?, was also called Laura. An interesting coincidence!

By its nature, however, news is constantly changing, so it came as no surprise when both interviews were cancelled, and it looked like I wouldn’t be on TV after all. But 5 News were still keen to feature me if they could, so they rescheduled us for the evening of Monday 2nd December, in their 6:30pm bulletin. This interview did go ahead, and they looked after us really well, they were so nice to us.

I arrived at the ITN Productions building at 6pm, again meeting Laura, who this time was accompanied by Scope’s Head of Digital Influencing, Krissie Barrick. We were then met by a lovely lady from 5 News who stayed with us throughout the next hour, making sure we were happy and comfortable during our time there.

5 News Interview 2019-12-03 00011

The producers had asked in advance if I had any access needs, which was very kind and thoughtful. So I had explained that I would need to be warned of trip hazards like steps and cables, and also noted that due to the light sensitivity caused by my aniridia, I might need to wear my tinted glasses if the studio lights were bright. After all, I didn’t know what it would be like, and I didn’t want to be squinting if it was too bright.

So they took me into the studio first of all, where they were preparing to go on air, and I was shown where I would be sitting. They also asked the lighting operator to turn up the brightness to the level it would be during the show. So that was really useful, There was going to be a bright light shining on me, but as I would be facing the host to the side, it looked like it wouldn’t affect me. I did still put my glasses in my pocket just in case, but as it turned out later I didn’t need them.

5 News Interview 2019-12-03 00003

We were then led to the green room – which was a small room with a couple of very comfy sofas and a small kitchenette, so we were able to have a drink while we waited. We were there with a couple of other guests – Tom de Grunwald and Maya Goodfellow – who were going on the show to discuss vote swapping. We all got on very well, which helped everyone to feel at ease as we chatted together. Then one by one we were ushered in to see the makeup lady in the room next door, who was also very friendly and chatty as she got us ready for our big moment.

As our time approached, Krissie, Laura and I were taken to some seats just outside the studio, where we could watch Tom & Maya being interviewed on a big screen. This gave us a good sense of what the interviewing style was like, and we congratulated them as they came out afterwards.

Krissie and I were then shown into the studio, and led to our seats while a video report was being broadcast. As we were being miked up and had our sound levels tested, we chatted to host Claudia-Liza Armah, who was really welcoming and explained what she would be asking us. The nerves were kicking in a little bit more at this point, inevitably, but I still felt at ease for the most part.

5 News Interview 2019-12-03 00005

I still feels like a bit of a dream that the interview actually happened because, like the BBC interview, it went by really quickly. Most of the questions were directed at me, and I answered them without any difficulty, while Krissie did an absolutely fantastic job as well. The two of us worked very well as a team, getting all the key information across between us.

Once it started, it didn’t cross my mind that there were potentially millions of people watching. I wasn’t aware of the cameras around me, and there wasn’t an audience there either of course. So it just felt like Krissie and I were chatting to Claudia-Liza, someone who was prepared to listen as we put our points across. And being live was a big advantage in that regard, as it meant we weren’t being edited. This was our one chance to say exactly what we wanted without any of it being cut out, and we did. Laura was delighted when we emerged afterwards, and she and Krissie both praised my performance very highly.

Glen and Krissie sitting next to each other at a glass desk in the Channel 5 News studio, with a purple backdrop behind them.

5 News use an automated system that allows them to quickly post clips from the show on their Twitter feed. So as soon as I got home I was able to watch it back online. And I was both relieved and impressed by how well I’d come across. The whole experience of doing it seems a bit of a blur, but I was remarkably calm and fluent during the show.

Of course, this immediate upload wasn’t fully accessible, as there wasn’t time to subtitle it. But soon after, 5 News kindly posted a captioned version on Twitter & Facebook. It’s slightly edited compared to the original upload, but only to trim out Claudia-Liza’s questions so they can focus on our responses. No important details are missed.

The response to our interview has been incredible. The video has been liked and shared many times, and I’ve had lots of messages during the week since then (such as these responses on Twitter), all unanimously praising mine and Krissie’s performance. These have come from my family, friends, colleagues, fellow bloggers, other Twitter followers, and quite a few people who have discovered me for the first time. Host Claudia-Liza even replied to my post on Instagram too. Thank you so much to everybody who has taken time to give their support, it means a huge amount. I’m over the moon that it went so well.

Glen smiling as he stands next to a tall sign, made of black bordered rows with black lettering, showing what's on each floor of the building. Most say ITN or ITV, but the sign also mentions Globecast, Warner Brothers, TRT World and Metspack, plus the reception desk.

Conclusion

Accessibility in all its forms is vital for disabled people. And by incorporating it into everything they do, businesses will find that our market – the Purple Pound – is much more accessible to them in return. We want to spend our money on products and services, as long as companies work with us to ensure we can do so. Just working on things like colour contrast, navigation, image descriptions and video subtitles will make a huge difference, to name some of the most important features.

So please do check out The Big Hack, for lots of advice on making your websites, apps and other self-service technology accessible. You also need be aware of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). And please make sure you consult your disabled employees and customers as to whether your technology is accessible, and act on their feedback.

I’m also very proud of my radio and TV appearances, they were amazing opportunities to educate people. I know it won’t change the world overnight, but every little bit of awareness really helps. Thank you to everyone at the BBC and 5 News for looking after us and ensuring we had a comfortable experience.

And finally, huge thanks to everyone from Scope, especially Laura Burnip, James Taylor and Krissie Barrick for being such wonderful companions during my media appearances, along with Bernie FennertyDaisy Bird for their additional support behind the scenes. I couldn’t have done it without you all, and it was a pleasure working with you! 🙂

Author: Glen

Love London, love a laugh, love life. Visually impaired blogger & Youtuber with aniridia & nystagmus, posting about my experiences & adventures.

2 thoughts on “The Big Business of Digital Accessibility”

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