Every day at Telstra, we hear of the need to make our digital products and services more accessible for people with a diverse range of hearing, movement, sight, and cognitive ability. In fact, it’s a no-brainer. With more than one in five Australians living with some form of disability, it’s clearly incumbent on the country’s leading telecoms company to cater to this market. It also makes total business sense. According to the Centre for Inclusive Design, the 4 million Australians who are unable to access products and services because of poor design possess more than $40 billion in buying power.

For me, the striking thing about the demands that people with disabilities make on companies is that there aren’t more of them. While we have a moral responsibility to support these customers (not to mention a great business opportunity), we still often fall short. It’s even reflected in that aspiration, to make our services “more accessible”. Is that really how far we’re going to aim – to make things a little bit better for our customers?

Shouldn’t we actually be aiming to make all our products accessible for all people? Where do you draw the line for the minimum level that’s required for something to be ‘usable’ for everyone? Not appealing, or engaging, or easy to use – just usable.

Accessibility is all about making things accessible to all people, whether they have a disability or not.

It’s about removing barriers for communication and interaction. It’s someone being able to read a webpage when they can’t see it. Someone being able to read your terms and conditions when they can’t understand the language. Someone being able to hear what’s being said on your video when they can’t actually hear.

The cost imperative

According to a study by Forrester Research, incorporating accessibility features into a digital tool at the design and architecture stage can save an organisation literally millions of dollars. The later in the process that you introduce accessibility, the more it will cost to fix it – rising to 30 times the original cost if fixes are implemented post-release.

This staggering finding, which presents a compelling business case for incorporating accessibility at the earliest stage in development of a new app or website, was confirmed in one of the most notable court cases on accessibility in Australia: Maguire vs Sydney Olympic Games (2000). In this case, in which a customer who was blind sued the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games for distress inflicted by their inaccessible website, the court heard that it would cost $2.2 million to rectify the website’s faults – and take 368 days to implement the fixes required.

In its judgement, Inquiry Commissioner William Carter QC awarded Bruce Maguire $20,000 in compensation for the “considerable feelings of hurt, humiliation and rejection” caused by his repeated inability to access the Olympics website, compounded by the “dismissive” response of the Olympics Committee – which included a suggestion that he enlists the help of a sighted person! The Human Rights & Equal Opportunities Commission’s ruling established an ethical imperative for all Australian governments to make their websites accessible – and the Commonwealth Government subsequently ruled that all government websites should meet the World Wide Web Consortium’s WCAG guidelines.

One cannot overstate the consequential effect upon him of his having to cope with the persistent need to counter what he saw as a negative, unhelpful and dismissive attitude on the part of an organisation charged with the presentation of the most notable sporting event in the history of this country.

William Carter QC, Inquiry Commissioner, Human Rights & Equal Opportunities Commission, November 2000

Accessible from the get-go

Today at Telstra, we have a streamlined process for ensuring that accessibility is practised – and wherever possible implemented – at every stage in the lifecycle of a new digital product or service. This requirement is no longer just a best endeavour, but is mandated in 27 priority actions that are outlined in our 7th Accessibility Action Plan, and continually measured to improve customer experiences, create a more inclusive workplace, and develop better technologies for users with a disability.

In order to mainstream accessibility considerations and perspectives at different stages in the lifecycle of a new product or piece of software, we recommend a number of critical practices which include:

In sprint

  • Architects: When blueprints are being drawn up for a product, speak with the Technical Architects to consider major engineering factors such as reflow, scrolling and orientation – things that are often ‘locked in’ early on.
  • Personas: Researching your audience is key, so work with Strategic and UX Designers to develop personas that help you understand the specific needs of people with different abilities – and view your product ‘in their shoes’.
  • Test flat designs: You can often spot defects early in flat designs or prototypes, which will save a tremendous amount of time building something that is not accessible and then having to rework it.
  • Spot checks: Ensure developers are handing over their code to A11y specialists for regular spot-testing – providing enough time to fix defects and avoid undue pressures close to release. 
  • Automation tool: Although they generally cover only 20-30% of success criteria (and are susceptible to false positives), automation tools can significantly reduce the number of defects if developers use them in sprint to test their own code.

Global activities

  • Procurement: Most businesses don’t build everything themselves, relying on white label products and APIs, which they don’t control, however, it’s critical to insist that these suppliers comply with WCAG guidelines to ensure their products are accessible. A slight adjustment to your vendor Terms and Conditions could save you both big headaches down the road!
  • Policies: As previously mentioned, it’s vital to bake your accessibility requirements into policies, charters and action plans that document your company’s accessibility commitments, governance and tracking of compliance.
  • Definition of Done: In developing a new product or software, you should add clear and specific accessibility requirements to the Definition of Done, so your teams know what they need to do, plan for it, and check it off once it is complete. The same is true of your Go/No Go process before launch.
  • User testing with people with disability: No matter how much you work to a plan, the real world will give you the best indication if your designs work well. We’ve initiated a monthly program of regular testing with users with different abilities, giving our UXers and Developers a vital insight into how their design and code stacks up – not to mention personal connections with these user groups.
  • Design system: Your design system is probably your best accelerator for putting ready-made accessible components into the hands of your designers and developers, with upwards of 20-40% increase in speed to market for front-end teams. It will also reduce the input required from your accessibility auditors, who will know these components are already accessible.

The biggest skillset of all

We know that your Product Owners, Developers and Designers are busy people – we all are! But if you can put the right tools and systems into their hands from the outset – when they first come and work for you – you’ll not only be serving your customers better, but giving your staff the most critical skills to serve the one-fifth of the population they may have inadvertently been neglecting.

As well as expanding and supporting your users, implementing a comprehensive and practical Design Systems training with Aquent Gymnasium for accessible products will buy your business innumerable gains. Gains in efficiency in getting new products to market; savings in time and resources to ‘fix up’ inaccessible products; future-proofing of assets and software libraries for further changes; and compliance with the rafts of global guidelines and standards that are only going to grow and become more explicit with changes in regulation and legislation.

Accessibility training with Gymnasium is one of the most important skills your Designers and Developers will ever acquire. Don’t hold them back. Help them value, support and connect with the most discerning and appreciative customers that they will ever have.

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