Why Brands Must Make Accessibility the Cultural Default

Accessibility is a common brand value, but few organizations truly understand the reasons why it matters and take the steps to actually pursue it.

Andrew Kirkpatrick

By Andrew Kirkpatrick
Director of Accessibility, Adobe

February 3, 2021 | 8 minute read

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people are relying on the internet more than ever before, whether it’s shopping online for groceries, working at home, or remote learning.

Yet 98 percent of websites fail to meet a subset of automatically testable Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards according to the WebAIM Million annual accessibility analysis.

Without accessible technology, more than a billion people will be left out of online experiences. In today’s world, it is imperative for organizations to lead with accessible technology and inclusive design. This is even more important as we’re seeing COVID-19 and other factors drive the acceleration of digital transformation in sectors such as education, business, and the workplace.

As more industries begin to scale their products and services to make the shift to digital, the importance of accessibility is magnified and can no longer be something that is overlooked.

The growing need to make accessibility a “must-have”

For many businesses, the pursuit of accessibility has gone from a grassroots effort to a corporate imperative. However, many businesses still lag behind in the incorporation of accessibility practices that conform with WCAG and other standards. The lack of these proper practices can lead to a decline in customer trust, negative brand messages, lost revenue, and potential lawsuits. There have been thousands of cases related to online presence under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—against major brands and smaller businesses alike.

Despite these potential negative impacts, accessibility is unfortunately still somewhat of an afterthought in practice for some businesses. While the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) brought awareness to the topic of accessibility in the physical world, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in the digital world. When the ADA was enacted in 1990, the technology that we have available today was not around, but courts and the Department of Justice have clarified that the ADA applies to these digital technologies. Many of the user interfaces in use today present challenges for individuals with disabilities, for example, a cluttered web or application layout may be difficult to use by someone with poor vision or limited motor function, and omitting closed captioning or subtitles makes video content less accessible for those who are hearing impaired.

While more work can be done to better regulate accessibility, the onus is on businesses to help ensure that they are putting the right practices in place, so accessibility is top of mind for everyone in the company—and the directive comes from leaders that accessibility means inclusivity for all, not just solely based on age and ability.

This includes identifying the accessibility opportunities within your organization, and where to instill better accessibility and inclusive design practices. For example, at Adobe, we identified that the most valuable accessibility opportunities were not rooted in the software development process, but in product decisions made before we started writing code. It was clear that our teams needed to better understand their important role in delivering accessible products. As we discovered, it is imperative for companies to identify where the root of meeting user needs lie and work internally on breaking down silos and enforcing standards and training to build more accessible and inclusive practices for employees, products, services, and customers.

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Together, we can spearhead accessibility efforts

In our work at Adobe, we constantly strive to be a leader in pursuing accessibility initiatives and approach that effort from three tactical angles—each of which can help organizations to be a more active participant in the effort to make the web a more accessible place.

1. Enhance and implement accessibility training

In order for organizations to truly embody the value of accessibility, it must be communicated and operationalized on a consistent basis, both internally and externally.

An initiative we announced last year that I am excited about is new updates and enhancements to our accessibility training—what started as an 8-hour training course for engineers and testers to learn the basics of web and software accessibility, has evolved into in-depth and asynchronous trainings around the world, covering more and more job roles. Through our training, many employees have learned about various user needs that they were not aware of before and have started to implement features to better support diverse users. The Adobe Inclusive Design Workshop curriculum has also been released to the public on Github, providing tools for teams interested in challenging mindsets around inclusion and putting forth new approaches and solutions for consideration.

We are also currently working with education experts to adapt the Inclusive Design training into a formal curriculum for student designers. In addition to including accessibility at the backend of products, we also partner with disabled designers on product ideation and development to make sure each tool is built for designers of all abilities and needs in mind—including the perspectives of people we design for is a best practice that should be incorporated into the design process, no matter what type of organization you are.

2. Enlist experts to address evolving accessibility standards

In addition to our educational initiatives, we’re also working on improving and building on our existing internal accessibility frameworks. One of the main initiatives that the accessibility team has is the integration of accessibility standards (such as WCAG 2.1 and EN 301 549) into The Adobe Common Controls Framework (CCF). This framework was initially created to help ensure consistent security controls across the company—we are now leveraging CCF for accessibility monitoring and controls to help ensure accessibility best practices are baked into our products at the earliest stage possible.

3. Pursue collaborations with colleagues to increase understanding and action

As the digital world continues to expand, continually changing the spectrum of accessibility, it’s important for industry players to collaborate on accessibility efforts. For example, Adobe partners with several technology companies on the accessibility standards that it participates Amazon, Apple, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle to name a few—and we participate in key initiatives such as Teach Access, alongside industry and non-industry partners to share ideas and build information and tools that benefit accessibility efforts more broadly.

Accessibility is about equal opportunity for all people and it is extremely important for companies to prioritize so that anyone can access products and services, whether for personal enjoyment or for professional responsibilities. Technology can enable access to education, employment, and creativity and we need to continually build on enabling accessible experiences.

Andrew Kirkpatrick

Andrew Kirkpatrick

Director of Accessibility, Adobe

Andrew Kirkpatrick is Director of Accessibility at Adobe Systems. Andrew and his team define Adobe’s overall strategy for accessibility, attend to accessibility issues with product teams across the Adobe product line, and work with customers and standards groups, including representing Adobe on the accessibility-focused committees at the FCC, the United States Access Board, ETSI, and the World Wide Web Consortium. Andrew served as co-chair of the W3C’s Accessibility Guidelines Working Group and is an Editor for the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 standard.

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