Jun 30, 2021

Why inclusive design is a powerful driver of innovation
An abstract representation of design elements on a webpage.

Accessibility issues are some of the most common problems we solve for our clients here at Torii Studio. For 2021 alone, WebAIM, an accessibility consulting firm, found that around 97.4% of home pages featured automatically detectable errors. The number goes up once errors that cannot be detected automatically are factored in.

This is a shame. There are over one billion individuals worldwide living with disabilities. And approximately 10% of the US population experiences either a temporary or permanent disability. Persons with Disabilities (PWD) already face countless challenges in the physical world. These barriers have carried on into digital spaces where they are much easier — and cheaper — to remedy than lack of wheelchair accessibility on public transport, for example.

At Torii, we believe that excluding Persons with Disabilities is not only a loss for businesses; it’s a waste of human potential. There shouldn’t be a need to make a further case for inclusive design than a moral obligation to our fellow humans. But doing the right thing has rarely proven to be a convincing argument to move businesses into taking action. Plus, overlooking the benefits of a more accessible world would minimize Persons with Disabilities’ contributions to science, technology, and society and the enormous potential that they have to continue changing our world for the better.

Accessible products: A missed business opportunity

Creating solutions for underserved needs is the universal formula for entrepreneurship. Yet companies and entrepreneurs are letting billions of dollars in potential business go to waste by ignoring one of the segments with the most underserved needs out there. Few groups stand to gain as much from advances in design and technology as Persons with Disabilities.

Accessibility is often reduced to elements such as contrast or keyboard compatibility. Though these are essential features, they’re only a small part of everything that inclusive design involves. Persons with Disabilities lead full, complex, and productive lives. Technology has enabled them to do things that would’ve been extremely difficult or off-limits a few years ago. They’re traveling, they’ve become beauty influencers, and they are running successful businesses. Few of these spaces, products, and experiences have been designed with them in mind. The potential for business opportunities and generating meaningful change by fixing this is enormous.

And then there’s the pandemic. Our near-instant migration online further exposed the urgent need for accessible digital spaces. Older adults found themselves trying to figure out how to use video conferencing software without the direct help of younger and more technologically literate family members. Visually impaired college students are being held back by textbooks and digital documents that are not compatible with screen readers. And a lot of the nuanced gestures involved in sign language get lost on Zoom calls. There are more individuals with disabilities online than ever before, and the move is likely to be permanent in many cases. Businesses that don’t adapt to their needs stand to lose big.

Inclusive design is innovative design

Looking at inclusive design through a purely ROI-focused lens is a mistake. Numbers just don’t paint the whole story. Tim Cook once famously replied to a shareholder: “When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI.” Apple’s decades-long commitment to accessible design has earned it a long list of awards and turned it into a favorite amongst visually impaired communities. It’s become one of the secrets behind their innovative human-centered products and one of the pillars of the company’s reputation. That is not something that can be measured — at least not in the traditional sense, as Tim later explained in an interview.

A woman in a wheelchair browsing the internet.
Image source: Storyset

Persons with Disabilities are seen as many things, but innovative is not usually one of them. However, having to constantly adapt to a world that has not been designed for them has turned Persons with Disabilities into excellent planners and problem solvers. Individuals experiencing temporary or permanent disabilities have made significant contributions to science technology while solving the everyday problems that affect them. Text messaging, email, speech recognition, and touchscreens are some of the advances that we can thank them for. These innovations now make life easier and more convenient for the non-disabled. For many Persons with Disabilities, however, they are what makes living a full and independent life possible.

“When we design for disability first, you often stumble upon solutions that are better than those when we design for the norm.” — Elise Roy

Christina Mallon, a disabled designer, argues that the extreme needs of Persons with Disabilities make them valuable lead users. Solving for the most exceptional cases often reveals pain points, unmet needs, and faults in design and engineering that would otherwise take long to discover and address. It also makes products, places, and experiences better for everyone else. Same as non-disabled individuals have taken advantage of ramp access and automatic doors, they can benefit from improvements to an interface like higher contrast, more intuitive navigation, or improved legibility.

Accessible design is an opportunity to generate meaningfully change

Too often, innovation is linked to quick money when it should be about changing lives. Accessible and inclusive design is one of our best opportunities to use innovation to generate meaningful change. At Torii Studio, we are committed to building products that are accessible to everyone. Along with having an internal accessibility team, we partner with industry-recognized third-party consultancies that evaluate the accessibility compliance of our products. Whenever possible, we engage with users with a range of abilities to ensure usability and accessibility for all.

Persons with Disabilities have made the world better for all of us while creating opportunities for themselves. Technology has empowered them to go farther than ever before but more needs to be done. If these individuals have managed to achieve so much in a world that offers them so little, just imagine the possibilities once we make the right tools available to them.

Want to make your digital products more accessible? We can help with that! Contact us to schedule a website audit.

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