Why does digital accessibility matter so much to so many people around the world?
To answer that question, look no further than 1 million home pages worldwide where more than 50 million distinct accessibility errors were detected as recently as February 2022. That’s an average of 50.8 errors per page, and they create all kinds of barriers for users.
For example, as they use a web page or app, people with disabilities might experience things like:
- Text that blends into the background for users with color blindness,
- Uncaptioned video that excludes those who cannot hear it, and/or
- Forms without labels making it difficult to fill them in.
In an increasingly digital, global economy, the sheer number of websites that fail to meet basic web accessibility standards, known as WCAG 2, tells a startling story about the intersection of access and opportunity around the world.
To understand more about the global state of digital accessibility, we reached out to Axel Leblois, founder and CEO of G3ict (the Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies), an advocacy initiative launched by the United Nations with a vision to level the digital playing field for people with disabilities.
Axel notes that, despite these large numbers, remarkable steps forward have been made worldwide since he founded G3ict in 2006. In particular, policies have seen significant gains.
“Sixteen years ago, only 4 countries included in their legislation a definition of reasonable accommodation, important language that renders anti-discrimination measures enforceable. Today, more than 2/3 of all countries (55) include such language. It’s a tremendous change,” he says.
On the world stage, no single nation leads in all areas, and best practices have emerged in different disciplines. “The country with the best environment for television is Canada, followed closely by the US and UK. South Korea leads web accessibility, with impressive systems in place around monitoring. Colombia has developed excellence around services for the deaf, and in terms of education accommodation, the US is ahead of others.”
Where Progress Happens
It’s nearly impossible to separate the impact of global business from accessibility. That’s because innovations developed in one market often get carried forward as products and services advance to new markets, says Axel. One example he points to is that of Scotia Bank, which first developed accessible ATMs for use in Canada. “Today, they can be found in Senegal and throughout Africa,” said Axel. Another case in point — the way in which the mobile revolution has manifested in accessibility menus on smartphones as billions of users have gotten wired.
Convergence of Innovation, Support and Input
In the field of digital accessibility, progress depends on engagement from three sides: the private sector (the innovators and implementers), the public sector (supporters) and end users (whose input is essential to ensure innovation serves their needs). Of these three, end users are most crucial. “Countries that have the best results usually involve people with disabilities in their policy-making,” says Axel.
Awareness and Empathy
There is no doubt digital accessibility gained momentum due to the pandemic. Worldwide, people stayed home. In doing so, they gained firsthand experience that honed overall awareness and empathy for those living with disability. The impact has been profound: “Post-pandemic, we can no longer ignore the need for digital accessibility.”
If policy represents the area of greatest progress, capacity to implement represents the greatest area of opportunity — that means people who understand and know how to implement digital accessibility programs. But education and training are difficult to get going, particularly in smaller countries. Today, while universities in a few countries offer degrees in digital accessibility, the majority do not. “That must change if we are to continue to improve outcomes,” says Axel.