4 Common Ways Companies Alienate People with Disabilities

4 Common Ways Companies Alienate People with Disabilities

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Executives and product team leaders need to stop excluding people with disabilities and understand that their decisions affect how users interact with every aspect of their products and services. At this point, leaders have the right tools at their disposal, but need to become more aware of their oversights. The author presents four common mistakes leaders make that prevent people with disabilities from interacting with their companies. First, they expect users to do the hard work for them. Second, they don’t understand that accessibility requires constant maintenance. Third, they overlook how accessibility applies to every step of the customer journey. Finally, they fail to bring accessibility tools into their own teams’ workflows.

Every day, business leaders make seemingly small but meaningful mistakes that leave a large population of users with disabilities out in the cold. Companies are aware that they should be prioritizing the accessibility of their product — and in turn the inclusiveness of their brand — in order to maximize their reach and value. Yet in many cases, they make the wrong choices because they don’t know where their gaps in understanding are or who they’re unintentionally excluding. For example, earlier this year, there was outrage after leading UK train websites went grayscale as a tribute to Prince Philip after his death — a well-intentioned change that left people with visual impairments unable to use them.

Executives and product team leaders need to stop excluding people with disabilities and understand that their decisions affect how users interact with every aspect of their products and services. At this point, we have the right tools at our disposal, but we need to become more aware of our oversights. Avoid the following four mistakes that prevent people with disabilities from interacting with your company.

You expect users to do the hard work.

You can’t rely on user feedback to patch up your product for you as you build it. Expecting to power ahead and have your users flag your product’s flaws through in-app ratings, sporadic surveying, and quantitative feedback that gives little depth is lazy and inefficient. You have to be doing 80% of the hard work, which means making the conscious effort to avoid the design flaws that will exclude people from using your product. Anyone can educate themselves on where those problems might arise by capitalizing on the available resources for designers and product development teams, such as Apple’s Accessibility for Developers platform.

Only expect users to assist you in refining your product and concept and to pick up on issues you missed despite your best efforts. You won’t be 80% perfect to start, but your internal benchmark has to be high in order to avoid putting the burden on your users. Consumers know when they’re being used rather than treated as partners or co-creators in the process. An important aspect here is trust: Your community must trust that your business’s entire purpose is to solve a problem that affects their daily lives. That way, they’re helping you co-create the product as you actively seek out and listen to their needs. If you’re committed to them, they’ll be committed to helping you achieve those goals.

That partnership means building your product out in the open, involving a diverse community of users from the earliest stages. You can do that by sharing your designs or ideas on dedicated Slack channels, Twitter threads, or with selected groups of people, and ask that the community brainstorm new concepts with you and build on top of them. Allow for a continual, positive feedback-iteration loop where users see the results each time and are let in on your thinking about why decisions were made.

You have a “set-it-and-forget-it” approach to accessibility.

Accessibility isn’t an accessory. It’s not something that will just stay in place once you’ve made the initial effort to obtain it. It’s part of the machinery that keeps your business moving, and it needs constant maintenance. As your product grows and as your consumers’ behavior changes, new issues will surface constantly.

You’ll see the value of continually iterating your product as you pick up speed in shipping new solutions to your customers. For example, a feature update might have a glitch that affects people with color blindness. But shipping fast while also maintaining close communication with your community of customers and iterating often will mitigate the risk and severity of making mistakes. It will also serve as affirmation for people who choose to be your customers, as they’ll actively see their contributions being brought to light.

So, treat accessibility like any other key business process: Give it monthly KPIs until you’re at a place where it’s part of your organization’s general KPIs, monitor it, plan monthly meetings to discuss progress, and strategize. Also treat it as a skill that needs to be nurtured and kept up-to-date with trends. Attend courses on inclusive design, business processes, and user experience. Great resources include IAAP, Google for Education, Udacity, and the A11Y Project. Also, see what your competitors are doing and where there’s room for you to learn.

You assume accessibility only applies to your product.

Accessibility is so much more than text-to-speech or captions in your app. The user journey has many other stages: People consume your ads, contact your customer service representatives, read the About Us page on your website, etc. If you’re not thinking about accessibility throughout all steps of the customer journey, then you’re unwittingly putting up barriers across your business. Those people whose personal and professional lives were unnecessarily disrupted when UK rail websites went greyscale were users that the business lost and might not get back.

We’re not just talking about physical disabilities. Various mental health issues can cause people to have difficulty with certain visuals on your landing page, distressing sounds in your promotional videos, or triggering language in your descriptive text.

Ensure all of your teams are collaborating around user needs. Identify silos that keep accessibility limited to one section of your business. Have a cross-discipline team whose job is to make sure accessibility is being addressed consistently in projects throughout the organization. Account for accessibility as part of the brainstorm strategy when kicking off any company-wide project. Use shared work platforms to cross-pollinate accessibility efforts across teams so employees working on one project can share ideas and advice with others. For example, a sales representative might consult a content writer on the most inclusive way to phrase their latest outreach.

You haven’t brought accessibility tools into your own workflow.

It’s hard to understand if a solution is really working unless you’re actually using it, feeling it, and getting to know which areas within the workflow need to be optimized to ensure the best outcomes. It’s impossible to fully put yourself in someone else’s shoes, which is why you should have a large community of users helping you build your product at every step. But you should act like a chef, constantly tasting the food before it goes out to the dining room.

You have to bring the accessibility features and principles you’ve cooked into your product into your own team’s workday. Use what you’ve learned about accessible software when choosing enterprise tools for your company. See what widgets were used in developing your product and download them to your own browser. That way, you can know first-hand if the tools actually do what they say they do and where they could do better. Also, they’re a constant reminder that accessibility really just means making something easier to use.

Businesses should be building for all their users, rather than building for some then kicking into action when the complaints start pouring in. It requires the desire to do so, honest collaboration with your team and your users, and a willingness to invest time and energy into learning how to do things the right way — for everyone.

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