The business case for accessibility has never been stronger

Lead on accessibility, and you'll be AI-ready as technology access enters a paradigm shift

Accessibility, AI, and next-generation technologies need leadership. It may not seem obvious, but they need the same type of leadership. Without leadership on accessibility, organisations will be unable to benefit from AI and emerging technologies. Digital accessibility is often only considered in terms of meeting the needs of those with physical or neurodiverse impairments, but the acceleration of AI over the last two years is a wake-up call for organisations to sharpen their accessibility focus. If your digital systems are not accessible, then AI is as hampered as those with disabilities. 

"Machines need to be able to access and parse through your information," says Suraj Kika, Jadu CEO. Since the release of ChatGPT4, Kika says that AI has triggered an acceleration of change in hardware, software, and use cases for AI technology. As a result, organisations are beginning to rethink business processes, while customers and citizens are looking to access information and services in new ways. 

Robin Christopherson MBE, Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet, a provider of digital accessibility services, says technology is becoming part of the ambient environment of society as smart speakers and AI respond to voice commands. "Voice prompt has so much potential. We don't know what the user interface (UI) of the future will be; maybe it won't be the GUI (graphical user interface). But I expect the idea of going through lots of steps that demand loads of taps or key presses to book a flight will seem so archaic. Instead, there may be digital agents that will complete the process," he says. 

Christopherson adds that this is not the far flung future, it is already available. At the 2024 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Rabbit.Tech revealed its large action model (LAM) R! device that utilises prompts and APIs (application programming interfaces) to book those flights. "It can look at the webpage, navigate through and know all your details and preferences and book your flight," he explains. 

Technologies like Rabbit R1 device will challenge the accessibility of web services. Those with poor accessibility will suffer and lose customers as they do not recognise the robotic nature of these technologies. Christopherson, who is blind, describes his own usage of the internet as robotic as he uses the Tab key instead of a mouse. "We haven't had a replacement for the keyboard, but we are heading that way," Kika adds of the hardware that has dominated computing for over 30 years. 

Not only will LAM technology replace hardware, but also how consumers and citizens experience online. "We are going back to the prompt being the first interaction with an interface," Christopherson says of a return to actions known to veterans of MS-DOS and Emacs. "We need to make sure that the technology that we develop is accessible because accessibility is not just able humans accessing information; it is about machines too," Kika says. 


Leadership creates an accessible culture

Organisations will only benefit or keep pace with the rise of AI with strong leadership that focuses on creating a culture of good digital accessibility. "It is leaders that instil and maintain the culture in organisations, and they are the keepers of that culture," CEO Kika says. He adds that accessibility cannot be seen as a bolt-on or compliance activity. Accessibility has to be "a fundamental part of your culture" if organisations are to meet the needs of AI using customers, citizens and partners. 

Kika cites the example of the Highlands and Islands Airports company in Scotland, which set out to have Triple-A accessibility compliance. "It's that level of vision that has come from the top down, and this has to be one of our top priorities," Kika says. To achieve Triple-A accessibility compliance as the Highlands and Islands Airports has, Christopherson advises business leaders to adopt an accessibility maturity model. "These examine where you are as an organisation and they shine a light on every corner, such as vision, leadership, strategy, procurement, training and processes."


 Business benefits

"Having an understanding of the business benefits of accessibility is not talked about enough," Kika says. This impacts not only those with disabilities but also every user. "We know we are living in a mobile-first world; the average traffic online is over 60% via mobile, so every one of those users is working one-handed, jogging the device, perhaps in noisy environments such as a cafe, so want to use captions or they are on the move so dealing with reflection on a bright sunny day. There are parallels in these with every single type of impairment. So we are sliding up and down that spectrum of impairment all the time," Christopherson says. 

Research has found that websites with good accessibility allowed users with no impairments to complete tasks 35% quicker. "Accessibility needs to be thought of as something that enables business to move faster," Kika says. 

Not only is poor accessibility slowing down customers, for those with impairments, it is driving them away. Barriers prevent people from accessing simple things like buttons which, if not coded correctly, can result in screen reader or speech recognition software users being unable to use them," says James Jacobs, Accessibility Lead at Jadu. "As a blind person I face online exclusion on a daily basis, not through malice, but through neglect and not enough foresight about people with disabilities and accessibility needs," says Christopherson. 


Developer power

"Typically, developers are charged with delivering a block of work, and if they are not aware of how to make that work accessible, then they just focus on delivery. A lot of developer training doesn't include accessibility; it will teach you how to build a website or application but not how to make it accessible to everyone," Jacobs says of the inherent problem in the development stage. The web developer says the community needs education on accessibility. Christopherson says accessibility has to become as much part of the developers job as coding for reliability. 

Also, accessibility cannot be added to web products post-development. "Bolting-on remediation is much more expensive and much harder to achieve. You are chasing a dragon, as you will never be able to catch up with changing standards," says Kika. Jacobs adds: "There are so many dangers with trying to retrospectively bolt-on accessibility through unforeseen circumstances from other technical fixes, or the scale of the project. 

"So accessibility has to be considered at every stage of a product's lifecycle: design, user research, development, testing and user feedback, it is a journey and there is always room for improvement." 

Rethinking the development process comes back to the need for leadership. When accessibility becomes part of the culture of the organisation, as a result of leadership, then the process will sit alongside developing for scalability, efficiency and sustainability. All those using a website, whether able, impaired or AI will benefit. 

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