Let’s make Accessibility sustainable at scale

When you hear the word ‘sustainability’, do you immediately think of the environment, green energy and windmills?

When we examine the UN sustainable development goals there are multiple interconnected goals that address global challenges relating to poverty, inequality, climate change, peace and justice as well as the one we immediately think of - environmental degradation.

Recently my colleague José Esteban Lauzan blogged about the economic concept of externalities. Here I would like to talk about the parallels between environmental sustainability and accessibility and their implications on business and society.

Ageing societies

We live in societies that are rapidly ageing: a child born in Japan in 2007 will have more than 50% chance of living to the age of 107; children born in that year in most advanced economies will have similar chances of longevity. This has profound implications for society. Most disabilities are acquired as we age, so an increasingly aged population translates into increasing numbers of people living with one or more disabilities. And as technology has the power to enable people to continue working and playing an active role in life, accessibility can deliver high levels of independence and autonomy. This is hugely important when we consider that whilst we have traditionally relied on the young to support our older generations, by 2060 older people will outnumber younger people by 2 to 1.

However, despite the huge potential of technology for inclusion (speech interfaces, augmented reality and machine learning), we frequently make hurdles that people must jump over before they can realise their potential as individuals. When we don’t design our software and services with accessibility in mind, we are effectively locking people out from participation in society and from personal fulfilment.

The economic effects of this are profound. Poor accessibility directly impacts the employment prospects of hundreds of millions of disabled people worldwide. Even in societies where there is significant provision, the disability employment gap is around 31%, which rises to nearly 90% in less developed economies. Such underemployment is unnecessarily burdensome on the individual, the societies and the economies that they live in. The International Labour Organisation estimates that addressing disability exclusion could boost OECD countries’ GDP by 7%. Furthermore, accessibility efforts do not benefit disabled people exclusively: products and services designed with accessibility in mind often deliver a better user experience for non-disabled people and, consequently, gain a competitive edge.

Accessibility and sustainability

How does accessibility relate to environmental sustainability? Firstly, poorly written code is wasteful; poorly written code requires more processing time or power and therefore consumes more energy. Good code is more energy efficient so it follows that adhering to accessibility standards not only requires good efficient code but other requirements that help improve accessibility such as not setting videos to auto-play have a direct impact on energy consumption.

Disability inclusion is explicitly mentioned in 11 of the UN sustainable development goals. Businesses already report on environmental aspects of sustainability and the major indices are starting to include metrics on disability.

Societies need to be economically sustainable; inaccessibility can result in excluding 15 to 20% of the working age population from the opportunity to participate in economic life, such an outcome is hardly sustainable.

Returning to the concept of externalities, poor accessibility is an externality of the production and planning process. When organizations make inaccessible products and services that exclude older and disabled people, they frequently do not pay the cost of exclusion. That cost is usually paid either by the individual or by taxpayers funding alternatives. Therefore, we need to treat inaccessibility just like we treat pollution, taking frameworks designed to address pollution and climate change and applying them to technology and services designed for humans.

Let’s make accessibility achievable at scale

We need to treat inaccessibility just like we treat pollution, taking frameworks designed to address pollution and climate change and applying them to technology and services designed for humans.

What might this look like? We already have legislation on accessibility but it is frequently not enforced, which leads to organizations taking the gamble that they won’t be penalised. In order to really change business behavior so that society benefits from being able to access technology and services, we must apply frameworks that create certainty. We should follow the example set by light bulbs. Incandescent light bulbs used to be extremely cheap to produce and buy but they were highly polluting; the less polluting LED light bulbs were expensive to produce and therefore not popular. Through a combination of legislation, communication and a timeline for implementation, industry was able to adapt and now energy efficient lighting is ubiquitous.

If organizations were certain that they will be financially penalised for producing inaccessible products and services – and money from those penalties could be reinvested into inclusive products and services over time – we could see significant improvements to the inclusiveness of society. Implementing such frameworks and regulations in a sound manner will of course have a cost, but the cost of exclusion is much higher. If we are thinking about how we can invest to rebuild our economies post-Covid, then I would urge us to examine the opportunities for investing in sustainable accessibility to help society and individuals be self-supporting with the help of technology.


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About Neil Milliken
Head of Accessibility & Digital Inclusion and member of the Scientific Community
Neil Milliken is VP - Global Head of Accessibility & Digital Inclusionat Atos, member of the Atos Scientific Community & Atos Distinguished Expert. Neil is a leading strategist and community builder with over two decades of experience within the Accessibility and Assistive Technology fields and served as invited expert for the W3C Cognitive Accessibility Taskforce Neil is a member of the Board of Directors for World Institute on Disability, Non Exec Chair of the Board at Genius Within, member of the advisory board of the Valuable500 & Served as Chair of the Diversity Board for Institute of Coding. He is co-founder of AXSChat Europe’s largest twitter chat with a focus on Accessibility & Inclusion. Neil is dyslexic and has ADHD, he advocates for people with neurodivergent conditions as well as other disabilities and additional needs.

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