Accessing the widest possible customer base

E-commerce sites that do not consider accessibility are not only risking breach of coming legislation, they are leaving money on the table

Kyran O’Mahoney, co-founder of Inclusion Accessibility Labs and chief technology officer, National Council for the Blind of Ireland: ‘So many components of everyday life are now taking place entirely online’

In an increasingly digital society, accessibility has come to the forefront. And yet, many businesses have not only failed to develop truly accessible digital services, they fail to address a significant slice of the market.

Kyran O’Mahoney, co-founder of Inclusion Accessibility Labs, (IA Labs) and chief technology officer at the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI), said that digital accessibility is crucial, most importantly because it can be the greatest enabler for a person living with a disability, by allowing that person to fully and meaningfully engage with every aspect of society.

“From applying for a job and booking a flight, to making a purchase or paying an outstanding bill – so many components of everyday life are now taking place entirely online,” he said.

The Digital Day in the Life report, a piece of independent analysis prepared by IA Labs and commissioned by the NCBI, demonstrated many everyday challenges faced by a person living with a disability in an Ireland that is becoming increasingly digitalised.

One thing that retailers should consider is that the spectrum of disability is broad, and while some disabilities are more easily identifiable than others, many people are living with ‘invisible’ disabilities.

Indeed, said O’Mahoney, census figures show that there were 643,131 people recorded as living with a disability, of which approximately 52,250 have a form of visual impairment or are affected by sight loss in some way.

“Though there is a caveat here, as the census itself is not fully accessible, and in the event that future censuses are going to be conducted partially online, it must be digitally accessible – but we’re currently working on how to ensure that this happens,” said O’Mahoney.

During the pandemic, many businesses and organisations did not have sufficient time or expertise to build an accessible website, said O’Mahoney, but as time progressed there was a shift, and accessibility became more of a consideration.

“For example, if we look at the Covid-19 Tracker app – it was imperative that that app could be used by every person with a mobile device, and so it needed to be digitally accessible,” he said.

Indeed, this is how IA Labs came to be.

“As the chief technology officer of the NCBI, I worked closely with the HSE to ensure that the app had the necessary technological functionality to be used by a person with a visual impairment. This is where the foundation of IA Labs was built – given the success of the Covid-19 app, we quickly realised there was a demand and a need for this type of service. As a result, IA Labs became a spin out company from NCBI, and we have not looked back since.”

A range of guidelines and legislation governs accessibility, including the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, the EU Web Accessibility Directive and the European Accessibility Act, the latter of which will require the websites of private sector companies to be fully accessible by 2025.

O’Mahoney said, as a country, Ireland is headed in the right direction.

“One aspect which businesses and organisations may not be aware of, is that building a website which is digitally accessible or making modifications to an existing website is relatively inexpensive and does not necessarily need to be time intensive,” he said.

As a first step businesses can check a website’s compliance against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

“If the website is not meeting these criteria, then it is clear that improvements need to be made to ensure that every customer, service user, and end-user can be reached. In the last number of months, we have recorded a considerable increase in businesses who are contacting IA Labs, seeking an audit of their website,” he said.

IA Labs’ most recent Digital Accessibility Index found that 72 per cent of leading Irish companies do not have accessible websites, while almost nine out of every ten job search sites could not be used by a person living with a disability.

“At a time when we are confronting a ‘war for talent’, and during a period when e-commerce is continuing to grow, the very fact that more than 600,000 people could be missing out on these opportunities and digital experiences is an issue which must be addressed,” said O’Mahoney.

Public sector websites have seen significant improvements, though accessibility is already mandatory for the public sector.

“Our Digital Accessibility Index found that 89 per cent of the websites of Irish Government Departments were compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 AA standard, and could therefore be used by a person living with disability. While 100 per cent accessibility is the desired and optimal outcome, this is nevertheless an example of where prompt enactment of legislation has been effective,” he said.

Overall, O’Mahoney said, Ireland has an opportunity to become a global leader.

“Considering the people in Ireland that currently live with a disability – that is more than 600,000 individuals who may want to purchase a product or access a service, but are prevented from doing so. For a business, that is 600,000 customers, with incredible collective spending power.”