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February 23, 2020

What the internet can learn from disability-friendly cities

Talia Chudacoff Head of Communications
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A fundamental goal of an inclusive city is the prevention and reduction of discrimination that occurs when people are treated unfairly. 

Many urban centers are rethinking how they approach this problem. Accessibility legislation and business incentives are driving a whole new kind of urban center. Cities like Barcelona, Melbourne, Seattle, Berlin, Madrid, and San Francisco are paving the way for truly inclusive living environments. 

With more and more of our lives playing out online, the next frontier of accessibility is digital services — and like cities, those leading the way will benefit the most.

The accessible cities setting a shining example

Urban accessibility is complex and encompasses a wide spectrum of services from the public to the private sector. While no city is perfect (yet), many are truly stepping up their game. 

Berlin has published guides such as Barrier-Free Planning and Construction in Berlin and Design for all. It is now mandatory to use the manuals for the design and construction of all state buildings in Berlin. This won them the European Union City Access Award for its efforts to create one of the most accessible cities in all of Europe.

City planners in Seattle created an app to help people in wheelchairs navigate and avoid streets that are built on a sharp incline. 

In Madrid, the public bus company has pioneered ways for people with sensory impairments to use transportation safely and easily. Their solution is visual and acoustic information at stations and on busses that can be activated using the passenger's phone. Melbourne has tackled transportation issues in a similar manner. 

Barcelona has put in place a comprehensive plan to make the city fully accessible which they plan to achieve by 2026. Taking an ambitious and holistic approach, they are conducting a massive accessibility analysis evaluating not only physical barriers of facilities, establishments, and services but also the barriers caused by the lack of communication elements or signs. 

But why should I care about accessible design?

In the US, The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is what really sets the standard for modern-day accessibility. ADA’s regulations ensure people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else in all areas of public life including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private venues that are open to the general public.

Failing to comply with ADA can result in legal action, both for physical businesses and their online counterparts. In 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) clarified that it believes that Title III of the ADA applies to the websites of public accommodations.

However, it’s a mistake to see accessibility as just an act of altruism or to avoid a lawsuit. Around 20% of the global population currently lives with some form of disability — over 1 billion people worldwide and 61 million Americans with disabilities. Those people need products and services that they can use. Cities and businesses leading the trend understand that catering to this population is a win-win. 

One World Health Organisation study showed that the disabled population is less likely to socialize or work without accessible transport — both delivering economic implications. The accessible-tourism market is estimated at around 15 billion annually, further benefiting the local economy. 

Today’s consumers are more conscious than ever of what businesses they choose to support. Vocally committing to serve all populations and reduce discrimination online can boost the overall perception of your brand for both people with disabilities and laypeople. Of course, there are also tax incentives to help cover the cost of making access improvements related to the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Why every digital business should embrace accessibility

The good news for digital business owners is that the process is much easier than that of brick and mortar. There is no need to break down walls or put in an elevator. 

According to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), “for a website to be accessible to people with disabilities, the content must be coded so that screen-reading software can convert the words to an audio translation. Also, all interactive functions must be operable through keyboard commands for people who can’t use a mouse.” There are even third-party tools to make remodeling your website a piece of cake. 

Implementation is easier but the business case is just as strong. Ensuring accessible design via accessible website technology improves overall user experience and satisfaction, especially in a variety of situations, across different devices, and for older users. Accessibility can enhance your brand, drive innovation, and extend your market reach. There is really no reason not to make your digital service one that everyone can enjoy. 

As technology advances and awareness rises, we can hope to see a new era of inclusivity supported by tools that truly transform the lives of disabled populations.