I just finished reading an article titled “ADA Suits Increasingly Target Websites” by Ally Marotti, with the Chicago Tribune. Ally writes about 3 different lawsuits leveled against nationally recognized retailers. For what you say? For discriminating against people with brains, financial means, and a laptop or mobile app to use when we shop, bank, work… people that, oh yeah, just happen to have a disability.

I mean no disrespect to Ally and her well written article, but it sounds all too familiar, with corporate offenders taking action only under the threat of litigation. This has been all too true for many of our nation’s most successful businesses, from AOL to Target to Amazon to Amtrak to K-Mart to GrubHub, and so many more. After reading this piece, I just had to speak out.

Why is it that people with disabilities have been forced to advocate for inclusion through litigation, instead of being taken seriously when arguing for a commercial, corporate and societal culture that embraces digital inclusion?

Imagine if you couldn’t read a text message, Google something, catch the news on your commute to work, order stuff online, manage your finances, respond to emails from clients, or use the mainframe application at your office… Talk about low productivity.

This is how unintentional digital barriers create intentional digital handicaps that prevent customers and employees who happen to have a disability from executing in the workplace, in the home, and in life.

Since unexpectedly losing my eyesight in 2006, I have personally and professionally witnessed the unprecedented rise of, and dependency on digitized information and communications in our daily lives. For some, these developments have resulted in dramatic, beneficial changes both at work and at home. For others, they have been profoundly “disabling,” creating new barriers for me and millions of my peers. What frustrated me the most as I attempted to regain some semblance of the life I had prior to losing my eyesight, were the road blocks and barriers imposed upon me by poorly coded platforms, relegating me to a life of disability insurance and entitlement programs. The transition into this new way of seeing, challenging as it was, was made worse because my attempts to rise above my circumstances were constantly foiled and complicated due to inaccessible digital platforms which were, and continue to be, barred to myself and my peers.  Despite being highly educated and driven, my attempts at regaining the independent control over both my personal and professional lives were constantly blocked and disabled to me because of inaccessible websites and software programs. I’m talking basic stuff here, like paying my mortgage or my utility bills, reviewing my investment portfolio, financial statements, booking travel, making restaurant reservations, filling out employment applications, and using any number of internally facing platforms within office environments.

These inaccessible websites and mobile apps are all missing two things. Lack of simple programmatic codes and an appreciation for including them.

Is digital inclusion that important?

I think everyone would agree that financial and personal independence in the 21st century is directly tied to our ability to access websites and mobile apps and that these platforms need to be “all inclusive.”

Yet, despite significant technological advancements, nearly 80% of these websites and mobile apps deny people with disabilities access to these platforms.

These are individuals collectively referred to as “print disabled”. This community includes people with varying degrees of sensory, mobility, and cognitive abilities representing a broad range of exceptional, highly underutilized, individuals with marketable skills, who are members of a global community larger than the entire population of China. Layer in aging individuals with diminished capacities and the potential market is ginormous!

While society has made real progress in broadening the public’s awareness and acceptance of ability over disability, institutional bias continues to impede progress toward the level of inclusion that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was designed to ensure and protect. This is due to the absence of clear governmental regulations, mandates, and a lack of disability and accessibility-savvy engineers, web developers, designers, and IT professionals well-versed in best practices and protocols for inclusive digital design. Let’s not forget though that decisions are made by C Suite executives who have chosen to turn an “unintentional” blind eye and deaf ear on a community that includes hundreds of millions of people.

What is the ROI?

The increasing number of recent digital accessibility lawsuits and settlements have brought some attention to this discriminatory civil rights problem, but once corporate America realizes inclusive digital design makes good business sense, both the civil rights violations and respective ADA litigations would disappear.

Corporations of every size are providing goods and services to the public through websites, which are now considered places of public accommodation under title III of the ADA. Just as physical buildings must be barrier free, so too must the virtual world have barrier free codes built into its infrastructure. There are clear needs and obvious legal mandates that require all websites, mobile apps, software programs and digital platforms to be accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) has done a great job at repeatedly making decisions that favor that position.

If we, proud Americans with a disability, accounting for nearly 20% of our country’s population, were given the opportunity to overcome the digital barriers we face daily, we would become more independent, loyal consumers and employees. Ultimately, it is employment, not government aid or costly litigation, that enables us to go from taxing dependents to independent taxpayers.

What’s the first step? Take an organizational audit of your corporation’s ability. that’s physical, digital, attitudinal, and recruiting barriers. This approach gives access to the customers you don’t know, who are trying, right now, to access your public facing website and mobile app offerings, while also implementing diversity practices that enable you to hire people of all abilities. It is relatively easy to be proactive when it comes to inclusive digital design. as corporations, of any size, create new websites, web pages, mobile apps or make regular updates to their digital offerings, it only makes sense to “bake” digital inclusion into your development and design process, ensuring that people of ALL abilities can use and access your digital platforms and offerings.

It sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t. Many organizations specialize in educating, training remediating and implementing these corporate accessibility governance assessments and supports. Your company just needs to reach out to them.

Dealing with accessibility, whether by settlement agreement or court order, is the least practical approach to addressing unintentional barriers to inclusion. The writing is already on the wall. Lady Justice has already rendered many decisions favoring the disability community. And let’s not forget, justice is blind.

It’s reasonable, it’s practical, it’s the right thing to do and most importantly, it makes good business sense!

Albert J. Rizzi, M.Ed.

Albert is an international disability and civil rights advocate and the Founder of My Blind Spot, a 501(c)(3) organization that is dedicated to inspiring accessibility for people of all abilities. My Blind Spot also serves the corporate community as an expert accessibility governance adviser, reviewing and auditing corporate digital platforms assessing them for digital compliance to regulations governing inclusion, usability and accessibility for the disability community.