"It's a big issue," said Dana Marlowe, principal partner at Accessibility Partners, in an interview. Marlowe's firm and its 12 employees advise corporations and government agencies on IT usability and accessibility issues for people with disabilities. "It's not where it needs to be yet," she added.
There are approximately 60 million people with disabilities in the U.S. alone, according to Marlowe, a number that is growing steadily. (That figure, based on U.S. census data, includes a wide range of disabilities, from blindness and hearing loss, to physical mobility issues, to hidden disabilities such as cognitive impairments.) Marlowe noted that stat makes people with disabilities the largest minority group in the U.S., one that any of us can join at any time, often unexpectedly. She added that the aging baby boomer population underscores the need for usable, accessible IT.
The accessibility of mobile devices and apps is particularly pressing, Marlowe said, because of their rampant popularity. Smartphones are everywhere and tablets aren't far behind. Devices like Apple's iPad and native apps like Facebook now pass the mother-in-law test: Technologies so prevalent that even your mother-in-law uses them. (Marlowe just helped her mother-in-law install the Facebook app on her iPad. My own mother-in-law draws the line with Facebook, but does have an iPad.)
[ Here's another reason inaccessible apps are a big problem: Mobile Accounts For 17% Of All Web Traffic. ]
For the skeptical or downright cynical, consider this: People with disabilities have a combined discretionary income of $220 billion, according to Marlowe. Are they going to spend money with you if your user interface is inaccessible? (Answer: No, they won't.)
You also might not have any choice but to prioritize accessibility, especially if you do business with the federal government. Section 508, an update to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, requires federal agencies to ensure widespread IT accessibility for both internal development and external procurement. In other words: Don't expect a dime of federal money in your bottom line if you're unwilling to meet accessibility standards.
The iPad-and-Facebook example speaks to a challenge in ensuring accessibility. It's not just one company's responsibility, and can be both a hardware and software issue. Yet while the accessibility of various devices varies, according to Marlowe, more people with disabilities are turning to tablets and other mobile form factors. "People with disabilities are using tablet and other mobile devices because they are increasingly more accessible than some of their more standard hardware counterparts," she said. That shifts some of the accessibility burden to mobile developers.
"[App development] also has to be accessible, and oftentimes accessibility is unfortunately overlooked," Marlowe said. With that mind, she shared six key areas for ensuring widespread accessibility of apps.