Steps tech leaders are taking to meet new accessibility mandates

Jul 05, 20238 mins
CIOIT LeadershipRegulation

No longer a side issue, new regulations mean accessibility is rising up the business technology leadership agenda.

Leading CIOs are empowering their teams to make the digital estate as accessible as the physical buildings of the business, and they’re right to do so. Major legislation is about to reshape the digital landscape in the US and across Europe, which will mean CIOs must focus their sights on digital accessibility. 

“We’ve seen great strides in diversity and inclusion around gender and ethnicity, but there’s another huge element of society that companies are missing serving well, namely people with accessibility needs, be it physical or neurodiverse,” says Peter Bricknell, chief product officer of UK-based digital inclusion and accessibility agency Hassell Inclusion. “Without proactive support, this large community may be excluded from our increasingly digital world.”

Those with sight, neurodiversity or motor skills illnesses are often excluded from the benefits of the internet, but forthcoming legislation will go some way toward correcting this oversight.

Darren MacLeod, Head of ICT, digital transformation, and operational support at the Highlands and Islands Airports, which operates 11 airports in Scotland, says that as well as the legislation, it’s important to prepare for increased needs from customers. “If you look at the demographics, we have an aging population, so the ability to have accessibility tools is really important to us as we fully recognize the need to be inclusive,” he says. “You have to be aware that the world is changing.”

Highlands and Islands Airports is a unique business since it’s a vital transport hub for one of the most remote and sparsely populated regions of Europe. The airports provide essential transport for Scottish residents to receive medical treatment and supplies, and MacLeod, working with accessibility technology leaders Jadu, has overseen an accessibility transformation of the airports’ digital services.

The legislation in detail

During 2020, there was a 23% increase in lawsuits in the US for digital services that failed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Among the organizations to be hit were education, entertainment, leisure, and retail organizations. According to UsableNet, a provider of specialist accessibility services, 20% of the companies hit with an ADA lawsuit had been sued at least once before under the same legislation. 

A higher regulatory burden for good accessibility is about to arrive on CIOs’ desks. In September 2022, the Websites and Software Applications Accessibility Act was introduced and is expected to be voted into power by US lawmakers soon. The new Act reflects the digital environment and demands that accessibility is about software applications as well as websites. The Act understands that the web is a platform, and that many interactions with citizens and customers are via web-hosted applications and must meet the same levels of accessibility as a pure content website.

The Act also states its aims, “to establish uniform accessibility standards for websites and applications of employers, employment agencies, labor organizations, joint labor-management committees, public entities, public accommodations, testing entities, commercial providers, and for other purposes.”

“We’re staying ahead of the legislation to show it’s not about trying to be legal,” says Steven Nguyen, product manager and service owner of Collaboration and Web Services at the University of Minnesota. “The law helps enforce a culture change, but it has to be something you want to do.” Nguyen has been at the forefront of accessibility at the U of M with the support of the institution’s CIO and leadership team.

For European and international CIOs, the European Accessibility Act (EAA) will come into force in 2025 and follows the EU Web Accessibility Directive. EAA will place regulatory demands on private sector organizations in the largest single market, and bring the commercial sector in line with the public sector across the EU, which has had to provide good accessibility since September 2020. Like its US counterpart, the EAA covers operating systems but also payment terminals, self-service ticket machines, information terminals, and smartphones. 

Disability user experience

In 2023, it’d be unimaginable for an organization not to provide physical access to its buildings or services to customers. Yet the digital environment is littered with poor accessibility. “It can be incredibly time-consuming for the customer,” says Paul Lamont, a product director at Experian, the Dublin-based data analytics and consumer credit reporting company. He says customers with accessibility needs get trapped in a long process and face increased risks, so he’s been developing Support Hub, a new service portal for those with accessibility needs, offering digital tools to provide better access to financial and non-financial services including utilities such as water, telecoms and retail organizations. “Consumers with accessibility issues face a real cost and can miss payments, for example,” he says. 

He adds that digital services need to be tailored for customers with accessibility challenges. “Neurodivergent people may need a longer time-out for decision making, for example,” he says. “But that requires technical demands at the systems and CRM level.” In addition, Bricknell adds: “Dyslexic people may struggle to recall passwords, so it’s important to offer different ways to identify people, such as using fingerprint or facial technology, then everyone benefits.”

Bottom line is failing to meet the user experience needs of those with disabilities is bad for business. The World Health Organisation reported in 2022 that there are over two billion people worldwide with low vision or blindness. And according to management consultants McKinsey, poor digital accessibility accounts for $6.9 billion in lost revenue. “We expect the cost to companies to increase by 2030 as demand for accessible products and services rises due to a rapidly aging global population,” McKinsey says in its report Bridging another digital divide: Accessibility for blind and low-vision consumers.

“Accessibility increases your product and market reach,” Bricknell says “In a market that’s getting tough, why would you actively exclude 20% of customers? In addition, we’re all going to need good accessibility at some point in our lives, so let’s get it right now.”

MacLeod, at Highlands and Islands Airports, also says that accessibility is a key thing for them in the physical world of an airport. “That’s why you see high-quality signage in yellow and black,” he says. “It just makes sense that the digital environment is the same.”

Accessibility projects require sponsorship from the CIO or other members of the senior leadership team. Both the University of Minnesota and Experian programs received full backing from the CIO. “This is a corporate innovation,” says Lamont at Experian. “If you don’t have the support of the SLT, then failure is imminent.”

As organizations prepare for the new regulatory demands, digital accessibility will need to become central to the development process. “I would love to see accessibility said in the same breath as security and data protection,” says Bricknell at Hassell Inclusion. MacLeod adds that the use of Agile methodologies is helpful, especially if the organization can recruit the expertise of people with accessibility issues who can critique development iterations. “We’ve put lived experience at the heart of it,” Lamont says as well. Financial services firm HSBC has also recently announced 1,000 of its staff will be trained in accessibility for the global bank.

How Experian built accessibility support

Lamont’s involvement developing Support Hub began in March 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. 

“The financial services industry has moved away from thinking that data analytics will discover a consumer’s vulnerabilities,” he says. “With data, you can get it wrong, and that’s embarrassing and delivers a poor consumer experience. Data doesn’t necessarily give the insight needed to take the correct support action, or one that the consumer could reasonably expect. For example, if a customer has a propensity toward a gambling addiction, there can be several possible actions to support a consumer, and the data can’t always tell firms this level of detail.” As a result, Support Hub fills a gap in the market since service providers don’t really need the diagnosis of an accessibility issue. They need to know how to take the correct support action in order to benefit the customer, no matter their needs.

Because organizations didn’t know how to support customers with accessibility challenges, the issue mushroomed, and customers encountered problems with their different financial services, such as banking, credit cards, and mortgages, but also their utility providers too. “Consumers don’t feel they have true control on how their information is used,” Lamont says. “This leads to consumers not sharing their support needs, and that creates further obstacles.”

In developing Support Hub, which has 16 different financial and non-financial services brands taking part, Lamont and Experian look to provide those with digital accessibility challenges with a single portal from which to manage all their essential services, and, he hopes, benefit all involved. “It’s a central platform and the consumer is in complete control,” he says. “We work with the client to make sure that all the right processes are in place.”


Mark Chillingworth is a CIO and CTO journalist, commentator, moderator and advisor. From 2010 to 2016 he was editor in chief of the award-winning CIO UK. In 2011 he created the CIO 100, an annual transformation power list of the UK’s most influential CIOs and launched the UK’s first CIO Podcast in 2016.

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