On day two of Econsultancy Live: ‘What’s next for CX?’, Elisabeth Ward, accessibility expert at Scope, speaking to Econsultancy Editor Ben Davis, gave an overview of disability in digital including how the pandemic has in some cases exacerbated accessibility issues.

More than fourteen million (or one in five) people living in the UK are disabled, meaning as many as 40% of UK households house at least one disabled person. Despite this group making up such a large proportion of UK customers, they are still 50% more likely to face barriers in digital spaces than non-disabled customers.

“The collective spending power of disabled people and their households, often called the Purple Pound, is estimated to be worth £274 billion per year to UK businesses, but 7 in 10 customers say they will click away from a website that they find difficult to use.” Ward revealed.

As a result, businesses are thought to have lost as much as £17.1 billion in 2019 alone. Given society is now more reliant than ever on digital services during the pandemic, this loss could be becoming even greater.

New barriers alongside all the old ones?

Understandably, the context in which disabled people have been facing digital barriers has changed since the onset of Covid-19 as businesses have been rapidly digitising shopping, services and experiences.

“For some disabled people, changes have been positive as digital technology and online interactions make things easier for them to stay connected and independent,” Ward explains, “For others, moving to a digital-first society will have created many more barriers.”

Indeed, some evidence suggests these sudden developments have not been entirely positive for the disabled community. Forty-seven percent of disabled respondents to a recent Scope survey said that they had experienced technological challenges over the last year. Those with learning and behavioural impairments have been most affected by the move, particularly when it comes to online social interaction and communication. This is not to mention additional problems caused by unprecedented new demand on online services under lockdown.

As a result, some disabled users have not only had to navigate the typical, often overlooked, barriers such as poor web optimisation for screen readers, insufficient alt text on images and unhelpful colour contrast, but a plethora of new ones over the last year.

An upcoming spotlight project on accessibility in the supermarket sector revealed some particular pain points within the online grocery shopping experience, which Ward shared.

“Delivery slots [were] a big issue, in part because there was this categorisation of ‘extremely vulnerable to coronavirus’, but then the people that are disabled and relied on those delivery slots generally were not then able to access… their deliveries.”

“We also found that the move from online to offline – so being able to tell delivery drivers that you needed help getting your food into the house, and obviously the restrictions that were put into place – caused a lot of barriers.”

Feedback also suggests that many found themselves turning to alternative supermarket websites in the hopes of getting a slot, only to find that they were much less optimised for their needs than their usual brand.

Of course, it’s not just problems with grocery shopping that disabled people have faced. Other examples Ward cites include difficulties using video calling software (thanks to poor audio quality), issues contacting customer services and completing online forms, and even setbacks in filling out online job applications after sudden redundancy.

“How society works has changed and with it came new barriers alongside all the old ones. Many organisations, charities and public services were not ready for this change… and continue to exclude disabled people by not making accessibility a priority.”

The pursuit of agility

Part of the reason new barriers have surfaced may be due to a renewed focus on agility. Davis asked Ward about the impact of the increase in pace businesses have adopted in since March 2020.

“The sudden push for all these services to be online, and everyone trying to do [that] really quickly [has meant] they’ve not been able to consider disabled people’s needs,” she explains, “… It’s really important because you need to know what your customers need before doing these things.”

It could be argued that brands and services that reacted quickly back in March 2020 have had plenty of opportunity to look back and make changes to their updated digital offering, this time with accessibility in mind.

Ultimately, however, accessibility can – and should be – baked in from the start, without compromising the speed at which digital products go live, and without the need to have users physically present for testing. Ward explains, “Take that time to do the research, do the testing, you can still be agile and run these things quickly.”

“… Even before the pandemic we did a lot of testing online. There’s lots of tools out there to help you test with customers, at least on websites online, through video chats… the capability is there.”

Be a disability game-changer

So, what steps can brands take towards putting accessibility first and improving disabled customers’ experiences online?

It’s important to note that making accessibility a priority in your customer experience and service design doesn’t just benefit disabled people trying to use online services and products. Not only will your site be easier to use, but businesses can benefit from increased revenue, improved online visibility, and a lower bounce rate.

Ward shared a quote from Elise Roy’s 2015 TEDx talk: “When we design for disability first, we often stumble upon solutions that are not only inclusive but are also often better than when we design for the norm.”

The first big step towards inclusivity, Ward says, is changing our attitude towards those with disabilities. According to research, a whopping 60% underestimate the number of disabled people living in society. As a result, brands and individuals are less likely to consider this cohort in everyday situations and continue to overlook barriers both online and offline.

“How disabled people are viewed negatively affects how the digital world views accessibility. Once attitudes and perceptions change, the rest will follow.”

Inside organisations, this involves providing awareness training for employees, and additional design training for those that work in product and web development. Once this is in place, Ward explains, “when you do need to react quickly, you will include your disabled customers in that process.”

“… Implementing some best practices and [having] everyone being aware and knowledgeable about accessibility will… put you ahead of the curve.”

Last, but certainly not least, it is crucial that brands involve disabled voices in their research and testing processes. Without their input and lived experiences, businesses will not be able to reach their full potential when it comes to providing gold-standard online accessibility.

“We need to close the digital divide and get what we’re calling disability game-changers to help influence, inspire and revolutionise the next wave of digital innovation.”

Advice and resources for businesses looking to improve their digital accessibility can be found at Scope’s The Big Hack hub.

Read more coverage from Econsultancy Live: ‘What’s next for CX?’ here