Website accessibility: An ethical and business issue

Australian companies would never dream of discriminating against a customer with a disability face-to-face. However, many unknowingly do so by failing to have accessible websites.

With one in five Australians having a disability, a lack of digital accessibility is a serious oversight, said Shefik Bey, managing director of user experience consultancy and accessibility training provider, U1 Group.

"It is a common misconception that website accessibility is only about helping those with vision impairments. It's also about people with fine motor control issues, hearing difficulties or cognitive issues."

Bey said that by improving internet accessibility, organisations can increase their market reach by considering the many Australians living with disabilities. A commitment to accessibility also significantly reduces reputational and legal risks and increases brand equity and a positive social standing.

Disability discrimination commissioner, the Hon Susan Ryan AO, says the Human Rights Commission strongly supports the full participation of people with disability in Australian life, including business transactions such as shopping online.

"Early on after my appointment, I took a particular focus on accessible information and communication technology (ICT)," said Ryan. "There have been considerable advancements in website and software technology, hardware and equipment, which means that the barriers that may have prevented a person with a disability from participating can be reduced or removed – if these accessible ICT options are utilised by companies."

Ryan added: "With disability discrimination-related complaints representing the highest number of complaints received under our various discrimination acts here at the Commission, we know that we still have much work remaining."

So how can boards ensure their organisations' IT governance policies consider people with disabilities?

Alex Varley, CEO of Media Access Australia, a not-for-profit which specialises in digital accessibility, said that too many directors are flustered by the issue and may think it is too overwhelming to address.

"Like any governance issue, it is important to start the process and have a strategy in place. That way, risk is managed and you have a clear plan that management can report against," he said.

Varley offered these key tips for boards on digital accessibility:

  • Add it to the agenda - Make the issue a formal item on the board agenda and ask management to report against it. By starting to address accessibility, you are mitigating some of the risk by showing that you have a strategy that you are working through.
  • Find a champion - The accessibility champion must have senior management ownership to drive change and reinforce its importance to the rest of the organisation.
  • Identify the issues - Undertake an assessment of the digital accessibility profile of the organisation.
  • Make board documents accessible - Ensure that digital documents and communications, including your annual report, are accessible. The easiest way to achieve this is to ensure that secretariat and communications staff learn the principles of basic document accessibility. This accessible annual report checklist can help management start planning early.