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Technology for All: Why Startups Should Build with Accessibility in Mind

Rachel Wolkowitz

Attorney, Wilkinson Barker Knauer, LLP

Christopher Clark

Attorney, Wilkinson Barker Knauer, LLP

Social media has revolutionized the way that individuals communicate with each other, with businesses and, increasingly, with the government.  Social media also changed the way we consume news and other information and stay in contact with family and friends.

Yet, as Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Ajit Pai said last week, “Technology is good only insofar as it is accessible.” One in three Americans will be disabled at some point in their lives, and 48 million people—20 percent of the U.S. population—have some kind of hearing loss.

Ensuring that technology is accessible to individuals with disabilities is more than a moral and, in certain circumstances, legal obligation: It is smart business, especially for entrepreneurs. Being inaccessible means missing out on huge portions of the population, their money and their talent, and also can subject you to criticism. On the flip side, accessibility can set your startup apart in a way that drives users to your product.

A recent event at the FCC, which regulates the accessibility of communications equipment and technologies, highlighted a number of best practices for designers and programmers for making any technology, and social media in particular, accessible. Here are our takeaways:

Build with accessibility in mind. 

Who is in the room when you are designing and programming? Who is testing your application, product or website?  Are your beta testers using accessibility aids like screen readers, speech-to-text systems, or trying to adjust caption font and background when trying to understand an audio-visual component? If not, your big idea—the code you have labored on—might not work when accessed via accessibility aids and you might be leaving money on the table. For example, Facebook recently tested security measures that depend on recognizing a friend’s face. However, these features only function as intended for those who can see (excluding, e.g., individuals with low vision) or who can recognize faces (excluding, e.g., many in the autistic community). Testing new features with the disability community can identify issues early—and improve your product for all.

Usability is just as important as accessibility. 

Accessibility refers to the use of specific features in products that allow individuals with disabilities to access those products. Meanwhile, usability refers to the ability of individuals with disabilities to learn about and operate those features effectively. For example, most desktop browsers allow you to adjust font size in just two clicks: “menu,” then “zoom.”  One way to ensure both accessibility and usability is to reach out to disability groups to let them know about your application or website’s features. If the features work, these users can help spread the word.

Kill two birds with one stone. 

Accessibility features intended to help one group may also benefit another. For instance, simpler interfaces for screen-readers can help make a website more accessible for the autistic community by reducing clutter.

Along the same lines, because they provide simpler user interfaces, mobile applications and websites are often much better for the blind and autistic communities than traditional web interfaces. Text-based communications prevalent in many social media applications can help members of the deaf, hard of hearing and autistic communities who may not be able to pick up overheard comments in a crowded, loud bar.

Do not rely on third parties.

Although application programming interfaces and third-party accessibility solutions are important, neither is a substitute for built-in accessibility.

You do not have to reinvent the wheel.

Accessible Social Media Toolkit 2.0 is a living document that contains helpful tips, real-life examples and best practices to ensure social media content is usable and accessible to all citizens. It also contains five principles for making social media content accessible:

1. Keep it simple:  Write in plain language, use camel case when appropriate (e.g., #DigitalGov instead of #digitalgov), and limit the overuse of abbreviations, acronyms, and hashtags.

2. List contact information on the social media account page.

3. Make social media content available through more than one channel.

4. Provide links or contact information to official social media support and accessibility teams.

5. Learn the accessibility requirements and periodically test content for accessibility.

Whether building social media applications and using social media for outreach and marketing purposes, these practices can help ensure your technology is accessible.

Rachel Wolkowitz

Attorney, Wilkinson Barker Knauer, LLP

Rachel Wolkowitz is an attorney with Wilkinson Barker Knauer, a boutique law firm focusing on technology and telecommunications law and policy.

Christopher Clark

Attorney, Wilkinson Barker Knauer, LLP

Christopher Clark is an attorney with Wilkinson Barker Knauer, a boutique law firm focusing on technology and telecommunications law and policy.