Jonathan Hassell, founder and CEO of Hassell Inclusion, is on a mission. Here he explains the benefits of making technology more inclusive.
Digital accessibility was a top priority for the disability equality charity Scope when it decided to create a new website.
It resulted in Scope winning a British Interactive Media Association award for the most inclusively designed website of 2019. You might expect that being a disability charity, it was inevitable Scope would excel in providing digital tools.
But, like many organisations, due to staff churn, not everyone was at the same level of knowledge. The answer was to call in the experts in the shape of Hassell Inclusion, a digital accessibility agency.
In a nutshell, it helps companies and organisations to make sure that all their digital products – from websites and mobile apps to intranets and room booking systems – can be used by everybody.
“Most people that work in digital start off by creating tools that work for people like them,” explains Hassell Inclusion founder and chief executive Jonathan Hassell.
“The successful ones have realised that they need to think a bit broader than that if they want millions of customers.
“A lot of the time, organisations forget about people with impairments; people who may have a visible or invisible disability, are blind, have difficulty hearing, are dyslexic or don’t see as well they used to because of ageing.
“We try and enable organisations first to understand that there are people with needs that are probably different from theirs. If they aren’t taking those needs into account, that’s 20% of the population with a disability or 20% who are 65 plus, who may not be able to use their products.
“Potentially, they could be throwing away four in ten [40%] of their potential customers or giving members of staff with a disability an experience that makes it very difficult to do their job.”
Strategic approach to digital inclusion
The way Hassell Inclusion works depends on the size of the organisation. For large, multi-nationals, which use a wide range of external and internal digital tools, they take a strategic approach. This means getting the companies to consider the benefits and costs of making digital accessibility fully inclusive – then benchmarking their current practice, setting a strategic goal that works for them, and creating policies, processes and training staff to achieve it. Finally, they test the products to ensure they have the desired effect.
“For a smaller organisation, it’s a lot simpler,” says Jonathan. “They normally have a product already, so we initially test that to see how well it works for people with different types of disability. Then we work out the best way to help them. We like to fix the problems in the process and the organisation, not just the problems in the product – the website, mobile app, or whatever.”
He believes that is key, as many companies, in trying to comply with laws on digital accessibility, often opt for a quick fix. The problem is that things get broken again. Also, the earlier a bug is identified, the cheaper it is to fix.
“What most of the organisations in the accessibility world have done is tell people what they’ve got wrong when it’s too late to do anything about it,” Jonathan argues. “We prefer to enable people to get it right by getting in there early and training them up so that, just before launch, we don’t find a load of problems.”
Most accessible website
This is what happened during the work with Scope. Hassell Inclusion helped Scope in its contractual arrangements with the digital agency it had selected to create its new website. It meant defining the accessibility requirements clearly.
Next, Jonathan’s team checked the agency’s accessibility credentials, trained the designers and tested the designs before training the developers. A member of the Hassell Inclusion team was on hand to support the developers as they built the new website. Finally, the work was audited.
“It was probably the most accessible website that we’ve ever audited,” Jonathan says proudly. “Normally, an audit finds lots of problems.”
Problems are both time-consuming and costly. By spending money on training and getting everything right up-front, the audit costs less, and there is less troubleshooting. The Scope website project is, in his view, the benchmark for successful digital accessibility.
One of the challenges for some organisations is prioritising spending on digital development. There is also a certain level of ignorance. Jonathan cites the example of a recent free Benefits of Digital Accessibility workshop in London, which Hassell Inclusion hosted to highlight the advantages of spending money on accessibility.
“We went through about 30 different benefits,” Jonathan explains. “For example, if you’re a retail website, you make money from people visiting it and buying things. But if people can’t buy from you – if you’ve lost 40% of potential users – that will have a cost.”
He also pointed out that digital is a much cheaper way of providing customer service than a traditional phone line or in person. “Therefore, every single person who can’t use their online way of doing customer service is costing them more money than if they were able to make that accessible.”
Another benefit, adds Jonathan, “is sleeping well at night. The law here in the UK and most places in the world says that not making a website, service or mobile app available to someone with a disability is discrimination. And the Equality Act says discrimination is something you can sue for.”
But he points out, the legal requirements are not just an insurance policy and that companies have, as mentioned above, much to gain.
Jonathan recognises that diversity and inclusion professionals have to balance discrimination issues for a variety of different groups and that disability can get overlooked.
This, he says, is sometimes driven by “a lack of imagination. Few people think of a blind person as being a stockbroker. Or someone with autism as a content writer for a website. But why shouldn’t each excel in those jobs?
“Even organisations who are doing well and have a workplace adjustment process where people with disabilities are given the technology to be productive members of staff, hit on a problem. For example, ‘we’ve just created a new room booking system, but it doesn’t work with the screen reader.'”
Jonathan has three main tips for recruiting people with disabilities and making digital accessibility inclusive.
First, look at how people apply for jobs. He says: “The chances are it’s a form on a website. We work with organisations who really want to recruit people with disabilities, or have a quota to aim for. Then we’ve gone to their website where the form is, and disabled people can’t use it. So, make sure your website pages for job applications are accessible.”
Secondly, employers need to ensure that all mandatory e-learning is accessible to everyone. Finally, it’s important to have communications tools that cater to the needs of everyone. For example, if a CEO is live-streaming an important message over the intranet, provide live captions so that staff who are hard of hearing know what’s being said.
To sum up, Jonathan’s advice is: “Whatever type of organisation you are, we have at least ten benefits which could make digital accessibility an opportunity for you, rather than something you feel that you have to do. This could be the best thing you do this year.”
You can find out more about Hassell Inclusion here.