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Global Accessibility Awareness Day: The profit of digital accessibility, a tourist’s perspective

Third Thursday of May is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. A day for businesses to ponder on the far-reaching monetary benefits of digital accessibility for tourists with disabilities. Persons with disability in the US, for instance, spend around $17 billion on travel.

May 18, 2023 / 01:26 PM IST
Representational image. (Photo via Getty Images)

Representational image. (Photo via Getty Images)

On an evening in the July monsoon, my friend and I decided to hop around Delhi’s Connaught Place, to soak in the beautiful weather. As we were strolling and walking through the gorgeous white corridors in search of a wheelchair-accessible café, we had almost embarked upon disappointment, when, like the light at the end of the tunnel, a review on Google Photos showed a wheelchair-accessible place in the vicinity. However, it was only upon reaching there, after a lot of walking and strolling about, that we realised it was not accessible despite there being a lift — a flight of stairs needed to be scaled before entering the café.

Such is the plight of countless people with disabilities who remain confined to their homes because of patchy or missing accessibility. The question then looms — do we not like to travel and witness the beauty that our planet is? Of course, we do! But we don’t because we’re held back by the shackles of inaccessibility — of places, infrastructure, websites, and whatnot. A 2006 survey by the Central Statistics Office found that almost 50 per cent of people with a physical disability face challenges in venturing outside of their homes. This, in turn, pushes us further away from entering the mainstream because we don’t have the means to move out and show ourselves as potential consumers for businesses to become accessible.

Global Accessibility Awareness Day is observed on the third Thursday of May every year to raise awareness of the importance of digital accessibility, falling on May 18 this year. Though digital accessibility is largely understood as being beneficial for blind and visually impaired users, its scope expands to people with neurodivergent conditions as well. In the past few years, especially after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, as we have slowly transformed into digital consumers, it is the need of the hour to make our digital resources accessible to all our users.

Digital accessibility is an umbrella term that refers to making digital spaces such as websites, online documents, social media, apps, etc., accessible by removing inaccessible barriers. For instance, for a blind person, who uses a screen-reading software to make sense of apps and other digital spaces, images and other visual media would be of no use because they would not know what’s there in that image. In such a situation, image or video descriptions would allow them to gather the context and content of the visual media. Features like these are important to make digital space accessible for all.

Accessible tourism is that segment of tourism that addresses the inclusion of people at large, including people with diverse disabilities such as mobility, visual, speech, hearing, cognitive, and psychosocial. In simple terms, it means that people can indulge in travel experiences and choose to go wherever they wish to, without giving a second thought about encountering physical or digital barriers. It can be something as simple as ramps for travelers with limited mobility, tactile paths for those with visual impairment to adequate colour contrast on websites, and screen reader-friendly websites and applications.

Yes, accessibility extends much beyond just a ramp or an accessible washroom and one of the many segments of accessible tourism also includes digital accessibility. Knowingly or unknowingly, all of us use these features in our daily lives.

Before venturing out for a dinner date, we rely on online reviews, maps, or even the availability of seats at a particular restaurant. We make use of online accommodation portals to book a stay for a vacation. Is your favourite ice-cream parlour open past midnight? Let’s do a quick Google search! The list is endless. Being a wheelchair user, the availability of such resources online comes as a relief and saves a lot of physical and mental energy. It is almost natural for me to check for ramps, wheelchair-accessible washrooms, and other such amenities on the websites of hotels before stepping out of the house. Like me, many people with disabilities have to walk an extra mile (no pun intended!) to make sure we don’t land ourselves in inaccessible trouble, but despite all precautions, we often do end up at inaccessible places. Data from Germany suggests that only 54.3 per cent of travellers with disabilities are likely to go on a vacation in comparison to 75.3 per cent of non-disabled German travellers. This stark contrast is due to the real or perceived barriers they encounter while travelling.

Businesses, even today, don’t realise the gravity of monetary losses arising as a result of inaccessible business models. Let me break it down for you.

According to global data, there are more than 1 billion people with disabilities. These people also have high purchasing power. For instance, around 18 per cent of the 27 million people with disabilities in India have access to some form of disposable income. According to the Open Doors Organisation of the United States, people with disabilities spend around $17 billion on travel! Furthermore, research in Germany has shown that people with disabilities are willing to pay €1,000-2,000 more to access suitable tourism products and services. What often misses business’ gaze is the fact that people with disabilities often travel with caregivers, thus, expanding their consumer base. Moreover, if the services are hospitable, accessible, and comfortable, people with disabilities are more likely to share them with 50 other persons with disabilities. Hence, the monetary benefits of making services accessible are far-reaching.

The question, however, remains — how can one make their businesses digitally accessible for all? Yes, not just for people with disabilities but businesses should focus on universal design and include all sections of populations.

Some best practices are:

  • Add alternative text for all images and closed captions in videos on all digital spaces.

  • Make sure that documents such as PDFs and MS Word files can be accessed by screen reader users.

  • Ensure that the website has the option to switch to a screen reader-friendly version.

  • Ensure optimum colour contrast and minimal animations on all digital touch points.

  • Use font style and size that are easy to read. Sans serif fonts are generally accessible to all

The ground rule is to ensure that your website and all other pieces of Web content are compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The latest set, WCAG 2.1, was published in 2018 and includes 12-13 guidelines for making natural information (such as images, text, videos, and sound) and code or markup accessible.

In today’s age and time, when we rely on our digital spaces so much, inaccessible businesses are nothing but missed opportunities to make exorbitant profits. So, this Global Accessibility Awareness Day, let’s be cognisant of people with disabilities, extend accessible services and information and become more sensitive, inclusive, and accommodating of people at large.

Kavya Mukhija is a Jaipur-based organisational psychologist, wheelchair-user, and freelance writer. Views expressed are personal.