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Web Accessibility And Your Business - An Interview With Schalk Neethling

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Web Accessibility And Your Business - An Interview With Schalk Neethling

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On June 18th 2008 Schalk Neethling, Web Builder Zone Leader, was interviewed on Radio Today concerning the topic of web accessibility and how not being accessible can effect your business. Below follows the transcript of this interview.

Laurie Butgereit - Radio Today: Now why is not having an accessible web site or web service bad for your business?

Schalk Neethling: One of the things that is important to business is to know the numbers so, let’s talk some numbers. To me, the more people I can market my services to the better. So why would I exclude a certain portion of the population just because catering to their needs takes a little bit more effort? The reason I believe a lot of businesses does just this is because of a lack of education and awareness of how not being accessible effects your business. What do I mean by this? Simple, business is not aware of the true numbers. Most assume, there is no way that the numbers can be of such a significance that it can possibly justify the extra money they have to spend to ensure their web sites or web services are accessible.

One thing I have learned from my years as a developer and designer is to never assume. Ask the questions and get the facts before making crucial decisions that can effect your business. Now, what are the numbers? While I do not have any stats specifically pertaining to South Africa, I do have some US stats I would like to share, and as we are all part of the global economy now, I believe these stats to be as useful as any other. Before I get into the actual numbers there is something I need to mention. One of those things that people assume and that changes the game considerably, is that web accessibility is not just about people who have been medically diagnosed with a disability, it is also concerned with the aged and aging portion of our population who, whilst not legally blind, does suffer from low vision and also need the help of the same assistive technologies used by disabled users. So without even touching on the mobile market, which is incredibly important in an African context, here are some numbers from the US.

If we just consider the portion of society that have been diagnosed with a disability, the number of people can reach as many as 10 million people. This group represents a possible purchasing power of $46 billion a year. Now if we add to this the population off the aged, we are talking about a purchasing power of close to $100 billion. Now this is not an amount any business can take lightly.

Radio Today: How can not taking accessibility of your web presence seriously as a business, effect a business?

Neethling: This touches on the public perception of your business. To my mind having a positive perception about your business in the marketplace is as important, if not more important, then having a strong brand identity. Now this leads to a couple of questions I would like businesses to think about. Would I support a business that does not believe that it is their social responsibility to ensure that their site is accessible to all? If I had a friend or relative that had some form of disability and complained about a particular business, would I support that same business? My short answer to both of these are, no. What does that mean for your business? A negative perception or a negative approach to the way you deal with your costumers can have far reaching effects you probably are not even considering. To continue along this train of though let me present a sample of this.

Online banking is the most basic of services that can improve the lives of the disabled. Giving them access to online tools to manage their accounts and money is invaluable to the disabled as it makes their lives just that little bit easier. For the bank that ensures that they provide innovative and accessible service offerings to all their clients, it will mean satisfied, loyal clients who will spread the word and send new clients thier way.

Radio Today: Can you site some examples of businesses who have handled the whole accessibility issue correctly or incorrectly?

Neethling: As I have been following the discussions on the mailing list of the National Accessibility Portal run by the Meraka Institute, I was pleased to hear the good news about the accessibility of the Pick and Pay online shopping portal. I was also surprised to hear that when Pick and Pay relaunched their service on a new platform, the same users who were singing their praises, was now faced with the possibility of not having access to this services anymore as the new platform rendered the Pick and Pay online shopping portal unusable by these users. One of the regular users of the site decided to call them asking if they were aware of the problems and when or if the site will be fixed. The user also expressed their real need for this service. Luckily, this story has a happy ending. The developers of the Pick and Pay shopping site took these users plight seriously, and even went as far as sending one of the developers out to the user so he can demonstrate what exactly the problems was that he was experiencing. They have fixed a lot of the problems already and are hard at work to fix the rest of the accessibility issues experienced by the site users. This positive attitude has ensured that Pick and Pay retained these users and did not loose them to a competitor.

Computicket, SARS as well as @lantic presents the flip side of this coin. Regarding Computicket there is one particular step that forms part of the Computicket online booking system that prevents users using assistive technologies from booking tickets via their site. Many users have expressed that they are looking to find an alternative service to use for their ticket booking needs.

As far as SARS are concerned, for people who wish to do their tax returns online, they first need to log in to their secure site. Unfortunately here, users using a screen reader to access the site, are presented with a barrier that prevents them from making use of this very useful service.

@lantic provides an account management page where users can log in, to change their details, access usage details and manage their allocated bandwidth for each month. Very useful services, however to people using screen readers, they are useless.

The one thing that connects all three of these cases is the fact that, unlike Pick And Pay and MWeb, these businesses decided to ignore these issues, even when contacted and informed by the users. Now, accept for SARS, there are alternative providers of these services in the marketplace and if these businesses continue to ignore their user’s needs, these users will move to another service provider that takes their concerns seriously and provide these same services in an accessible way. This means lost revenue for your business and as anyone running a business knows, getting a new client is much easier and cheaper then regaining a lost client.

If you think about the difficulty a person with a disability has to go through, just to get through their day, then imagine the added complexity of having to go to the bank, buy groceries or book tickets. For all these people it would be a God send if they had access to services on the web that make their lives easier. But for these services to be of any use to them it has to be accessible.

Radio Today: How does the law come into play with regards to accessibility?

Neethling: This topic is the last thing any business wants to think about. The possibility of a lawsuits being served on you. Lawsuits are probably the scariest aspect when it comes to accessibility. The US retailer Target will definitely agree to that as they are still entangled in a long court battle against the National Federation of the Blind that started in February 2006 and will certainly cost them a huge sum once judgement is made. Not to mention all of the bad press and loss of respect from their customers they are already experiencing.

Now currently in South Africa there is no law mandating either business nor government to ensure that their websites are accessible or meet a certain standard. But in some countries like the UK and Australia the move has already been made to enforce certain levels of accessibility to any government website that is publicly accessible. Now my question is, do you really want to wait until you are legally obliged before you take accessibility seriously?

Radio Today: Any final thoughts?

Neethling: The bottom line for me is, not taking accessibility, your user’s experience and needs seriously can damage your business and limit you from reaching a large and mostly untapped market that could provide your business with millions of rands in revenue.

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