With millions of employees working from home for the foreseeable future, experts have warned reliance on online services means they must ensure content and applications are accessible to all customers and staff regardless of their level of ability.

It’s a benchmark that many companies continue to fall short of, Microsoft chief accessibility officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie pointed out, as the company launched an Accessibility Portal filled with use cases and resources to guide companies’ accessibility efforts.

Organisations need “a system and a framework” to ensure ongoing accessibility, said Flurrie, whose long-term deafness has motivated her role as an accessibility advocate.

Ultimately, she says, there is a very simple test: “If you don’t know if your stuff is accessible, it’s not.”

A world built for exclusion

Whether due to oversight or accident, accessibility gaps can significantly affect workers who struggle to engage with content and applications in the same way as their peers.

More than 4 million Australians – around 18 per cent of the population – are recognised as having some sort of disability, ranging from mental or behavioural disorders that can affect concentration and task focus, to physical ailments that affect their sight, hearing, and other perception.

Economic security is a challenge for many, with a labour force participation rate of just 53 per cent amongst Australians with a disability compared to 83 per cent of working-age Australians without a disability.

Such figures suggest that many companies are missing out on the benefits of employees whose expertise and ability are often overshadowed by obstacles around their interaction with online services.

Companies need to evolve from the idea that people’s disabilities limit their value as workers, said Mark Leigh, public sector general manager with Microsoft Australia and a sponsor of the company’s local Accessibility Council.

“Often the problem isn’t that people with disabilities can’t perform these tasks,” he said. “It’s that they’re trying to perform them in a world that hasn’t been designed with them in mind.”

‘Accessibility’ is tied to the idea of interaction, Leigh added.

“If a product or service can be used by everyone, it’s accessible; if it can’t, it’s inaccessible – and the consequences of inaccessibility can be very serious.”

“When our workplaces don’t work for us, we are simply not able to perform at our peak effect.”

Government setting the pace

Online content providers have been working for years to improve accessibility, with Australian government agencies long pushed to support the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards under the 1992 mandate to provide information and services in a “non-discriminatory accessible manner”.

The Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) government style manual outlines guidelines for accessible content – which has become even more important as growing use of mobile devices means content must automatically adjust to a range of screen sizes, orientations, and interfaces.

This challenges service designers to meet accessibility goals such as allowing users to change colours, contrast levels and fonts; zoom up to 400 per cent without text spilling off the screen; navigate most of the site using a keyboard; and listen to most of the site using a screen reader like JAWS, NVDA, and Apple’s VoiceOver.

Yet full compliance is tough: even the DTA’s accessibility site falls short of the latest WCAG 2.1 guidelines, with a September audit identifying issues with menu behaviour on mobile devices, contrast issues that affect readability, and error messing in feedback forms.

The accessibility review also found issues with navigation, shortcomings in the tagging of content headings and formatting of lists, and issues with the representation of some maths symbols.

The business value of accessibility

Leigh cited analyses suggesting that companies with a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion (D&I) are 62 per cent more likely to achieve above-average profits, twice as likely to meet or exceed their financial targets, and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes.

Despite these benefits, however, a recent McKinsey analysis found even diversity-minded companies were struggling to build inclusive workplace cultures.

“Hiring diverse talent isn’t enough,” the report warns, noting that inclusion encompasses notions of equality, openness, and belonging and calling for “bold action” to improve its execution within the business community.

“It’s the experience that they have in the workplace that shapes whether they remain and thrive…. Employees need to feel and perceive equality and fairness of opportunity in their workplace.”

The COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated this risk, McKinsey noted, warning that “as companies send staff home to work, this could reinforce existing exclusive behaviours and unconscious biases, and undermine inclusion.”

Ultimately, content accessibility will be crucial in maintaining D&I objectives – and keeping an increasingly hybrid workforce productively engaged.

“Investing your time, your biggest commodity, in this area is incredibly important,” Flurrie said.

“Learning the key principles of how you can make sure that your stuff – no matter what your stuff is – is accessible, will empower you more than you realise.”