Stairs instead of ramps, high barriers, traffic lights without signs for the blind – the list of barriers in public places that complicate the daily life of people with disabilities is long. The fact that it behaves similarly in virtual space is less obvious, but just as important. Because barriers are no less restrictive for those affected than there are no barriers to building access. Without digital access on a government website or in the offer of purchase from an online retailer, people are excluded from the sphere of public life that has become so indispensable in our daily lives.
“Digital accessibility is a prerequisite for inclusive social engagement for all people,” says Ingo Emons, head of e-commerce at Aktion Mensch. “Whether you use a computer in your day-to-day work or want to take advantage of an e-commerce offer, communicate online with authorities or get involved in politics or the online community – people with disabilities are excluded from these activities without digital access.”
People with disabilities use the Internet more than average
About 7.5 million people in this country have a recognized severe disability. According to Aktion Mensch, this demographic uses the Internet more than the average. To access it, they use, for example, keyboard controls, braille fonts, audio output or joysticks. A barrier-free website is designed for this. In those places where there is no such voting, a significant part of the population is simply closed.
In the context of discussing diversity, the topic of digital access has also become more and more general awareness. Authorities and major companies in particular are now also customizing their digital offerings to the needs of people with disabilities. In the case of small businesses, on the other hand, this aspect of digitalization is often less focused.
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“Small businesses often don’t think about this because other aspects of online business are attracting more attention: the issue of cybersecurity, for example, or the need to create an efficient payment system,” Emons says. The importance of accessibility cannot be overstated, as the expert says: “You expand your customer base, and your company benefits from a higher social reputation — and last but not least, a barrier-free online presence is easier to use, even for non-disabled visitors.”
Facing the noticeable shortage of qualified personnel
Professor Jens Boecker, economist at the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences, points to another advantage of digital accessibility: “Companies that create digital accessibility in their workplaces can face the already marked shortage of highly qualified professionals. Think, for example, In a company that is desperately looking for programmers: a barrier-free workplace would also give programmers with a visual impairment, for example, the opportunity to apply for a matching job posting.”
Companies do not need to fear the costs involved in preparing offers that are accessible to customers and employees. “There are a large number of state and federal funding programs,” Booker says. His advice: When digitizing a company, accessibility should be planned from the start, because the corresponding conversion of an existing system will be much more expensive. Businesses can get help implementing digital accessibility from professional consultants who take all aspects of the topic into consideration, from searching for the right financing to employee training.
The importance of inclusive digital engagement is underlined by the fact that the legislature has also stepped in. In 2019, the European Union passed the European Accessibility Act, which obligates all member states to ensure barrier-free access to digital products and services. The Federal Republic of Germany implemented this directive in May 2021 with the Act to Promote Access, which has also drawn criticism for its long transition periods. However, it sets a fixed date of 2025 and thus makes management and business more responsible. Indeed, economist Booker urgently advises companies not to wait for this date: “In fact, companies can no longer lay off people with disabilities as employees or customers.”
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