When I talk to teams about web accessibility, often someone will ask how many people with disabilities use their site(s), or some variation of that question. It’s complicated, and other questions can be more helpful.
My standard answer usually includes that we can’t measure assistive technology usage for (good) privacy reasons, that our analytics won’t show customers that went to a more accessible competitor and that accessibility benefits everyone.
Accessibility ROI irrelevant (says… Apple!)
One other aspect though, let’s go into that straight away, is that looking for this data hints at trying to find return on investment. A counter question could be: what will we do with that data? Let’s say we get the number and deem it a very small percentage… whatever that is… equal access is still the right thing to aim for, it is still a human right and it is still required by law in most places. So, basically, our organisation has three good reasons to prioritise accessibility that exist regardless of a number of users with disabilities.
Or, as Apple CEO Tim Cook once told a shareholder:
When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI. When I think about doing the right thing, I don’t think about an ROI. If that’s a hard line for you, then you should get out of the stock.
(From: Apple’s Tim Cook gets feisty, funny and fiery at shareholders meeting, Los Angeles Times, 1 March 2014)
This makes sense for the web too. The web is all about accessibility, both of information and for end users.
Privacy trumps metrics
A web user’s need for privacy trumps our need for analytics. This is especially the case for people with disabilities, who rightly don’t want their disability to be one of your metrics. Standards organisations are careful not to add features to the Web Platform that allow such tracking, because it would invade individual user needs too much.
Your analytics don’t show market potential
Even if we could accurately measure how many people with disabilities used our site, it isn’t a very meaningful number. If our site is inaccessible to people who use voice control, chances are those people are shopping with our competitor instead. The reason they don’t show up in our numbers might be just that.
For the potential, we could look at the World Health Organisation’s Report on Disability, published in 2011. In a comprehensive chapter on demographics, they conclude 15-20% of the world’s population has a disability. These numbers aren’t exact, as countries have different methods of counting, but they give a reasonable estimate that we can work with.
Accessibility benefits everyone
Accessibility features on our site won’t benefit everyone all the time, that would be an exaggeration, but they often benefit many more people than just specific groups of people with disabilities. Dark mode is a feature some users need to avoid headaches or to read content, but many others still apply such settings, for a wide variety of reasons.
And it doesn’t just benefit a large parts of our user base, accessibility can also inspire innovation in our organisations. When an Italian inventor created the first typewriter for his blind friend, he invented a thing that is at the centre of what all of us do all day. Voice controlled software, audiobooks… the examples of things that were initially designed for people with disabilities but used by many more, are countless.
We probably don’t need to know how many people with disabilities use our sites, as regardless of what that number would be, we should want to build accessible sites, for many ethical, legal and business reasons.