Commentary

A Costly Gamble

Last summer, Apple found itself in a pickle with the disability community. The state of Massachusetts was threatening to sue Apple for failing to make its iTunes media library accessible to blind students. Apple agreed to pay $250,000 and added audio to almost its entire iTunes library. It also decided to include audio in its latest iPod Shuffle, released this month, which it has marketed as an accessible iPod.

Apple avoided a costly lawsuit, but other companies haven't been as fortunate. In the state of Washington, movie theater chains are being sued for failing to make closed-captioned movies available more frequently to the deaf and hard-of-hearing. This latest class-action suit has the potential to spill over into other areas of digital media, such as news streaming, TV show streaming, and movie downloads via the Internet.

Time and time again, companies spend heavily on product development and marketing, but fail to consider people with disabilities who might use their products. This oversight seems irresponsible: In the U.S., 54 million adults -- or one in five Americans -- have a physical or mental disability. People with disabilities have a combined income of more than a trillion dollars -- and are willing to spend it on products and technologies that make their lives more productive.

Brands that ignore the needs of this group relinquish an opportunity to reach this growing demographic. They also put their business at a higher risk for costly lawsuits, such as the $6 million in damages that Target paid in 2008 for failing to make some of its Web content accessible to blind people.

One way for companies to approach accessibility is to consider the principles of universal design, which requires that a product be built for everyone, including those with disabilities. For example, GE recently designed a kitchen with appliances such as a motorized adjustable sink that can be used by both tall and short people, including those in a wheelchair or those with a stature disability. GE markets the kitchen as "Real Life Design."

If universal design isn't an option, brands should consider partnering with an assistive technology provider to help configure their product to the needs of people with disabilities. Amazon, for example, recently partnered with Nuance Communications, a maker of speech-recognition technology, to add audio to its Kindle 2 electronic book reader. Companies that have an online presence should also check the latest accessibility guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C.

At the very least, companies should begin to think about every single consumer who might use its products at some point -- including people with disabilities. Accessibility helps create more useful products, protects against lawsuits and opens doors to a new market that has been underserved for too long. Accessibility is a reality that companies can no longer afford to ignore.

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1 comment about "A Costly Gamble ".
  1. Hart Weichselbaum from the planning practice , March 27, 2009 at 10:15 a.m.

    My sight-impaired elderly mom was excited about getting a Kindle2 so she could have the NY Times read to her. She was very disappointed to learn the the controls are too difficult to manipulate. (I'm able-bodied and tech-savvy, and even I have a bit of trouble with the 5-way switch!)