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Startup aims to improve web access for disabled people

Essential Accessibility is on a mission to make online services more friendly to disabled people through a mix of assistive technology and consultancy

Canada-based startup Essential Accessibility is taking steps to make web browsing and accessing online services easier for people with disabilities, and hopes to build out a substantial business with enterprises worldwide.

While recent years have seen many – though by no means sufficient – improvements to the physical built environment for disabled people, the digital environment has been left behind to some extent, said Essential Accessibility co-founder Simon Dermer.

Moreover, he told Computer Weekly, the laundry list of needs can be “very taxing” even for people who have a solid family support system, appropriate levels of state aid or insurance to fall back on.

“People with physical limitations don’t always have access to the same resources as, say, Stephen Hawking. If you can’t afford it, you’re out of luck,” he said.

Togther with his co-founder, Dermer, who has a background in rehabilitative and long-term care, set out to address the lack of attention paid to how disabled people navigate the online world.

“We were able to form a global coalition of private and public sector organisations, who came together to create an inclusive web experience,” said Dermer.

The core of its proposition is a desktop browser and smartphone application that has grown out of technology originally developed to help quadriplegics use a computer, made free to users with support from Essential’s partner organisations.

The application aggregates multiple potential hands-free modes of interacting with a computer – such as voice control, or input using a joystick – so that pretty much anybody who has difficulty typing, moving a mouse, reading a screen or interacting with a touchscreen can use the web easily.

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That includes people living with arthritis, cerebral palsy, dyslexia, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinsons, to name but a few.

“It’s like having a shopping cart of digital accessibility solutions with you,” said Dermer. “There is no single way to approach accessibility, but by bundling it we can give a comprehensive solution.”

Making businesses more accessible

Besides the basic accessibility tools, Essential has also started to offer coaching and consultancy services to businesses to help them adapt their online presence to support disabled customers.

This includes, for example, guidance on making downloadable content compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and customising online sales and marketing processes by putting an identifiable button on a website that, when pressed, will highlight products and services more likely to be of interest to a disabled visitor.

Dermer said businesses were increasingly starting to recognise the upside of making their websites more accessible. In the US, this tends to be quite litigation-driven thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) – a key piece of civil rights legislation enacted in 1990 – while countries such as the UK tend to have a more progressive environment, he said.

However, more enterprises are taking the initiative themselves: “About one in five people self-identify as disabled, so a lot of folks will act out of affinity, because shutting out people reverberates through friends and family,” he said.

“Our solution has become a catalyst to help educate organisations on the benefits of enhancing the digital customer experience for people with disabilities,” said Dermer.

Some of the organisations and enterprises that have already adopted Essential Accessibility’s platform include Hertz, Kraft, Marriott, MasterCard, Qantas and Samsung, and this list is growing all the time, with many European businesses starting to come on board as well.

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