Back in the early days of the internet, when having a computer at home usually meant a single room with a bulky desktop tower, web accessibility was barely a thought for those in the IT industry, let alone an afterthought.

As the early 2000s wore on, third party software manufacturers began to develop bespoke desktop access solutions, often at a hefty mark-up.

The “Mobile First” digital landscape, which was to emerge a decade or so later, changed the game forever.

Suddenly, using their smartphones out and about, “ordinary” able-bodied folks found themselves plunged into situations that temporarily mirrored those routinely experienced by disabled people.

The classic example usually offered up is that of a sighted person viewing their smartphone screen on a bright sunny day. Mobile website and app developers were compelled to start thinking about high contrast fonts and size adjustments, not as something limited to the requirements of those with low vision, but as a core aspect of usability and universal design.

Fast-forward to 2020 — and the coronavirus pandemic looks set to have an equally impactful effect in demonstrating that websites and apps that are coded appropriately for individuals with disabilities, actually benefit a far wider segment of the population than one might imagine.

That’s not to mention the myriad of across the board wins and business advantages it brings to organizations who take it seriously.

Even when viewed in a silo, the potential size of the disabled market is certainly not to be sniffed at, with one in four adults in the United States living with some form of disability, be it visual, hearing, mobility or cognitive in nature.

Nevertheless, a model that divvies up the population in this way, or fails to appreciate the sizable overlap between accessibility and general usability is backward, arcane and entirely inappropriate for the post-pandemic world.

Covid brings new users online

Online grocery shopping is one such example. The dire, virtually life and death determining requirement for accessible digital shopping portals and delivery slots for house-bound disabled people during the early stages of the pandemic is well-trodden ground.

Less attention has been paid to the cohort of Baby Boomers aged over 70, who, at the outset of the pandemic, were instructed overnight by government decree to avoid social contact as much as possible due to a heightened risk of a worse outcome from Covid-19.

According to the Office for National Statistics, in the U.K., people aged over 75 represent over half of the population who do not use the web at all.

Though the over 70s are a heterogeneous group and a large number possess advanced digital skills, many, though not self-identifying as “disabled,” may encounter some form of access barrier to digital products.

This can be the result of age-related impairments, such as declining eyesight or cognition but might also simply come down to being unaccustomed to digital paradigms and e-commerce.

For individuals on the wrong side of the so-called “gray digital divide,” in the absence of the pandemic, online grocery shopping may never have received a second thought. Instead, it became a matter of necessity almost overnight.

Those online grocery websites that have always focused on digital accessibility are more likely to already have features embedded that could prove useful to the aging cohort trying out e-commerce for the first time.

This may include clear and consistent design, navigation, and links, in addition to font resizing with minimal impact on page structure and appearance.

Platforms focused on usability and universal design are likely to have gained new customers, not just for the duration of the pandemic, but for life.

Reimagining the retail experience

It’s not just older people reappraising old habits and lifestyle choices in the post-lockdown world. There has been much talk of a “new normal” and nobody really knows how long it will last.

Just this past week, the World Health Organization expressed “hope” that the pandemic will be over in two years but only if Covid-19 behaves in the same way as the Spanish Flu of a century ago.

Other scientists have suggested it will remain as an endemic disease in the global population forever.

Either way, the ailing High Street may not be able to wait. Melanie Leech, the Chief Executive of the British Property Federation confirmed to MPs last month that the coronavirus will “vastly accelerate” the demise of the British High Street, with potentially more than 50% of retail outlets disappearing.

The very idea of what was once a transient, breezy notion of “popping out to the shops” has evaporated in a few short months and is currently subject to a completely new and unusual decision-making framework.

“Do I have a suitable face covering and do I feel like wearing it? Are the kids behaving well enough to socially distance? Do I feel safe?”

The very essence of the long-established relationship between retail and leisure is also under serious threat. An outdoor lunch or dinner after a trip to the shops won’t feel nearly so appetizing during the cold winter months, nor might sterile half-empty socially distanced restaurants.

Understanding the real numbers benefiting from digital accessibility

In the yawning chasm of the reinvention of retail and leisure, e-commerce stands to inherit the earth and executing on the opportunity means maximizing the potential customer base.

Critical to this is for developers of digital products to take a step back and understand the sheer volume of accessibility remediations that can be incredibly useful for able-bodied users.

Something as simple as clear and concise language to assist those with learning and cognitive difficulties will also be of tremendous help to those who do not speak English as a first language.

Captioning for the hearing impaired is also extremely useful for non-native speakers and those in noisy environments.

Text-to-speech output for reading web pages for users with low vision is an excellent option for those wishing to absorb online articles and long-form writing whilst multitasking.

Those with low vision may benefit from large on-screen buttons but so too will someone with 20/20 vision during a jolting bus or car journey.

Having a keyboard navigable website that can be operated without the use of a mouse might be non-negotiable for an individual with a significant upper body motor impairment but will also be uniquely handy for someone with a sprained wrist or repetitive strain injury.

Equally, anybody who has ever attempted to use a mobile phone one-handed whilst multitasking, will benefit from the very same simple interface designed to assist those with a permanent motor impairment due to long-term disability.

Designing accessible digital products also holds wider benefits for organizations beyond day-to-day customer and user interactions.

Accessible websites with features such as alt text for image descriptions and captioning on videos rank higher in search engines.

In addition to benefiting search engine optimization, accessible websites also promote sound corporate responsibility. They relay important messages around brand value, ethics and inclusivity through demonstrating awareness and a social conscience.

Finally, though achieving legal compliance is weak as a sole reason for designing an accessible website, when combined with all the factors above, it’s a useful thing not to have to worry about.

As the father of the World Wide Web Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote in 2006, “The power of WWW is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

Yet, in a Mobile First digital landscape, access is defined and governed by more than just a user’s baseline physical ability. Access road blocks and a lack of flexibility are still frustrating, even when they are temporary and situational.

Hopefully, the pandemic will not last forever. Notwithstanding this, web designers maintaining a wider understanding of how accessible digital products benefit everybody, certainly should.