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The Accessibility Imperative: How to Use Inclusive Design to Create Healthcare Digital Experiences for All

All successful companies identify and serve specific target audiences. That’s as true of healthcare organizations as it is of consumer products. But unlike consumer products, healthcare organizations typically have a broader mandate to serve the general public, not just niche demographics. And that includes people living with permanent or temporary disabilities.

Roughly 15% of the world’s population lives with a disability. That number is even higher in the United States. And the data shows that those numbers are only rising. Yet accessibility and inclusive design (design principles that create more accessible experiences) are still treated as an afterthought in far too many digital products and experiences. Healthcare included.

Accessibility is now a firmly established legal requirement, one you can’t afford to ignore. But it’s about much more than simply jumping through the right hoops to satisfy your legal team. Here’s why your healthcare organization should embrace accessibility and inclusive design with open arms — and how to get started creating more equitable digital experiences.

Accessibility and Inclusive Design are Legally Mandated Elements of the Healthcare Digital Experience

Many organizations may treat accessibility and inclusive design as discretionary add-ons, but the reality is that they are far from optional, legally speaking. If you fail to build your healthcare organization’s website and other digital properties with accessibility in mind, you’re automatically putting your business at risk of unwanted lawsuits.

Here’s the deal: Healthcare organizations that accept funding from federal programs (Medicaid, Medicare, CHIP, and so on) are beholden to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The ACA states that participating organizations must not discriminate in the way they deliver care based on an individual’s disability status, among other factors. And that requirement applies to doctors’ offices and digital experiences alike.

So what exactly is required?

The Meaningful Access Rule is the means by which the ACA enforces this nondiscrimination standard. It lays out the specific accessibility requirements for healthcare companies’ digital content. As part of that, healthcare organizations that participate in federally funded programs must meet the AA standard of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 (WCAG 2.1). WCAG 2.1 lays out the specific actions organizations must take to make their digital experiences perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust for people with a range of disabilities.

Depending on your organization’s unique situation, you may need to comply with both WCAG 2.1’s AA standards and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Like the Meaningful Access Rule, Section 508 delineates accessibility requirements for government agencies and partners.

Knowing and fulfilling your legal obligations is the bare minimum when it comes to your digital properties’ accessibility.

Beyond Legal Requirements: Why Your Healthcare Organization Should Embrace Inclusive Design with Open Arms

The threat of lawsuits is real. But it’s not the only — or even the most important — reason you should care about accessibility and inclusive design. For one thing, this legal requirement is grounded in a serious ethical imperative. Put simply, making healthcare more accessible to all is just the right thing to do.

On top of that, there are plenty of business incentives to consider, too.

Consider this: You’ve likely worked hard to create a user experience that meets your target audience’s needs. If you neglect inclusive design principles, you fail to serve a significant segment of your customers well. That’s true no matter how carefully you craft your experience around those well-developed personas.

As an added bonus, truly inclusive digital experiences tend to be better digital experiences all the way around — for everyone. The process of creating accessible and inclusive design helps drive innovation and yields a more satisfying and user-friendly experience for all the people you serve.

Last but not least, keep in mind that many healthcare organizations still lag in this area. As a result, inclusive design and accessibility represent a critical opportunity to set your organization apart. By meaningfully investing in accessibility, you can boost perceptions of your brand both internally and externally (among customers, partners, vendors, employees, and the broader community).

To capture these benefits, you’ll want to do more than check the minimum required boxes by taking a holistic approach to accessibility and inclusive design. For example, you may want to consider the relative accessibility of your digital experiences through the lens of gender, age, sex, race, religious affiliation, digital literacy, and economic status.

Getting Started: How to Create More Inclusive Healthcare Digital Experiences

It’s clear that inclusive design is the way to go. But what should you do first? Take the following steps to get started on the path toward a more accessible digital future.

  1. Determine whether you have the expertise to address accessibility concerns in-house. Does your internal team have an up-to-date understanding of what’s legally required and how to achieve conformance? If not, you may want to consider hiring an accessibility firm or a UX agency like UpTop Health. Keep in mind that accessibility firms typically conduct audits and generate recommendations, while a UX firm can do all that and implement the changes necessary to meet your goals.
  2. Conduct an accessibility audit. Next, you’ll want to assess your existing digital properties and check their conformance against each accessibility requirement. You don’t need to review each and every page on your site. Instead, focus on a representative sampling of key pages and measure conformance levels on each of those pages. There are a number of automated tools out there that can scan your pages for accessibility issues. However, a truly comprehensive audit requires careful review by an expert which includes manual assessment of page design and layout, contrast, consistent navigation, and alternatives to non-text content to name a few.
  3. Conduct a competitive review. Once you’ve completed your audit, it’s time to take stock of what your competitors are doing in terms of inclusive design. You may find that you can easily differentiate your brand by investing more deeply in accessibility than your peers.
  4. Set goals and build an accessibility roadmap. Finally, you’ll need to identify your short- and long-term accessibility goals and plot them out in an accessibility roadmap. Basic conformance should come first, but don’t be shy about going above and beyond.

At their core, accessibility and inclusive design are really about empathy — the same generous instinct that animates healthcare as an industry. Investing in accessibility is another way to live out your organization’s mission, create a more successful user experience, and grow your business.

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