Website Accessibility and Buying Power of Persons with Disabilities

This blog post is part of a series of posts discussing the Business Case for Accessibility. In order to get a full view of the Business Case for Accessibility, I encourage you to read all posts in this series, links to which can be found at the bottom of this post.

Numerous statistics are often cited by accessibility advocates which present large numbers for the rate of disability, particularly in the United States. I’ve seen numbers ranging from 49,000,000 to 54,000,000 for the number of people having a disability in the US. This equates to about 20% of the US population. Clearly this is a large number one should not ignore. Accessibility advocates imply that by creating an accessible website, you can capture a greater market share from a demographic with strong buying power.

  • Does it increase income? That seems to be the implication. The argument here is that this is a large population that can be captured, provided a site is accessible. What’s a bit difficult to track down are data on income on a per-site basis by persons with disabilities.
  • Does save money? No.
  • Does it mitigate risk? Sort of. I’ll talk about that in a separate blog post.
  • How strong is the evidence? Semi-Strong. According to the DoJ, the buying power of persons with disabilities is "larger than the percentage of Hispanics in the U.S. population (13.3%), the country’s largest ethnic, racial, or cultural minority group"

Saying that 20% of the US population has a disability is a tad misleading. Does this mean that 20% of your site’s visitors will have a disability? Maybe, depending on your user demographics. But even still, that doesn’t mean 20% of your visitors will have a disability which impacts their ability to use the web. Someone who is classified as disabled because they’re missing their leg from the knee down isn’t going to have a problem with an inaccessible website. People with severe mental disorders or combinations of severe disorders may never use the web at all. Further, persons with disabilities are almost twice as likely to live in poverty. All of this means that income generated from people who need an accessible website may be low.

Quite astutely, some may wonder "Well, how many of my site’s visitors need it to be accessible?". To be blunt, there’s no accurate way of knowing. Effectively tracking persons with disabilities is impossible through analytics. The only data available that I’m aware of that may help is more of this global data: According to the Census Bureau (PDF) 3.6% of the US Population have a sensory disability (hearing or visual), 8.2% have a mobility impairment, 4.8% have a cognitive disorder. You can say that those with a sensory disability will definitely require an accessible website. You can also say that a substantial portion of those with mobility and cognitive disabilities will require an accessible website. I therefore give an estimate of 7-10% of potential customers have a direct need for an accessible website.

Ultimately, whether this particular argument is a compelling reason to make an accessible site largely depends on the specific business. In some cases, persons with disabilities which require an accessible site can amount to 7-10% of your potential visitors. Can you afford to lose 7-10% of your website’s visitors? Or, put another way, would you like to gain an additional 7-10% more users? Make an accessible web experience and publicize it well and you may capture some of them and see some direct ROI from accessibility.

None of this, of course, is the same as saying 7-10% of your actual user base needs an accessible website. Unfortunately, merely having an accessible website may never mean an increase in business from persons with disabilities. Why? Because they might not know about you or might not know your site is an accessible alternative to your competitors. The best way to capture this market is to not only build an accessible site but also market heavily to the disabled community. Without doing so, the ROI proposed by this business case may never materialize.

The final word: you can’t claim ROI based on business you could have. Arguing something as a Business Case only matters if you can prove it delivers actual money. Of course you could have 100% more income if you had 100% more sales, but saying maybe, possibly, some people might come spend money is conjecture, not a business case. When someone actually proves they’ve actively made accessibility changes that brought in money from persons with disabilities, it will be a strong business case.

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  • jimtobias
    Posted October 24, 2011 at 6:03 pm   Permalink

    Thanks for this deeper thought on the issue of buying power. Indeed, it would be useful to have better statistics on people actually marginalized or excluded by different technologies. There’s a proposal for a panel at CSUN on that issue, as well as some grassroots advocacy.

    There’s another problem with business case arguments. Too often we frame the question as “how much is it worth spending on accessibility?” Instead, businesses ask themselves “I have $X million available. What should I invest it in?” Accessibility has a lot of competition for the business investment dollar, both in terms of profitability and risk. Many other activities, such as advertising, are always going to be more profitable and less risky.

  • Posted October 28, 2011 at 1:48 am   Permalink

    That’s a difficult and touchy subject, yet it’s critical to address it. So thank you, Karl, for providing this opportunity to talk about it frankly and openly.
    I totally agree with you about the fact that disability demographics can’t be relied upon, when assessing the actual potential users base. Simply because disability in the physical world, and disability on the Web, do not have the same meanings and implications. As you rightly point out, missing one leg is significant in the real world, but unnoticeable on the Web. But I would argue that there are probably more reasons to be “disabled” on the Web, than there are in the real world. Mild vision impairment, color blindness, a hint of dyslexia, photosensitivity-induced epilepsy, lousy eye-to-hand coordination, approximate literacy, feeling dizzy while watching unstabilized video… very minor issues in the real world, that none would even think of calling them “disabilities”; but still a real pain when using a computer, especially when surfing the Web. And we could stack up a very long list of such impairments. Of course there are cases where real world disabilities also incur Web disabilities, and that’s what has been taken into account to establish standards; but I bet they are in minority.
    So we need, I believe, a whole new set of demographics, to understand who can be considered as in need of digital accessibility. A mere extrapolation of clinical signs will not be enough. It will be necessary to rate the ability to perform given tasks. For example one could show no obvious impairment, yet would be unable to fill in a form without several attempts. Just like an aging individual finds it hard to cook her own meal on a daily basis, due to an addition of minor difficulties, while none of these difficulties stands out as a significant disability per se.
    I remember one figure from a survey conducted by Forrester for Microsoft, back in… 2004? Not sure, but I clearly remember that compelling conclusion: 57% of the US active population could benefit from the accessibility features of their OS. Now we have something that could make decision makers salivate a bit more about accessibility!
    One immediate reaction to this is: but, I hardly know 1 person in 50 who actually uses the accessibility features. How come? Or even: what accessibility features?? For, indeed, very few people are aware of their existence. Even those who should be. There are many people who are blind and have no idea that they could use a computer with a screen reader. Or they know it, but believe they can’t afford it, time or money-wise. Or they tried, and felt repelled by a first unpleasant experience with badly designed websites.
    So raising awareness among users would certainly benefit to business as a whole: the more, the merrier!
    Another relevant point you raised: that does not translate necessarily into cash. Very true. And there it’s hard, if not impossible, to actually measure the additional income. There are too many interfering factors to distinguish what’s purely due to a better accessibility. The only way would be some sort of A/B testing on the same site, and monitoring the results. But it would require a significant investment, on a real, high-end website. One I read about though, is that captioned videos sell 8.3% more than those without captions. That’s more than one could expect from the demographics about hearing impairment. There’s also the Tesco case : after finding out that the “accessible version“ of their site sold more than the “normal one“, they acknowledged that their main site sucked – sorry, I meant, “failed to deliver its business goals“. Unlike the one designed for the visually impaired, that was far less cluttered with annoying things like whizzing animations and nauseating advertisements.
    On the other hand, I remember the story where RNIB (I think – uh, experiencing memory loss ???) asked their users (mainly blind and low-vision people) to vote for their favorite website. They hoped they would discover accessibility gems that they would happily praise and promote. Result: Amazon got the prize, whereas at the time it was despised for its lame accessibility. The voters simply enjoyed the ability to buy cheap CDs from a huge catalogue. The lesson was that no matter how accessible is site, if your business offer is lousy, you won’t make any more money than your better competitors.

  • Posted November 3, 2011 at 5:14 pm   Permalink

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