We recently returned from a family trip to Disneyland in California. The “Happiest Place on Earth” did not disappoint. My son is deaf, and also has a visual impairment, but within the boundaries of Disneyland he can be a regular kid. Disney does a tremendous amount to ensure all aspects of the park are not only accessible, but welcoming for kids with disabilities. ASL translators are even available on request, without charge, for certain attractions. Without exception, staff that noticed he was deaf spent more time with him, and several even tried out a bit of sign language they had learned.
On our final day, already very happy with the way he had been accommodated, something happened that we will always remember.
If you’ve taken a young child on a vacation, you’re familiar with the left-down of him finding out that the time has come to go home. Scott was a bit sad, but he takes these things in stride. It had been a long week, and we were all fighting off seasonal colds at various stages. The restaurant at the hotel was obscenely expensive, but we wanted to get Scott some pancakes to cheer him up on the last day, and could not find them anywhere else.
Having resolved ourselves to a “fancy-dinner” sized bill for a nice, but not a particularly special breakfast, we settled into the dining area, where several Disney characters walked around taking pictures with kids at each table. Chip, the smaller nosed half of the chipmunk duo “Chip and Dale” came by to say hello, as chipmunks do. He (I’m choosing the masculine gender to match the character, but it could have been anyone in that suit) noticed that Scott had a hearing impairment, and that we were both signing and speaking to him. He signed a few things as well, which didn’t surprise me much since many of the characters often used a few simple signs. After some giggling and a picture, Chip was on his way, but Scott had taken interest, and signed “more” to him. Chip grabbed a chair, came to sit down with us, and started signing to Scott again. If he wasn’t fluent in ASL, he certainly could easily hold a conversation, and stayed for quite a while talking with all of us. As he left, he told us that Scott had made his day. The feeling was mutual.
If you make websites, like me, or if you make anything that will be used by a variety of people, you’ve come across a fork in the road where you choose to build something that will work for 95% of people, or you spend some more time to get to 98% or 99%. It’s not always our decision, as we often work within budgets outside of our control. Sometimes we think of that last 5% as insignificant, but the people we skip over do not live in a bubble. They have friends and family, and they have influence. I don’t need a website that offers a high-contrast option for display, or one that works well when the text-size is increased to 300 points. I don’t need one that works with screen readers, and I usually don’t need help filling out forms. But tomorrow, I might need all of those things, and if I’m a regular user of your popular product or service, you having my business will depend on your accessibility. If you lose me alone as a customer, perhaps you won’t notice, but if your product is collaborative, or employs social interactions, everyone in my network is affected by your inability to provide me a product I can use. Online tools are often now part of an ecosystem, and losing a customer can sometimes mean losing those who want to interact with that customer.
The population is aging, and the elderly are often people who were in the workforce during the internet age, and rely on it heavily to maintain contact with their families. Modern medicine means that more people with debilitating injuries and illnesses are now able to survive, and participate fully in society. The people using the internet now spans a full range of abilities, rather than just young people with great eyesight.
Will you make more money by making accessible products? Maybe. Maybe not. If you’re playing the long game, you’re going to gain respect, and reach more people, so in that case, yes. Either way, it’s the right thing to do.
It’s often said that people will tell one person about a good customer service experience, and 10 people about a bad one. I think that’s a load of BS. People might tell one person about an expected customer service experience, since it’s nothing special. Who says “Hey, I got on the bus this morning, and the driver didn’t scowl“, or “I ordered a latte at Starbucks, and they gave me one in a cup“. Those things just aren’t memorable. If you make someone’s day though, they will remember it forever. I’ll tell our story to anyone thinking of a Disneyland trip for the foreseeable future.
Scott is the kind of kid who has a special ability to find his way, and enjoy himself regardless of the acceptance of others. There are many more kids in the deaf community who have much more trouble, and feel very isolated. Chip made Scott feel very special that day, and it made me think of the other kids that have had the same experience. I’m sure some kids who have met Chip, or perhaps another character played by this Disney employee, have been made to feel not just special, but something even better — Normal.