Digital Accessibility in the Life Sciences: Why Everyone Benefits from an Inclusive Industry

December 2, 2022

Contributed Commentary by Paula de Matos, Project Manager & UX Consultant, Pistoia Alliance 

December 2, 2022 | As digital transformation in the life sciences industry continues, the user experiences (UX) of researchers and scientists interacting with technology and data is coming under closer scrutiny. One area where attention is needed is the role of UX in improving digital accessibility. Better UX for all users will drive innovation, helping to make connections between data and accelerating collaboration. 

Digital accessibility is fundamental in creating a more inclusive and attractive workplace and building a more resilient industry for everyone. Patients also benefit downstream when accessible UX is embedded in any technology solution or service, with easier and more convenient access to healthcare enablers. To truly go “digital first” in the life sciences and healthcare sectors, accessibility for all must be a priority. 

Why now? 

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated digital transformation and showcased how important digital accessibility is in allowing people to work, play, and study. But the pandemic also shone a spotlight on accessibility gaps. For some, the near-complete move to digital took access away, transforming digital experiences from inconveniences into blockers. All too often, if someone is disabled or becomes disabled, they become invisible due to lack of access. 

One billion (15%) of the world's population have some sort of disability, including a reported 61 million Americans according to the US census. Improved digital accessibility is key in enabling these groups and preventing isolation. Moreover, in June 2020, the UN Secretary General published the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, highlighting the need to ensure digital inclusion for all, and listing access to healthcare as one of its priorities. The life sciences industry must align itself with these goals and start working toward digital accessibility targets. 

The Progress Promised By Access 

Products and services designed with digital accessibility in mind produce better outcomes for all. For example, closed captioning was designed for people with hearing loss, but is now a valuable feature used by many—with its increase in popularity driven by digitization. It will soon be the case that stakeholders in the life science industry will be unable to procure software or services that are not accessible by design. This should drive vendors to address shortcomings in digital accessibility; those who fall short risk being overlooked by buyers. 

There is an internationally recognized universal compliance standard for digital accessibility, and many best practice guides and toolkits are available, but organizations have been slow to begin the journey. This is set to change as countries continue to add accessibility to their laws; companies will face risk of litigation if their products or services are not accessible to all. For example, several corporations were recently litigated because of barriers to access for people with disabilities in the accessibility of services offering information about and appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine. In the past, accessibility litigation was brought by accessibility groups, but now the Department of Justice is making it a federal compliance requirement in the US. 

The key takeaway for life science organizations is that accessibility is not something that should be simply bolted on to existing projects and programs. For user experience to be compliant and accessible, it should be baked in from the conception of a technology or software. Only by making accessibility a priority throughout organizational culture can content creators, developers, Quality Assurance teams, analysts, and product owners be fully engaged and on board with access requirements (the latest of which are WCAG 2.1 AA). 

Implementing Digital Accessibility 

Setting out on the accessibility journey can be foreboding—but it is essential to reach accessibility goals and build an inclusive culture. First, organizations must look inwards. By writing an open and honest statement of accessibility, organizations can review current practices and set realistic targets for improvement. There are several ways to start assessing accessibility; begin by checking the color contrast, navigation using only a keyboard, and using a screen reader. Companies can then develop a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template. 

Second, dedicated investment in digital accessibility is needed both within organizations and by technology vendors. There are no quick solutions and cutting corners will not only be unsuccessful, but it will be more expensive in the long run. Programs to improve accessibility must be properly funded, with comprehensive resources and staff training, so that organizations can design accessible user experiences and reap the rewards of improved workflows, access to a wider workforce and futureproofed processes. 

Embedding Accessibility 

In the coming years, it will become increasingly challenging to engage with organizations without having accessible products and services in place. Accessibility already holds a major role in government contracting; the life science industry must follow suit and embed accessibility into its culture and organizational goals. By embracing digitally accessible practices, companies will set themselves up for success and open the door to the next level of innovation. By not doing so, they face risk of litigation, missed opportunities, and alienating staff, patients and stakeholders. Companies are not going to choose to procure software or services that don’t meet the needs of all. I encourage anyone interested in improving digital accessibility to get involved in the Pistoia Alliance’s community of experts for User Experience in the Life Science. 

Paula Dematos is project manager for the UX for Life Sciences project run by Pistoia Alliance, a global not-for-profit organization with over 200 member companies across the life science ecosystem, which aims to promote collaboration to advance science. Paula is an independent consultant specializing in the application of UX in complex domains such as life sciences and biodiversity. She has experience in the life sciences, engineering, and software development and can be reached at She would like to recognize the contributions of Yuliya Podlesny (AstraZeneca), Santiago Viteri (Bristol Myers Squibb), Elizabeth M. Rehm (GSK), Nikiforos Karamanis (EMBL-EBI) and Roger Attrill (Linguamatics, an IQVIA company) to this article.