/ By Thomas Bacon

What is web accessibility and why does it matter?

Background

Web accessibility refers to ensuring that a user can access and use the services provided by a website regardless of disability.

Specifically, some (but not all) examples of accessibility challenges a user might face include:

  1. Visually impaired and must use a screen reader to read text to them on a website or can not read small font sizes
  2. Hearing impaired and therefore can not listen to video content
  3. Color blind and may not be able to distinguish between text and a background color
  4. Fine motor coordination challenges and might not be able easily click on small navigation items or links
  5. Reading difficulties, including dyslexia

Why Make Your Site Accessible?

Legal

The Department of Justice has said that they consider the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to apply to websites. However, the Civil Rights Division has yet to issue formal rules. This has created confusion and a slew of lawsuits, both from legitimate disabled plaintiffs as well as by opportunistic law firms.

One of the most visible examples of this was when Target was sued in 2006 by the National Federation of the Blind for violating both the ADA and California civil rights law. The suit eventually cost them over ten million dollars to settle as well as the plaintiff’s attorney fees, not to mention their own undisclosed legal costs.

More recently, law firms have been targeting websites by industry with “demand letters” requesting varying sums. For example, here in Austin, a law firm is targeting healthcare businesses in Texas and threatening to sue unless they pony up $2,000.

One of our clients, a ski resort, was targeted by a similar firm that was sending demand letters to resorts. In this case the demand was for a substantially higher sum of $60,000.

Whether or not these lawsuits are “shakedowns” as a civil-rights lawyer called them or legitimate steps to force websites into compliance with the ADA is irrelevant to a business owner. The effect is the same: Unwanted and potentially expensive legal fees.

Good for Business

Disabled users are potential customers who use the web just like anyone else. Removing barriers may mean they will choose your product or service over a competitor whose site they are unable to easily navigate.

That said, it’s hard to put a number on exactly how making your site accessible would benefit your business. While there are statistics on disability in the United States, the real question is how many of your potential customers need your site to be accessible? That is a very difficult number to pin down, but here are some interesting statistics that can give you an idea.

In addition, improving accessibility spills over into benefits for all site users. According to a Microsoft study, the “majority of computer users are likely or very likely to benefit from the use of accessible technology.” A simple illustration of this would be fixing hard to read text content during an accessibility review. In our own experience, we often see general usability improvements due to an accessibility audit.

Social Responsibility

The internet has had a profound democratizing effect on the world. It has allowed voices from repressive countries to be heard, made knowledge almost universally accessible, and allowed people to find and create communities where they otherwise would have felt isolated.

Many people believe that is one of the main benefits that the internet has brought to us and this access should be protected and expanded.

However, this is hampered if a significant portion of users just aren’t able to access large parts of it. Whether it’s for holiday shopping, booking a vacation, researching a term paper, or making an appointment with a healthcare provider, many believe that content should be accessible to everyone regardless of disability.

In addition, many companies include a commitment to social responsibility as part of their mission. If yours does, the case for making your site accessible can fit nicely into that.

How To Fix Your Website Accessibility Problems

Unless you’ve actively worked to make your site accessible, it is likely that it does have at least some accessibility issues.

Thankfully, there are tools, techniques, and guidelines to fix accessibility issues on the web. Many of them require a competent web development team, but many can be implemented by a website owner.

Guidelines

The first step is familiarizing yourself with the relevant issues around web accessibility. This can be overwhelming, but the accepted standards are contained in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, which is a list of guidelines published by the W3C, the organization tasked with managing web standards. The standards are long and technical, but can be boiled down to having a website that meets these goals:

Perceivable

  • Provide text alternatives for non-text content.
  • Provide captions and other alternatives for multimedia.
  • Create content that can be presented in different ways,
    including by assistive technologies, without losing meaning.
  • Make it easier for users to see and hear content.

Operable

  • Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
  • Give users enough time to read and use content.
  • Do not use content that causes seizures.
  • Help users navigate and find content.

Understandable

  • Make text readable and understandable.
  • Make content appear and operate in predictable ways.
  • Help users avoid and correct mistakes.

Robust

  • Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools.

Web Accessibility Tools

To get started, we’d recommend you test your site with some of the available tools:

  1. Webaim Wave
    Free tool that can analyze your website for accessibility errors per page.
  2. Tenio
    Offers free and paid plans to evaluate your site as well as more advanced options for web developers and content management system integrations.
  3. Sim Daltonism
    A Mac and iOS application that allows you to test your site for color blindness issues.
  4. Built-in operating system tests
    Karl Groves, an accessibility consultant, provides a great list of things you can do on your computer without additional software.

We’re Here to Help

While it has not been the norm to develop new websites with ADA compliance in mind, and there are no formal rules in place, we believe it is only a matter of time before formal guidelines are issued. Going forward, Workhorse is committed to building any website foundation with WCAG 2.0 standards. We believe web accessibility is important and it is our obligation to help our clients provide equal access to their programs, services and activities.

For further information, please contact us.

  • Tanya Mahr

    Timely and helpful article! I’ve found that good accessibility practices also help non-disabled users by simply making websites easier to use and understand. It’s a shame people are taking advantage of this by preying on unsuspecting business owners. Thanks for the tips!

    • Thanks Tanya! Yeah so much of what makes a site accessible improves the site for everyone.

      After brainstorming how to make more of the web accessible in a way that isn’t purely litigious, I was thinking that companies like Google could start to push website owners towards accessibility in a similar way that they’ve done with SSL implementation. For the last few years they’ve been slowly encouraging sites to use SSL, first by rewarding it as a positive ranking factor in search results, and now slowly penalizing sites that don’t use it but should (for accepting credit cards), and eventually flagging all sites as “insecure” if they don’t have it (in Google Chrome browser at least). That, and getting behind big initiatives like Let’s Encrypt that offer free SSL certificates.

      I think that a consortium of tech companies could start to push accessibility in a similar carrot and stick manner without being punitive at first. Rewarding accessible sites, for example. Just some thoughts!

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