Web accessibility is good for your soul—and for business

Few websites go the whole nine yards to make themselves fully accessible to the disabled. Yet compliance with the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines is well worth the effort.

For most of us, placing an order in an online store is a two-minute proposition. For Josh Basile, it can be agony.

Basile became a C4 quadriplegic in 2004 when a wave picked him up and slammed him down on his neck during a beach outing. Unbowed, he went on to earn his law degree, launch the world’s largest video mentoring network for people with paralysis, and become a tireless advocate for laws supporting people with disabilities.

But for him and many other people with disabilities, simply navigating a website can be a slow and frustrating experience. “There are about seven million websites that meet accessibility guidelines but 100 million that don’t,” said Basile, who is community relations manager at accessiBe, a web accessibility hub. “I want to have the same experience as everyone else.”

A tiny minority comply

Unfortunately, more than 13 years after the World Wide Web Consortium published the first Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, less than 2% of websites are usable by the full spectrum of people with disabilities, estimates Mark Shapiro, president of the Bureau of Internet Accessibility. “Nobody does this on purpose; they just don’t think about it,” he said.

They’re missing out on a big market. More than one-quarter of the U. S. population self-identifies as having a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Their disposable income is nearly $500 billion. People whose disability makes it difficult to read text on the screen, control a mouse, or listen to a video are all but shut out of most online experiences. The same goes to a lesser extent for people who are prone to seizures, have difficulty focusing, or have dyslexia.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act spells out rules for physical accommodations and penalties for failure to comply, the WCAG guidelines have always been voluntary. That may be about to change. As websites have become indispensable to shopping and getting work done during the pandemic, digital accessibility lawsuits soared to more than 4,000 cases in the U.S. in 2020, more than double the total in 2018. 

In its 2022 predictions, Forrester Research noted that the number of job listings with “accessibility” in the title grew 78% from July 2020 to July 2021 and said it expects digital accessibility to be a top priority for organizations buying technology this year.

Baked-in compliance

Compliance with accessibility standards isn’t difficult to achieve if guidelines are observed when a website is first being built, Shapiro said. “If people understand what needs to be done, it’s just part of the process,” he said, although he acknowledged “going backward can take a lot of time.”

Basic guidelines for accessibility can be boiled down to “supplement the spoken with the visual and the visual with the spoken,” Shapiro said. “Think of imagery in text for people who can’t view it. If you use text, make sure someone who’s color blind can read it.”

While the WCAG guidelines go into exhaustive detail, accessibility basics boil down to a few main principles:

  • The entire website should be navigable from a keyboard.
  • Text size should be variable for people with visual disabilities.
  • Video should be closed-captioned.
  • Text should be compatible with audio screen readers.
  • All images should have alt text descriptions.
  • Users should have the option of turning off flashing or animated images.

Design vs. access

Design is often the enemy of usability, Shapiro said. Header tags (H1, H2, etc.) were originally intended to denote hierarchy, but designers often mix them up for aesthetic purposes, playing havoc with screen readers as a result. “If you have 25 H1 tags, you’re not thinking about how people with disabilities will use the page,” he said.

Among Basile’s common frustrations are drop-down menus that don’t work with a keyboard, hyperlinks that aren’t clearly marked, and forms that can’t be navigated with a tab key. Field validation rules that lock visitors using a keyboard into a cell and prevent them from completing a transaction are evidence that “the developers didn’t take into account that not everyone uses a mouse,” Shapiro said.

Automation can help, but only to point. Machine transcription systems are pretty good at deciphering conversational speech but choke on proper nouns in technical terms. Numerous tools can scan websites for accessibility problems and suggest fixes, but human intervention is still required at some level. Shapiro recalled one example of alt text that described an image as a “picture of a man in a blue shirt with a boy.” The photo actually depicted the man holding a child at gunpoint. “You need to explain not just what’s in the picture but why the picture is there,” he said.

It’s cheap and easy to get a basic website accessibility audit, and there are plenty of reasons why you should do so; 500 billion of them, in fact.

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