Web Accessibility: The Benefits & Consequences of Compliance

We believe your design team has created incredible work for your company and clients. Show us what you’ve got in HOW’s In-House Design Awards.

Do you remember life pre-2005?

The Boston Red Sox were cursed. Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith was still something to look forward to. Miley Cyrus was barely Hannah Montana, let alone a “wrecking ball.” And meeting strangers via the internet to pick you up at your house in their cars was unthinkably dangerous and ill-advised.

Around that time, having a company website was highly recommended but not essential. Now, of course, we know that a website is the No. 1 marketing tool of most businesses. Yet having one is not enough. It must be accessible not only to maintain credibility, but also to meet a legal obligation. Take high-profile organizations, such as Target, Disney, and Netflix, that have been sued for failing to meet accessibility standards. More than 20 percent of similar cases have occurred in the past three years, so it’s worth understanding what web accessibility is, why it matters, and the steps you can take to implement it at your company.

What Web Accessibility Is — and Why It Matters

Let’s start by clarifying web accessibility. It may be helpful to think of the internet metaphorically as an enormous public space, like Midtown Manhattan. Just like in the real-world Times Square, we expect web visitors from all over, each with her own agenda and interests, as well as her own corresponding capabilities.

[Related: How to convince your boss to invest in accessible web design]

This point is critical. Not all visitors to Times Square (or a website) arrive able to experience the spectacle and interact with the space in exactly the same way. Neither do they get there the same way. Some come by car. Others by commuter train or subway. And then there are the slow-ambling sidewalk strollers, heading to or from Central Park with selfie sticks and souvenirs in hand.

When it comes to web accessibility, it’s best to consider it in the broadest possible terms. Like our Times Square tourists, site visitors may differ in terms of physical and mental capacity, including hearing, sight, movement, or cognitive ability. They also might speak a variety of languages and be using different technologies, such as their hardware, browser type, or operating system.

As with public spaces, websites must adhere to regulations and equitably accommodate visitors. Since its passage in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has propelled an enormous amount of progress in this area within the physical world of the United States. Now, the ADA is being used to drive important changes on the web, as well, and it has legal weight behind it to succeed.

Change Is Still Needed

Not all business websites are compliant with accessibility standards. In fact, many fall short of compliance, and this risk can prove costly both reputationally and financially. First, barriers to website accessibility can negatively impact your brand, leading visitors to perceive a lack of quality, expertise, or credibility. There’s also the issue of ethics. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is committed to a vision of open access and community, standing behind the belief that the web is “fundamentally designed to work for all people.” Aligning your company with this view isn’t just popular — it’s mission-critical, particularly when considering the 1.3 billion people with disabilities worldwide.

Beyond reputation, the consequences of limited web accessibility can have drastic financial implications. Just as a shopkeeper wouldn’t want his storefront entrance to be inaccessible to people with disabilities, your business doesn’t want to drive away customers when they’re essentially at your doorstep (e.g., your homepage). For instance, an ongoing U.K. survey found that accessibility issues were causing disabled shoppers to “click away” from online stores — at a cost of 11.75 billion pounds ($15.3 billion) in lost revenue to retailers.

So what can you do?

Making Your Website Accessible

Let’s look at four actionable steps you can take right away:

1. Shift your mindset. 

From the outset, banish any concerns about web accessibility compliance signifying your site can’t look great or be competitive. To the contrary, sites that are the most accessible also tend to be the most usable, and usability is the first priority for the web, regardless of industry.

2. Develop with all abilities in mind. 

The average person views web pages directly. But those with visual impairments often use screen readers that rely on HTML code that underlies a web page for navigation, reading, and description of images on-screen.

For that reason, getting the HTML right in terms of accessibility is critical. There are some standard practices here that should always be implemented. One is to use alt text on all images, which provides visually impaired people with textual descriptions of any image. In fact, descriptive text on all clickable elements, like buttons and drop-downs, is necessary. Another recommended practice is that headers (H1 tags) be kept to one per page and include an accurate description of the content.

3. Use accessibility testing tools. 

Web accessibility can be automatically assessed with tools that scan a site and report on compliance. AChecker, WAVE, and Google’s Accessibility Developer Toolsare a few options and should help you adhere to WCGA-level AA specifications.

These tools should be used, but they shouldn’t be the only means to check for compliance. Nothing beats an actual person. (Yes, like real-world actual people-type persons.) Whether testing screen readers, font sizes for low-vision visitors, keyboard-only use, or other features, having actual human users test your site is an important quality check.

4. Manage your costs. 

Listed last but vital from the start is to approach web accessibility initiatives in a cost-effective manner.

The best tip is to start all new website projects with accessibility in mind. Design is always cheaper than redesign and is often more effective. And don’t forget mobile devices — they are an increasingly utilized channel in which customers of all abilities access websites. Planning comprehensively, in a way that accounts for these concerns from the beginning, will save on development costs in the long run.

Today’s web is undergoing a rapid evolution in web accessibility. Smart companies know this, and they are taking steps today to make sure their digital platforms are compliant with standards on all devices, ensuring an inclusive, positive experience for all visitors.

Earn a certificate in UX Design from HOW Design University