Web accessibility is a major initiative in the Internet world. Trade organizations, industry websites, and university communications departments all include web accessibility as a chapter in the web design handbook. The websites for corporations, government entities, sole proprietorships, and non-profit agencies are held to a set of standards that ensures equal access to the Internet.
Simply put, web accessibility amounts to how universally available your website is. Consider those with disabilities. For someone who is legally blind yet can still see a monitor, miniscule fonts will in effect lock him out of your site. If an individual is deaf, and you have non-signified audio messages on your site, the important information in that audio becomes in effect withheld from that individual. Web accessibility is the concept of overcoming these barriers through the appropriate programming and design techniques.
Step 1: Understand the Expectations and Your Obligations
Why Web Accessibility?
Web accessibility is an important consideration for your financials. According to HHS, approximately 54 million Americans are living with a disability. With a total US population of 315 million, that 54 million amounts to 17% of the general public that can’t use your website. This affects your bottom line in three ways:
- What if you’re selling your product on your website? Can you operate without 17% of your revenue? If your site has excessive accessibility barriers, that’s exactly what you’re doing.
- By shutting out this segment of the population, you are both refusing to market to them and denying them the services they seek. This can be construed as discrimination, which can lead to a reputation that will tarnish your image and hurt sales. Today’s social media climate can expedite this at light speed.
- Web accessibility could boost your online traffic by as much as 17%. Remember, the more people your site attracts, and the longer those people spend on your site, the more marketable your site is to advertisers. Therefore, even if you’re not selling through your site directly, you can increase the value of your ad inventory due to the increased traffic.
It’s important from a revenue standpoint for businesses to make sure that as many people as possible can use their websites. On the other hand, government agencies that serve the general public are legally bound to ensure that disabled Americans can access the same information as non-disabled Americans. This expands accessibility from being a matter of sound business policy to being a matter of civil rights.
When it was signed by President Bush the elder in 1989, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) dealt with such things as public transportation, public accommodations, and equal opportunity employment for the disabled. While most small businesses were (and in most cases still are) to a large extent exempt from making major concessions in adherence to the ADA, large corporations serving the greater public were required to conform to new regulations. But as the Internet became ubiquitous, the ADA was adjusted and expanded. In 2003, for instance, Title II of the ADA – that which deals with public entities – was specifically applied to state and local government websites by using the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as a precedent.
The Rehabilitation Act originally prohibited discrimination against the disabled in the federal domain, so in theory, web accessibility has been law since the birth of the web in the 1980s. However, it wasn’t until the 1998 Section 508 amendment that federal agencies were explicitly directed to give disabled Americans informational access that is comparable to the access available to non-disabled Americans. Everyone must be able to access basically the same information in basically the same way, both online and off. Title II of the ADA was applied to state and local governments in similar form, and therefore all government websites in the United States are required by law to conform to web accessibility standards.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
Many private businesses are immune from prosecution for noncompliance with web accessibility standards. However, in addition to considering the above mentioned financial implications, businesses must consider reputation. Now that social media has become as entrenched in society as it has, it’s important to maintain as inclusive and as universal an online presence as possible. The less people you offend, the healthier your bottom line will be.
So while the government is kept in compliance with web accessibility standards via legal mandate, the private sector follows the lead of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The W3C came into prominence in academic and programming circles with the Web Access Initiative (WAI) in 1997, which offers information to businesses and institutions (public and private alike) on how best to analyze their own websites for accessibility issues.
Step 2: Assess Your Current Website Accessibility Issues
Who is Affected by Non-Accessible Websites
Before you can begin to pick your site apart, you need to have a good idea of what you’re looking for. What characteristics can cause your site to be non-compliant with accessibility standards? Furthermore, what ARE accessibility standards?
You can best understand accessibility by identifying those who are sensitive to it. The following groups of people need special design concessions if they are going to effectively navigate the web:
- The Visually Impaired – this can be anyone from those with simple color blindness to those with a complete lack of sight.
- Those Lacking Motor Ability – this can be paralysis or even just tremors and the loss of fine muscle control associated with age. Parkinson’s, MS, CP, and stroke patients are other examples.
- The Deaf or the Hearing Impaired – this can include those who are simply hard of hearing or those with age-related hearing loss.
- Epileptics – sufferers of certain kinds of seizures and those sensitive to certain light patterns and effects.
- Those with Cognitive Disabilities – these can be developmental or learning disabilities (such as dyslexia), and those that affect memory, attention, and problem solving ability.
Where Do You Begin?
Now that you know your audience, you can begin to adjust your site to meet their needs. In doing so, the W3C recommends that you consider four principles of universal access. In order for your site to be accessible by everyone, it must be:
- Perceivable, with information and design that any user can perceive. At least one of the senses must be able to perceive the content.
- Operable, with interfaces and navigation that any user can act on in some way or another.
- Understandable, with both the content and the functionality being fully understandable and intuitive for any user.
- Robust enough so that the content and functionality can be perceived and navigated by any technological user proxy, such as software that reads the site for the blind.
Companies, using these four principles as a rubric, can look at each individual component of their site and analyze them in terms of the disabled peoples listed above. For example, can your images be conveyed verbally by screen reader software (robust) to a blind person? Are your GUIs large enough to be clickable (operable) by an individual with severe hand tremors? Does your Flash video have alt text or subtitles so that the content can be seen (perceivable) by a deaf person? Is the text on your site clean and spaced out enough so that a dyslexic individual can more easily process it (understandable)? If any answer is no, then you know where to start.
3: Set up an internal process to address accessibility issues
Change Comes Regardless
The nature of websites is to change. With the exception of a very slim few, every website changes periodically – some even daily. They are updated and redesigned, and content is added and deleted. It’s important to regularly evaluate your site for accessibility barriers. Ideally, this should be done for every segment that gets added or rearranged every time it happens. Pending the size of your business, this can be impractical, but not impossible.
There are many published guides on web accessibility. The W3C has several for free online, but they can be long and involved. Pending your level of expertise, it could be a project in and of itself just to read these things. When you have a business to run, or even just a department to manage, it’s seldom possible to devote such time and effort into something like web accessibility.
Spend to Gain
We have already established that web accessibility can equal additional revenue for your company or business unit. Through increased traffic, increased traffic quality, a better reputation, and higher direct revenue, accessibility redesigns can boost your bottom line by as much as 17%. So if you don’t have an in-house webmaster, it is a good idea to contract a consultant to handle the evaluation for you, and to make any necessary changes uncovered during that evaluation. The fee he charges would be considered nominal in comparison to the revenue that such a redesign can generate. In addition to doing the right thing for society, you’re doing the right thing for your business.
Author: Zach Thompson Managing Partner at RYP Marketing