Web accessibility is getting a lot of attention these days, but it can be a confusing--even inaccessible--topic. Here's a simple introduction to web accessibility: what it is, why it's important, and the benefits that come along with accessibility.
Web accessibility means building websites that are usable by as many people as possible.
If you have ever squinted to read text on a website or struggled to click a tiny button on your smartphone screen, you have likely experienced a website that fails to meet accessibility best practices. These are common accessibility and usability errors that plague many websites and people.
There are many ways that users might be impeded by an inaccessible website. Color contrast, text size, page organization, and keyboard interactivity are all common points of failure for accessibility tests.
Some users may not be able to use a mouse, and so need to be able to scroll, click, navigate and interact with a website using only a keyboard.
For users that are completely blind, accessibility includes making provisions for all content and interactivity on a page to be understandable to a screen reader, a program that reads the contents of a webpage to the user and lets them interact with the page.
- Perceivable - can all users perceive the content on the page?
- Operable - can all users interact with the page?
- Understandable - can all users understand the content on the page?
- Robust - can the content be interpreted by a wide variety of programs and devices, including screen readers?
Accessibility has long been an important web standard. The first version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines was drafted in 1999. While these guidelines have been around for a long time, stakeholders at all levels of web projects often aren't aware of their existence or don't think it is a concern for their organization.
In recent years however, this oversight has been brought to the forefront by a series of lawsuits filed under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Title III requires public spaces and commercial facilities to be designed and built so that users with disabilities can enjoy equal access to these facilities. While the law was originally written with physical spaces in mind, the prevalence of web-based activities including shopping and education has brought focus to ADA requirements for organizations.
Notably, a federal judge ruled in June 2017 that Winn-Dixie's web properties were so integrated into their physical locations that they were subject to Title III of the ADA. The judge ruled in favor of the blind man that filed the suit, requiring Winn-Dixie to update their site to meet the Web Content Accessibility Standards and perform annual audits to ensure they continue to meet these standards. The courts full 13 page order is available here.
Furthermore, the sheer number of web accessibility-related lawsuits has skyrocketed. The Seyfarth Shaw law firm reports that there were approximately 57 federal web-accessibility related lawsuits filed in 2015, 262 in 2016, and 432 between January and August of 2017 alone. Beyond that, the US Department of Education has recently opened 350 web accessibility investigations.
Avoiding a lawsuit or investigation isn't the only reason work on accessibility. Focusing on web accessibility also comes with SEO and usability benefits.
The same practices that ensure all content is perceivable and understandable to disabled users also benefits the robots that index websites for Google and other search engines.
Many accessibility guidelines focus on providing text-based alternatives to content that is available in video or audio, which allows this content to be visible to screen readers and search engines alike. The guidelines also encourage the use of proper page organization to help users best understand the layout and content of a page, which coincidentally helps search engines understand the content of a page better.
Making your web content easier for people to understand will make it easier for Google's robots to understand as well.
All of us at some point have encountered a website that was unusable: between text that doesn't have enough contrast with its background and buttons that our fat fingers can't click on our smartphones. Focusing on web accessibility can help us eliminate basic issues like these ones.
Some accessibility issues are more complex and require a larger investment, however, it's important to recognize the value of solving these problems. In the United States alone, 19% of the population (57 million people) have a disability according to the 2010 US Census. Organizations that prioritize accessibility will not only develop goodwill with their users but will also ensure they can serve ~100% of the marketplace. Even more, they will protect themselves against losing the ability to serve their customers as they age.
Web accessibility is more important than ever before and will only continue to increase in importance. It's an initiative that rewards proactive thinking and implementation, and those organizations who embrace this mentality will be able to generate goodwill with their users, serve the larger market, and avoid the bad press associated with a lawsuit.