Why web accessibility matters

Last night, I asked Siri to set a 12-minute timer for me. I was making Kraft mac and cheese for the first time and didn’t want my noodles to turn into gloop. A few hours later, I watched a YouTube video. The person had a strong accent so I turned on the closed captions to follow along. 

In just one night, I had used two everyday products that were created with web accessibility in mind. There’s a good chance you’ve used some of these products recently too. Perhaps you searched your photos for “beach pictures” or when you went to bed last night you set your phone to night mode.

For whatever reason, we often overlook web accessibility when it comes to creating digital products. One excuse we’ve heard is that accessibility is a barrier to innovation. Yet, every day we’re using products developed by teams who initially set out to create an assistive product. Even tools such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and voice recognition software started this way. 

As well as being the morally right thing to do, changing the way we think about building accessible digital products has some amazing consequences. If you stop assigning digital accessibility to the “nice to have” or afterthought category, you stop seeing it as a niche problem. Instead, it inspires a whole host of good things — imagination, empathy, thoughtfulness, and creative problem-solving.

It will make you better at your job and open up your products to a large section of the market (with a lot of buying power); ultimately, your product will be better for everyone. 

What is web accessibility?

Web accessibility is the practice of making sure users can interact with a website’s interface, navigate its pages, and understand its content. The goal of accessible websites is to ensure that all web users have equal access to information and functionality, regardless of their abilities or disabilities.

Who decides what is or isn't accessible? The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is made up of people with disabilities, developers, designers, educators, and businesspeople. This group works together to create the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and to share information on best practices.

The WCAG provides a framework for making web content more accessible to people with disabilities and they are also used as a reference point for legal compliance.

There are three levels of WCAG compliance: A, AA, and AAA. To be fully WCAG compliant, a website must meet all the requirements of level AA. Overall, content developers and site developers are responsible for ensuring that their websites meet these guidelines.

Reasons to focus on web accessibility

Web accessibility isn't an option anymore. Sixty-one million Americans are living with some form of disability. It isn't enough that they expect to be catered to. If you're advertising any product or service, chances are a potential customer could be disabled.

This means that the more accessible your website is, the more likely it'll reach your target audience and improve their digital experiences. Following WCAG standards is simply ethical and the right thing to do and moreover, accessible websites have a higher potential to rank for broader SEO keywords.

Here are some of the top reasons why digital experiences are important for site developers:

1. Web accessibility is innovation 

Anne Taylor, the director of supportability at Microsoft, notes, "There is a myth that accessibility impedes innovations, but history shows us the opposite is true. Voice recognition technology developed in the late 1970s for patients to operate their wheelchairs is now available in everyone's phones and cars."

What starts as a project to make the world more accessible, ends with a solution so innovative and useful that everyone adopts it. The sad thing is we tend to forget how these things started.

Did you know, for example, that typewriters were originally created to help people with visual impairment? The invention dates back to 1808, specifically so that a blind woman could write letters to her childhood friend.

There is a strong case for using accessibility to be "a hacker's space for dreaming up the cutting-edge technology of tomorrow" to quote John Browlee's article “Why accessibility is the future of tech.”

What might start as small UI and UX features to make a product accessible could become the tech everyone is using in two to three decades. So let's reframe the idea that accessibility means there will be barriers to innovation; Accessibility is innovation.

2. Making accessible products improves your skills

For a lot of people — UI and UX designers, web developers, product managers — the role is to put yourself in other people’s shoes to create a product that works intuitively. It’s why we do focus groups, extensive testing, and run beta versions.

During this process, we’re asking: "Do people get along well with my product?" Accessibility is opening up that question and asking: "Does everybody get along well with my product?" At the core of this is empathy. 

When you start thinking about accessibility with your products, it ramps up empathy to the next level. Instead of thinking of what works for you, and people like you, you’re encouraged to think of people with a whole range of special needs.

Does this web page work well with a screen reader? Is my font and accessible color schemes suitable for someone with poor vision? The result is a product that shows an obsessive level of detail, empathy for all kinds of users, and a much better customer experience. 

3. Accessible websites can perform better organically 

There are a few factors that make web accessibility a contender for better website performance:

  • WCAG compliance signals to web crawlers that your site is taking web accessibility seriously. This can help with organic search results.

  • Web accessibility features offer a better user experience, and users are more likely to stick around on your site if it’s easy to use and navigate.

  • Inaccessible sites often have low usability due to design flaws or missing features, which can lead to high bounce rates and reduced conversions.

All of these factors prove that website accessibility isn't just an ethical duty for site developers. It's also a huge SEO opportunity.

4. Accessible websites reach a wider audience 

The job of any web developer is for as many people as possible to see the final product. The more accessible your website is, the more likely it'll reach your target audience. This isn't just limited to people with disabilities — following WCAG standards makes a website broadly usable for everyone.

Accessible websites are also easier to use for people with different devices and browsers. For example, a site that's designed for desktop viewing may not be easy to navigate on mobile devices. WCAG guidelines account for this by recommending responsive design and providing clear instructions on how to make websites ADA compliant.

Digital companies have a lot of power

“When your technology changes the world, you bear a responsibility to help address the world that you have helped create,” says Microsoft President Brad Smith. And this doesn’t just apply to technology companies.

Digital transformation means that every company, whether you sell shoes or software, is a digital company. To echo Smith, we’ve created a new world, one where we can buy groceries and pharmaceuticals online, stream the latest movies into living rooms, and have a fridge connected to WiFi. 

When you fail to make products accessible, you’re making the lives of people with special needs less productive and harder. As harsh as it may sound, you’re shutting the doors to this new world on them. 

How do you know if your site is accessible? 

There are a few ways to test web accessibility. One is to use an online accessibility checker. These tools will scan your website and report any errors or issues that need to be fixed.

Another way to test web accessibility is to use assistive technologies such as screen readers and magnifiers. These tools allow you to interact with a website in different ways, so you can see how it would be used by someone who has a disability.

Some common web accessibility issues include:

  • Unclear or missing text labels

  • Videos without captions for visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing

  • Poorly formatted HTML tables

  • Images without alternative text tags

  • Website navigation problems

  • Using color to convey information, without taking color blindness into account

Following WCAG standards will ultimately give you guidance in creating an accessible website for all users.

Principles of accessible web design

The WCAG has many principles of accessible web design. Its main fundamentals are:

  • Perceivable. Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.

  • Operable. User interface controls must be operable via standard input devices.

  • Understandable. Interface elements must be easy to understand and use.

  • Robust. Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.

Web accessibility examples 

Granted, WCAG can be tough to understand and implement if you're new to the concept. Here is how some websites have successfully adapted:

  • Scope. This website belongs to an organization championing rights and equality for the disabled. Their website provides the option for users to increase text size, change site colors, and even have the text read aloud.

  • Paralympic.org. On this website, users can quickly scroll to the top and bottom of the pages. There is plenty of white space for the individual elements to stand out. Finally, the images and videos are large enough to interact with.

  • KidzWish. This organization allows users to take advantage of keyboard-friendly navigation, large text, and a variety of high-contrast colors.

CMS accessibility isn’t a guarantee  

To start creating more accessible apps, you need a CMS that supports you. Not all content management systems are created equal when it comes to hosting and creating content that supports web accessibility. 

It all starts with your content model. There is a close relationship between the code, your content model, the browser, and assistive technology like screen readers — we talk more about that here.

You also need a CMS that supports assistive technology such as wearables and smart home devices like Alexa and Google Home. Your CMS should empower you to make accessible products and content — if it’s hindering this process, then it might be time to reconsider your infrastructure. 

While it might seem overwhelming to start thinking about accessibility — there are a lot of considerations — we believe it’s 100% worth it. If you are struggling with where to start, perhaps look at your team or employees. Anne Taylor of Microsoft makes the point clear, “Nothing about us without us.”

With 1.3 billion people living with a disability, it’s time to evaluate whether your company’s idea of diversity and inclusion includes people of all abilities, and doesn’t just stop with race and gender.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Q. How do screen readers read websites?

Screen readers are software programs that read website content aloud to people who are blind or have low vision. They also provide information about the web page's layout and structure.

Q. What are common web accessibility features?

Some common web accessibility features include: increasing text size, changing colors and contrast, keyboard navigation, audio descriptions, and closed captioning.

Q. What are the web accessibility guidelines?

WCAG is a set of web accessibility guidelines that provide a framework for making web content accessible to people with disabilities. WCAG 2.0 is based on four principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

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