Understanding Web Accessibility and Its Importance for Businesses

By David Gevorkian,
business.com writer
|
Jan 17, 2020
Image Credit: InnerVisionPRO/Getty
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Web accessibility, in its most basic sense, is about universal design; a product’s digital content and design should be useful and reachable for all people, regardless of their abilities.

Have you ever gotten frustrated while using a digital tool or a website? It may be because it was difficult to use/navigate or hard to read. You probably abandoned the website or uninstalled the app and just found something else that met your needs better. After all, there are plenty of other alternatives. But what if this kind of experience happened to you often?

Why accessibility becomes more and more important 

We live in a digital age where our main source of information is the World Wide Web. We use it as well as other digital products to conduct a lot of day-to-day activities such as shopping for groceries, banking, paying bills, and watching movies. The beauty of the digital world is that it eliminates barriers that prevent us from communicating and interacting with each other in the physical world. Need to talk to someone across the globe? There's Skype. Want to buy something not available in your country? Try Amazon or a similar website. Because of the World Wide Web, almost everything is now at our fingertips. And if you want access to a lot of areas such as education, employment, and healthcare, you mostly will use the Web.

Unfortunately, not everyone is able to enjoy the benefits of this digital world. In fact, a shockingly high number of digital products are not accessible to the largest minority in the world - people with disabilities. Approximately 15% of the world's population has a disability. That's around 1 in 5 adult Americans who may not be able to use a digital product that most of us take for granted. As we mentioned, most people would probably look for an alternative solution if they encounter any difficulty using a digital product. But for the disabled, that's not always an option. 

The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, once said that the power of this technology is in its universality. That means that it should be accessible to everyone. All people should be able to use it regardless of their ability, location, language, hardware, software, etc. It should provide equal opportunity to all. No one should be excluded.

This means that individuals who have a disability, permanent or otherwise, should be able to gain access to the internet and enjoy all the benefits it provides. This enables them to interact with the world in a way that they could never do due to physical barriers (i.e. going to a physical store). 

Why web accessibility is crucial for business 

What is web accessibility?

Web accessibility, in its most basic sense, is about universal design; a product’s digital content and design should be useful and reachable for all people, regardless of their abilities (either cognitive or physical capabilities). According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, access to information and communication technologies is a basic human right. 

Now, some companies might believe that the “digitally challenged” are not part of their “target audience” and therefore not worth the investment of time and money. In their eyes, the focus of web accessibility is primarily on the disabled. However, there are plenty of benefits to ensuring that your digital products have web accessibility

#1: Drives innovation

A lot of innovations that we enjoy today are a result of designing with accessibility in mind. Everyone takes advantage of architectural and digital features that were initially designed to provide disability access in the physical environment such as automatic door openers, lower curbs, and ramps. Products such as the typewriter, text-to-speech, email, and voice controls were also designed initially to help those with disabilities to overcome physical and social. But these are innovations that are widely used by all, users.

#2: Increases market share

The global population of people with disabilities is large and continues to grow. There are at least one billion people in this population. As the world's population ages, more individuals acquire disabilities due to aging (i.e. poor eyesight or hearing) but don't identify as "disabled." Their global market share is estimated to be almost $7 trillion. In the US alone, the discretionary spending of people with disabilities is more than $200 billion a year. 54% of this population spend their money online. In the UK, people with disabilities and their families spend a minimum of $249 billion a year. By designing inclusive digital products, you increase your company's market reach.

#3: Enhance your brand

Your brand is what consumers identify with. Showing a clear commitment to web accessibility has the potential of enhancing your brand image. It shows that your company has a genuine interest in being socially responsible, ensuring that its products and/or services are inclusive and available to the widest and most diverse audience possible. A lot of companies such as Microsoft and Barclays have demonstrated their commitment to accessibility which has strengthened each company's overall brand image. Positive brand awareness increases customer loyalty and allows you to create a wider, larger customer base.

What is the ADA?

The ADA is short for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which is a law passed in 1990 that was designed to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities in the United States. Because of this law, all government entities, businesses, non-profit organizations, restaurants, schools, etc. are required to ensure that all goods and services provided to the general public are accessible to all, including people with disabilities. In 2010, the ADA Standards for Accessible Design was added by the Department of Justice to ensure that all electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities. 

What is Section 508

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires US Federal government agencies to ensure that all their Electronic and Information Technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. This applies to when these agencies develop, procure, maintain, or use information and communication technology. For example, if a federal agency uses word processing software that does not work with adaptive equipment, then it will be required by law to replace that software with one that can be used by persons with disabilities, whether they are employees or members of the public.

What is WCAG?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) was developed through the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) process with the help of individuals and organizations across the globe. These guidelines aim to provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of people, organizations, and governments around the world. 

The WCAG is primarily intended to be used by web content developers, web authoring tool developers, web accessibility evaluation tool developers, and any others who want or need a web accessibility standard. The documents explain how web content can be made more accessible to disabled people. This content generally refers to information found on websites and web applications such as text, images, sound, and color.

Differences in WCAG 2.0 and 2.1

There are two versions of WCAG documents - WCAG 2.0 and WCAG 2.1. The former was published on December 11, 2008, while the latter was published on June 5, 2018. The main difference between these two standards is that WCAG 2.1 includes additional success criteria that deal with mobile accessibility, people with low vision, and people with cognitive and learning disabilities. All success criteria in 2.0 can be found in 2.1. This means that if your content conforms to WCAG 2.1, then it also conforms to WCAG 2.0. In short, it is better to meet the existing success criteria from the most recent version (2.1).

What is VPAT 

Voluntary Product Accessibility Template or VPAT is a self-disclosing document that helps evaluate the accessibility of a specific product based on Section 508 Standards. Within this document, a vendor can detail the requirements of Section 508 and how they have supported each criterion in the product. VPATs are used by buyers prior to purchasing a product in order to determine if the product's level of accessibility and if there are potential deficiencies that they need to be aware of. 

Accessible web design can lead to a better user experience

When web accessibility standards are applied, the result is usually a high level of user-friendliness. Not only is the digital product usable by people with disabilities, the design now works better for everyone else (even those without a disability) as well in a variety of situations. There are various factors that can affect a person's ability to use a digital solution as well as impact the quality of the product.  With the ease of use comes a better user experience. And with a great UX design comes to increased customer satisfaction.

What is an accessibility guide and accessibility statement?

Part of a company's commitment to providing equal access to all is the creation of an accessibility guide and accessibility statement. The Accessibility Statement is a published statement on the organization's website that describes its goals, policies, and achievements in relation to web accessibility. It shows the company's commitment and identifies the standards that were applied.

An accessibility guide can be included in the statement. This portion of the statement will provide users with instructions on how to use any accessibility technology available on the digital solution and how to get in touch with the company should there be any problems. It may also provide users with information on where they can find interim solutions if the website or product has yet to achieve complete accessibility.

Usability and accessibility testing

Usability testing is when you conduct tests in order to determine how useful and easy to use a certain product or service is. Accessibility testing is a type of usability testing that determines whether people with disabilities can access the digital solution and the ease of which they can do so. 

Ensuring the accessibility of your digital product/s isn't going to be easy. You may have to implement a number of changes in your product or start it from scratch altogether. But all that effort is going to pay off. Aside from the monetary benefits and the issue of legality, there's one main advantage of becoming web accessible. Your business will play an integral part in bringing down walls and creating a world without borders. Whether they're permanently disabled or not, everyone will feel welcome.

 

I have started Be Accessible because of the passion for website development and creating accessible products for businesses. Prior to Be Accessible, much of my career was spent working for financial institutions building websites and mobile applications. I have earned my Master’s in Business Administration from Salve Regina University in Rhode Island. I am a strong advocate for creating web interfaces and digital products usable by all people across the world.
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