It is safe to say that when businesses decide to build a new office, no blueprint will get approval without including accessible features such as ramps and elevators. This is a sign of great progress and a commitment by the business community to be inclusive of the nearly 60 million Americans who live with a disability.
Yet, while most businesses understand or are aware of the importance of making their brick-and-mortar presence accessible, the opposite is the case when it comes to their digital space.
In fact, a very low number of organizations can say their websites are accessible — that is, usable by people of all disabilities. Inaccessible websites create barriers for people with low vision or color blindness, those who have difficulty hearing, people with cognitive conditions, as well as people living with various forms of paralysis or tremors.
The result? Businesses are closing off 20 percent of the population and potential customers — and opening themselves up to complaints and lawsuits.
This isn’t to say that businesses don’t care. Rather, there is still a significant lack of awareness about the issue and an understanding of how to go about making a change.
The good news is that there are solutions. And most businesses have models in place that translate well to creating accessible websites. For example, the protocols and processes businesses employ to handle data privacy and security overlap and lend themselves to practices that can lead to developing accessible websites.
Good business sense — but more importantly, civil rights
As our lives and buying patterns continue to move online, website accessibility makes even greater sense for businesses. More than 200 million Americans will shop online this year and nearly 10 million of those shoppers will be visually impaired, another 10 million will have a hearing impairment and more than 4 million will have severe limitations to their dexterity. For these shoppers, many goods and services offered online might be out of reach.
People living with a disability know which businesses are the best at delivering accessible websites. This community is the largest minority population in America, which gives it a big voice — and big buying power. Every person with a disability who leaves a site in frustration or confusion is a dollar lost and a potential consumer or legal complaint.
I have known friends and colleagues with disabilities who have been forced to switch banks because they couldn’t fully access online services. Thankfully there are many banks with great, accessible websites, and those friends quickly found another place to take their business.
Importantly, businesses also can’t ignore the changing demographics of the country, such as people who speak English as a second language and the aging baby boomer population, which will further drive the demand for web accessibility.
As much as website accessibility makes great business sense, it’s ultimately a civil rights issue. While there is not absolute clarity on whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to digital spaces, the government has made it clear that website accessibility is a civil rights issue — and a wave of lawsuits continues to hit companies. Title III of the ADA calls on all public retail locations to “prohibit exclusion, segregation and unequal treatment” of persons with disabilities.
New guidelines reinforce need to act
Adding to the relevance of this issue are updates to the universally recognized web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG 2.1) that became the recommendation in June. The guidelines build on previous accessibility recommendations last updated a decade ago.
Some of the key updates include a stronger focus on mobile devices and additional support for people with low vision, including criteria to address visual contrast issues and text issues.
These are just a couple examples of WCAG 2.1 that businesses need to be aware of when determining how to plan for and integrate the new guidelines into platforms.
Start at the ground floor
How do you implement WCAG and web accessibility into big plans? When it comes to best practices and implementing web accessibility throughout an organization, it takes buy-in at the highest level.
Primarily, it starts with awareness and then engaging with various departments through the organization.
Remember that achieving web accessibility is not a project, it’s a process. Just as companies have focused on meeting the requirements for data privacy, web accessibility needs to have the same layered and comprehensive approach.
Of course, the right resources are also needed for the team — be it software or training.
Ultimately, regardless of government rules or the specter of lawsuits, making websites accessible to people with disabilities is the right thing to do. Businesses are proud to offer accessible brick-and-mortar stores to all Americans. We should feel the same about our digital spaces. No matter who they are, all Americans should have full access to vital online services, and businesses should do all they can to ensure this happens.
Kevin Rydberg is a senior digital accessibility consultant for Siteimprove’s quality assurance and web governance services.