Why Does Website Accessibility Matter?

Last updated: 2019-01-22 —

Website accessibility impacts a lot of people
In most places, website accessibility is the law
Who does website accessibility affect?
What makes a website more accessible?

Website accessibility is an extremely broad topic, partly because there are as many definitions of “accessible” as there are users of the internet. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all accessibility solution. A website that seems fully accessible to a user with low vision, for instance, might present serious obstacles to a user with a cognitive disorder. It’s debatable whether it’s currently even possible to create a website that offers full, equal access to every user, but it’s a worthwhile goal for any site to strive for.

No one sets out to build an exclusionary website. In an ideal world, every site would adapt to the needs of every potential user. Unfortunately, website accessibility doesn’t always come cheaply. When it comes to the bottom line, convincing management to make an investment in a more accessible site can be a difficult sell. Fortunately, there are compelling cases for putting your organization’s resources into accessibility.

Website accessibility impacts a lot of people

Studies have found that roughly 15% of people around the world have a disability that could affect the way they use the internet. This number translates to a significant amount of traffic for any business. Just as importantly, 71% of users with a disability say they will simply leave a website that doesn’t offer accessible options for them.

For comparison’s sake, France is home to 13.1% of the European Union’s total population, while California represents 12.2% of the United States. Imagine pitching an EU-based website that’s inaccessible to everyone in France, or an American business that’s unusable for Californians. Those proposals would go nowhere fast, just as sites that exclude users with disabilities should.

The number of people with disabilities is still growing
More people are living longer than at any point in human history. Current projections predict that the world’s aging population will more than double by 2050 and more than triple by 2100. As that population’s ability levels change with age, they will require an online experience that adapts to their needs.

The tech world is evolving towards greater accessibility
As website accessibility becomes more visible on the global stage, tech innovators and other businesses have kept pace. Assistive tools are more prevalent than ever for both web and mobile browsing. Services like Siteimprove Accessibility run automated scans that pinpoint accessibility issues across a website. As more and more websites adapt to this new tech, those that don’t will risk falling behind and losing business from users with disabilities.

In most places, website accessibility is the law 

Version 2.1 of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1) took effect in early summer of 2018, and it had an immediate impact on website accessibility. Many countries, particularly in Europe, have adopted WCAG guidelines into their official legislation, and nearly all industrialized countries now enforce some level of online accessibility standards. The specific requirements vary depending on where and with whom your organization does business, but in many cases a website that does not offer equal access is at risk of fines and other legal penalties. 

Who does website accessibility affect?

Just as there’s no single definition of accessibility, neither is there a catchall for disability. The community of website users with disabilities or impairments is as wide-ranging and diverse as any other. Still, most website accessibility issues can be broken down into four categories.

  • Visual
    Issues impacting users with low vision, blindness, or color blindness. Screen reader compatibility, color contrasts, resizable content, audio descriptions, and alternative text for images and videos are important considerations for this category.
  • Motor
    Issues impacting users with various forms of limited movement. Keyboard-only operations, compatibility with various forms of assistive technology (such as mouth sticks, head wands, and switch devices), properly labeled controls, and easy error correction processes are important considerations for this category.
  • Auditory
    Issues impacting users with deafness or other hearing impairments. Captions and transcripts for audio and video content are the primary elements to consider for auditory issues.
  • Cognitive
    Issues impacting users with conditions related to memory, attention, or the ability to interpret information. Readability, easily navigable design, uninterrupted browsing experiences, and sufficient text spacing are factors relating to cognitive conditions.

What makes a website more accessible?

An accessibility overhaul isn’t something that can be accomplished overnight. Every organization has a different base with different needs, and the necessary adaptations will vary widely from website to website. Even so, there are solid building blocks that can get your accessibility efforts off the ground.

  • Get to know WCAG 2.1
    The standards laid out in WCAG 2.0 and 2.1 are the guiding light of modern web accessibility. Keeping up with these guidelines is a challenge for sure. They are a lengthy set of rules that go into technical details, but acquainting yourself with WCAG saves effort in the long run. Pay extra close attention to the requirements of WCAG 2.0 Level AA, as this is the expected standard for most public websites.
  • Check for logical site structure
    A properly structured site that makes good use of headings, labels, and HTML and WAI-ARIA markups will make your site usable for screen readers and more accessible to users with cognitive disabilities.
  • Add alt text to all informative images
    Concise, descriptive alt text is essential for screen readers and other assistive tools to convey the content of images. All images require an “alt” attribute. What you do with the “alt” attribute defines whether the image gets interpreted as decorative or informative. If you populate the “alt” attribute with text, then this will be communicated to - for example - a screen reader user. If the “alt” attribute is left empty, then that coveys to the end user that the image is decorative. An empty alt attribute is a perfectly legitimate thing to do providing the image is purely decorative and conveys no meaningful information to the user.
  • Add captions and transcripts
    Similar to alt text requirements, all video and audio content on a website should offer captions and transcripts for users with hearing or cognitive disabilities.
  • Improve the context of a linked text
    Users should always know exactly where a link will take them. Vague text like “Click here” or “Learn more” are not very useful. Make sure all links are written in concise, accurate language that provides context for where they lead. (As a bonus, links of this type are also much more beneficial to your SEO efforts.)
  • Invest in accessibility software or tools
    While there are many issues that need to be resolved via manual accessibility testing, assessing website accessibility by hand is simply too big task for most organizations. Using a tool that offers automated accessibility scanning is an excellent way to ensure you’re identifying all of the issues that need to be addressed.

From a legal, financial, and ethical standpoint, there’s no question that website accessibility is one of the biggest issues facing any organization with an online presence. Getting your site compliant will require a lot of work and maintenance, but those efforts will pay off in a multitude of ways.