What Exactly Is Website Accessibility?

Accessibility is a familiar word to most people. We know a lot about accessibility in the physical space, whether it’s elevators, ramps, or handicapped parking spots, but what about accessibility in a virtual space? If you ask people what makes a website accessible, they probably won’t have much of an idea. When I started my career as a front end developer, I had almost no concept of what website accessibility was. Accessibility seemed unimportant, at most a secondary concern. It’s not really something that businesses ask for a lot.  I thought that making your site accessible was a lot of work for no profit, because surely there aren’t very many disabled people using the web right?

My First Experience With Website Accessibility

After my first year in web development, the company I was working for at the time sent its web developers to a web accessibility conference. We were convinced it was going to be a long boring 3 days, full of HTML5 specifications and obscure Javascript. Little did we know, at the end of that 3 days we’d all be afire about website accessibility, and became full blown advocates for it. Many of the people teaching our classes themselves had disabilities, and they taught us a lot about how a disabled person might use the web.

  • Someone who is blind would use a screen reader. This software allows them to navigate the site, while having the content read to them. Without accessible navigation, and proper semantic HTML, these people have a hard, or impossible time accessing our content.
  • Someone with dyslexia, partial vision, or color blindness needs a high level of contrast to be able to see and reach our content. They may try to zoom in on the website, and if the layout distorts while doing so, they cannot access the content.
  • Someone with cognitive disabilities needs more time to complete tasks and may have issues with fast moving content. Abrupt, flashing animations may cause issues and even seizures. Timed quizzes or forms, or timers on shopping carts may prevent them from being able to use our sites.
  • Someone with a hearing impairment needs text versions of content as well. Embedded videos on our sites need captions or a text equivalent if we want them to be able to enjoy our content.

We watched our teachers and demonstrators try to access many websites, and oftentimes fail to do so. It was heartbreaking. Something as simple as shopping online for a new phone charger became an impossible task for someone with a disability. We also learned that developing for accessibility is something that should be done from the very beginning of a website redesign. This helps minimize extra cost and time down the road. Accessibility should permeate the very bones of a website.

There Are More People Living With Disabilities Than Some Realize

Some may argue that people with disabilities make up a very limited section of web users, and that it would just be impossible to accommodate every minority user on the web. The facts are that 1 in 5 Americans live with a disability, and most of them are on the web. This is hardly a population that we can ignore, nor should we. Technology has come a long way in terms of accommodating people with disabilities. In fact, all modern Apple computers and phones have a text reader built into the operating systems. Barriers preventing disabled people from using computers in the past are continually being lowered with new technologies.

Why Would I Want To Have An Accessible Website?

Some opponents of website accessibility might worry that having an accessible website will lower the quality of their website’s design. When they think of accessible websites, they picture bland color palettes and outdated designs. This is an understandable concern, especially if you’ve ever seen or used a governmental website (they are all, by law, highly accessible). The example below is the United States Social Security Website. The colors are dull, the design is outdated, and there are no attractive visuals to draw people into the website.

United States Social Security Website

 

There is a misunderstanding here, though. It is assumed that good design and accessibility are incompatible, which just isn’t true. Case and point, Apple.com.

 

Apple Website

Apple has a wonderful website full of big beautiful imagery, a nice sans-serif font, and subtle and effective animation. Their website is simplistic, stark and really well designed. A little known fact about Apple’s website, is that it is accessible, truly proof that design and accessibility are not mutually exclusive.

Form And Function Are Not Mutually Exclusive 

Web design is often misunderstood, it is thought of only as visual design, choosing colors and finding that perfect font. However, if one were thinking about someone designing a chair, for example, they would think about the color and the usability. The web is something people use, not just something they look at. Visual design must be considered, but a holistic design approach considers the functionality even more. That’s where the user experience part of web design kicks in. A good designer thinks not just about how their site looks, but also how their site functions and how easy it is to use and understand. A well designed website keeps you coming back for more. A designer should want you to have an easy and enjoyable time purchasing a product, or reading an article.

People leave beautiful but frustrating websites quickly. I’m sure we can all think of a website that we avoid because it is difficult to use. Visuals do not sell, they may be drawing people into your site, but ultimately, if someone cannot add an item to their cart and purchase it, then you cannot sell anything. The same is true of company content and blogs. If someone cannot navigate to the pages with the information you want them to see, then the battle is lost. In this way accessibility is for everyone. We want to make sure that the maximum number of people possible can access our content, or buy our products.

How Is Website Accessibility Important For My Business?

A user’s ability to access any site and navigate it easily is a big deal. However, for e-commerce sites, there’s more at stake. More companies are adding online stores to their repertoire, and more people are doing most of their shopping online instead of going through the trouble of  driving to the store. Online shopping is a big business and it’s growing, and as a result, so is web accessibility legislation.

Juan Carlos Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc.

In June of this year, U.S. District Judge Robert Scola ruled in favor of a disabled man named Juan Carlos Gil who sued Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc because he was unable to use their website. Mr. Gil has filed about 70 such lawsuits so far, and he certainly won’t be the only person doing so. Winn-Dixie is now required to change their new 7 million dollar website to adhere to the WCAG 2.0 accessibility criteria within the next 3 years. They estimate that the changes needed to bring the site up to accessibility standards will cost them around $250,000.

There’s definitely a lot to be learned from this case, and others like it. A lack of website accessibility is no longer going to slide, especially in cases of e-commerce sites. Lawsuits and the subsequent required edits to the site will costs much more than incorporating accessibility into your site from the beginning. Ultimately, we should be thinking about our websites just like we would any other place of accommodation.

Accessibility Is Important Whether It’s Physical Or Virtual

A store is designed not only to draw the eye and encourage purchasing, but also to allow people to move through them and reach the products they would wish to purchase. Companies have reception desks at the front of their building so that people can easily access the information they need. Websites should function the same way, with critical content and items easily reached by people of all abilities. People should be allowed the right to access our websites, and we should desire to design them so they are usable and enjoyable for everyone.

Further reading:

If you’re interested in the conference I went to, it’s in Austin, Texas every year and here is information for the next conference.

Here’s some great basic information from w3 about how people with disabilities use the web

Here is the article where I first read about the Juan Carlos Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc. story and why website accessibility is important for web developers.

Want to know more? Need an accessible website? Contact us for a consultation.

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