Sixteen percent of the world’s population — or one in six people — live with a disability. Forward-thinking businesses know that making reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities is not just a legal or ethical obligation. It can quite literally remove barriers to purchase, helping to drive revenue and strengthen their brand’s reputation among customers with and without disabilities.
Organizations that fail to do so in the U.K. will often rightly be called out and could face action under the Equality Act 2010. This applies in the digital world, too. Poor website accessibility remains a persistent problem for those with impaired vision, motor difficulties, cognitive difficulties, learning difficulties or impaired hearing. This looks like sites with poor navigation, overly complex language, low color contrast or incompatibility with assistive technologies such as screen readers.
Straightaway, this excludes people from many of the things those without a disability take for granted, from competitive insurance and reactive Black Friday deals to essential public services such as medical or financial information. A disability doesn’t have to be severe or permanent to present problems, either. Someone might struggle to work their way around a website or app because of an injury like a broken arm.
U.S. adults with disabilities statistics
- 12.1 percent have a mobility disability.
- 12.8 percent have a cognition disability.
- 7.2 percent have an independent living disability.
- 6.1 percent are deaf or have serious difficulty hearing.
- 4.8 percent have a vision disability.
- 3.6 percent have a self-care disability with difficulty dressing or bathing.
How Are We Doing?
The World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative published the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, an internationally recognized set of recommendations for improving web accessibility. However, as many as four in 10 council home pages in the U.K. fail basic accessibility tests despite being legally required to meet WCAG 2.1 Level AA web accessibility standards.
While private sector companies don’t legally have to meet the standards, they could still be breaching regulations like the Equality Act if their site isn’t accessible or, in the case of financial services, the fair treatment of vulnerable customers.
Aside from the risk of court action and reputational damage, businesses that don’t make their website accessible could simply see their potential customers go elsewhere because they can’t get what they need. People are more likely to spend their money on a website that presents the fewest barriers, not the cheapest products.
96.3 percent of home pages have WCAG 2 failures such as missing alt text or low color contrast. There is a tremendous opportunity to serve this demographic, which has an estimated spending power of £274 billion, or about $347 billion in the U.S.
What Are We Doing Wrong?
Reputable companies invest a lot in diversity and inclusion and don’t set out to exclude people. Web accessibility, however, isn’t built into the planning, design and delivery stage, so companies forget or deprioritize it due to conflicting or competing demands, budget constraints and/or deadlines.
Trying to make a website accessible afterwards is a challenge because you might need to rewrite the code and content, which requires another round of testing and validation and may cause other issues in the design and functionality. Far better to get it right the first time than invest time and money rectifying it, surely?
Worryingly though, there are examples of unscrupulous practices too, which is why the online world can sometimes feel like the wild west to users with disabilities. I spoke with campaigner and freelance journalist Liam O’Dell, who pointed out that disability charities have recently had to remind organizations that alt text is not a place for secret jokes or marketing. Its purpose is to make content accessible.
It’s thanks to disability advocates like Liam and many more on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok that organizations are finally being called out and forced to make changes for good.
How We Can Do Better
Luckily, some brands are leading the way on accessibility. Liam cites Innocent Smoothies, which uses alt text to align with its brand without compromising accessibility, and the National Theatre, which has taken a uniform approach to accessibility across its social media and easy-to-navigate website. I’d add to that list the National Trust website, which clusters topics in a logical way and which users can navigate using a keyboard alone.
WCAG provides a comprehensive overview of the requirements for accessibility, but one of the best known is the POUR principle: perceivable, operable, understandable and robust.
Following these principles means a user should be able to access everything and do what they need to do using their chosen technology or input device. A good content management system can go a long way to helping teams meet these guidelines during and beyond the initial website project.
How do you meet POUR guidelines?
The criteria for meeting POUR are wide-ranging, including:
- Perceivable: Captions and video transcriptions for those who are hard of hearing.
- Operable: Compatibility with screen readers for visually impaired people.
- Understandable: Alt-text for screen readers.
- Robust: Compatibility with existing and future user tools.
Test, Test and Test Again.
As part of your website and content development, thorough and repeated testing helps to ensure that you can flag and address any accessibility issues immediately. I recommend three rounds of testing: automated, manual and real-world. There are numerous automated tools available that most people can use. For example, Google Lighthouse provides an accessibility audit highlighting areas for remediation.
Automated testing is a fast and convenient way to flag issues, but it will only take you so far. This is why you then move to manual testing, which involves putting yourself in the shoes of a user, seeing how it functions with a screen reader, navigating using only a keyboard, and whether it works for those who use Windows high contrast mode.
Asking disabled users to test the website is the final stage of testing and what sets an accessible website apart from the rest. Seeing how real people interact with your site can provide reassurance that it’s working as it should while also challenging assumptions and addressing any issues before it’s opened up to the wider public. Ultimately, you need to ensure the website fits the needs of users, not just developers or content creators.
Accessibility isn’t optional: It’s integral to website performance and user experience. Meeting the needs of disabled users certainly requires some additional steps, but many of the principles, such as intuitive navigation and straightforward copy, are just good practices.
Whether you work in the public or private sector, good practices like these can break down barriers and help you to engage your readers and drive action.