Digital Accessibility: What It Is and Why You Need It
Web-based content influences wide-ranging aspects of everyday life. It’s how we shop. How we communicate. How we get information on everything from train schedules to restaurant menus to directions to the nearest gas station.
But an estimated 1.3 billion web users are affected by impairments that prevent them from fully accessing all this crucial information. These disabilities include visual, auditory, neurological, physical, and speech impairments.
And this estimate doesn’t even account for the elderly population, who experience varying levels of disability, or people with temporary disabilities that often limit internet use.
What Is Digital Accessibility?
Recognizing how essential the web has become to modern daily life, an international effort took root several years ago to make the internet more accessible for all users.
The Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), an international working group, put together guidelines with the goal of making digital content accessible to everyone, regardless of disability. The resulting Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) serve as a technical standard for anyone charged with digital accessibility.
Just as ramps, braille signs, and audible pedestrian systems help people with disabilities better navigate the physical world, accessible web design removes barriers that prevent full use of digital information.
Some common modifications include:
- Adding alt text descriptions to images
- Using sufficient color contrast
- Captioning video files
- Allowing the option to turn off animation, which can affect people with seizure disorders
- Designing to support simple navigation and logical site structure
Beyond the disabled population, WCAG guidelines can help all users have a better experience. For example, video captioning benefits the hearing impaired – and users in loud environments or those who prefer to keep their sound off (e.g., when watching on a cell phone). Adequate contrast helps anyone see a screen better in bright sunlight. And easy navigation benefits everyone.
Despite growing regulation and public attention, many businesses and organizations still don’t have their websites up to speed with digital accessibility guidelines.
3 Big Reasons to Make Digital Accessibility A Priority
1. Show your commitment to serving all users.
Maybe digital accessibility hasn’t been on your radar. Or it is, but the seemingly complex and expensive process of modifying your site has the effort on a back burner. While this may not necessarily vilify a company or brand, it can send a negative message.
In contrast, making your website accessible to everyone communicates that you’re dedicated to your customers. It shows that your organization values social responsibility and will take steps to create a positive experience for everyone.
And as customer experience continues to drive growth, digital access for all can be a powerful way to secure brand advocates and customer loyalty.
Which leads us to reason 2…
2. Improve business.
If your digital content isn’t fully accessible to everyone, you’re inadvertently excluding a large audience (remember, up to 1.3 billion potential customers). It’s commonly argued that ROI is difficult to tie to outlays for digital accessibility modifications.
However, accessible design provides benefits that ultimately can build the bottom line:
- Reach a larger customer base in terms of the disabled population
- Make it easier for everyone to use your site
- Enable better access in the mobile environment
- Improve SEO rankings
- Drive innovation
In fact, W3C presents case studies of Fortune 100 companies (Apple and Barclay’s, to name two) that have seen better search results, reduced maintenance costs, and increased audience reach stemming from accessible design.
3. Maintain legal compliance and avoid lawsuits.
In the U.S., several industries are subject to government requirements for digital accessibility as interpreted under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Federal agencies must follow regulations set forth in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.
And lawsuits alleging digital accessibility violations are on the rise. High-profile companies in consumer goods, telecommunications, e-commerce and other industries have been ordered to pay large settlements.
Following WCAG guidelines helps organizations maintain compliance with Section 508 and ADA. Websites are not static, and neither are the laws and requirements governing digital accessibility. Ensuring digital accessibility compliance must be an ongoing effort.