In the digital age, ensuring that your website is accessible to all users, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities, is not just a moral and legal obligation, but it also makes solid business sense. This blog post delves into the concept of website accessibility, its importance, and the guidelines that can help businesses achieve it.
Website accessibility refers to making websites usable for everyone, including the 15% of the world population with disabilities. It revolves around providing equal access to information and services on the internet, enhancing the overall user experience, reaching a wider audience, complying with legal obligations, and maintaining an ethical responsibility towards all users.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), are the leading guidelines in this field. They centre around four principles (Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust) and offer three levels of conformance (A, AA, AAA), with AA being the level most organisations should aim for.
Accessibility isn't just about doing the right thing; there's a clear business case for it, especially for small businesses. Accessible websites can attract a larger audience, enhance the customer experience, improve search engine optimisation (SEO), build a positive brand image, reduce the risk of legal issues, and future-proof the business.
In essence, website accessibility is a win-win strategy, benefiting both the users and the businesses. It's an investment that can lead to better user engagement, improved brand reputation, and ultimately, increased business success.
Website accessibility is often overlooked, but its absence can pose significant pain points for businesses. Inaccessible websites not only alienate a substantial portion of potential users, but they also limit a business’s reach, potentially harm its reputation, and could even lead to legal ramifications
In our rapidly digitalising world, websites have become the new shopfronts, service centres, and information hubs. They’re an integral part of how businesses operate, present themselves, and reach customers. However, imagine if your physical shop had steps at the entrance with no ramp, locking out potential customers using wheelchairs. This is the equivalent of what happens when your website isn’t accessible—it becomes a barrier, rather than a bridge, to engagement and inclusion..
Think about the diverse range of individuals who interact with your business online. This includes people with disabilities, the elderly who may experience difficulties such as reduced vision or impaired motor skills, and even those with temporary impairments, such as a broken arm or lost glasses. By not making your website accessible, you risk isolating these individuals, potentially losing their business and the business of those who value inclusivity.
An inaccessible website can result in missed opportunities for revenue and growth.
The global spending power of people with disabilities is estimated to be over $1 trillion, with over $544 billion in the U.S. alone. This figure, known as the ‘Disability Market,’ along with the spending power of friends and family, makes up the ‘Disability Market Influence.’ Moreover, in the UK, the ‘Purple Pound,’ representing the spending power of disabled households, is worth £274 billion a year. Businesses that neglect website accessibility are effectively turning away a share of this market.
In the age of social responsibility, an inaccessible website could also damage a brand’s reputation. Consumers increasingly favour businesses that demonstrate inclusivity and social responsibility. A website that is not accessible may be perceived as neglectful or discriminatory, which could deter potential customers.
Finally, there are potential legal implications. In many countries, including the UK, the U.S., and across the EU, businesses are required by law to make their websites accessible to people with disabilities. Non-compliance can lead to legal action, as seen in several high-profile cases.
In a world where inclusivity is increasingly the norm, an inaccessible website is a glaring oversight. Making your website accessible to all isn’t just a matter of good corporate citizenship—it’s also a smart business move.
What is Website Accessibility?
Website accessibility is about inclusivity in the digital space. It means designing and developing websites, tools, and technologies to be usable by as many people as possible. But it’s not limited to those with disabilities. Website accessibility also considers the wider spectrum of user abilities, including those with temporary impairments, the elderly, and those using a variety of devices like mobile phones, smart TVs, or smartwatches.
When we speak about disabilities in the context of web accessibility, it covers a broad range of conditions including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities. It’s about ensuring that everyone, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities, can access, understand, navigate, and interact with the web.
An accessible website considers various aspects:
- Perceivability: Can users perceive the content? This can involve providing text alternatives for non-text content, creating content that can be presented in different ways without losing information, or making it easier for users to see and hear content.
- Operability: Can users operate the interface? This can mean making all functionality available from a keyboard, giving users enough time to read and use content, or designing content in a way that doesn’t cause seizures.
- Understandability: Is the website’s operation and information understandable to users? This involves making text readable and understandable, making web pages appear and operate in predictable ways, and helping users avoid and correct mistakes.
- Robustness: Can the content be reliably interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies? This includes ensuring compatibility with current and future user tools.
Creating an accessible website means considering these aspects from the ground up, at every stage of the design and development process. It’s about more than just checking boxes or meeting regulatory requirements—it’s about providing a seamless and inclusive user experience for all.
The Importance of Website Accessibility
The importance of website accessibility is multi-faceted, impacting users, businesses, and society at large. Here, we delve deeper into why it plays such a crucial role in our increasingly digital world.
Ensuring Equal Access and Opportunities
At its core, website accessibility is a matter of equality. The internet is a vast resource of information, services, and opportunities. When websites are inaccessible, it’s not just an inconvenience; it’s a barrier that can prevent individuals from full participation in society. Whether it’s applying for a job, completing an online purchase, accessing government services, or simply researching a topic of interest, everyone should have equal access.
Enhancing User Experience
Website accessibility often goes hand-in-hand with improved user experience. Many of the practices that make a site more accessible, such as clear navigation, well-structured content, and descriptive link text, also make it more usable and intuitive for everyone, not just those with disabilities.
Reaching a Wider Audience
By making your website accessible, you can reach a wider audience. This includes not only the estimated 15% of the global population who have some form of disability but also the elderly, who may have age-related impairments, and those with temporary or situational limitations. Ignoring accessibility could mean missing out on a significant portion of potential users or customers.
In many countries, website accessibility is not just a recommendation; it’s a legal requirement. Laws such as the UK’s Equality Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S., and the European Accessibility Act all mandate certain levels of accessibility, particularly for public sector and some private sector websites. Failure to comply can result in legal action, fines, and reputational damage.
Ethical Responsibility and Reputation Management
In an age where consumers are increasingly mindful of corporate social responsibility, having an accessible website is an ethical imperative that can also boost your brand’s reputation. It signals to your audience that you care about all users, fostering goodwill and potentially encouraging customer loyalty.
In essence, website accessibility is about more than just disability rights; it’s about creating a more inclusive and effective web that serves and respects all its users.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
In a quest to make the web more inclusive and navigable for everyone, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) developed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These guidelines form the bedrock of accessibility on the web, providing a comprehensive set of recommendations designed to make web content more accessible to people with a wide array of disabilities.
As was previously explained, the WCAG are organised around four key principles, often referred to as POUR: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust.
- Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive. This means, for instance, that visual content has text alternatives, audio content has captions, and information isn’t conveyed by colour alone.
- Operable: Users must be able to operate the interface and navigation. This means that all functionality is available from a keyboard and that users have sufficient time to read and use content.
- Understandable: Information and operation of the user interface must be understandable. This means that text is readable and comprehensible, web pages operate predictably, and users are assisted in avoiding and correcting mistakes.
- Robust: Content must be robust enough to be reliably interpreted by a wide range of user agents, including assistive technologies. This means the website works well with current and future technologies.
Levels of Conformance
The WCAG guidelines offer three levels of conformance: Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA. These levels represent increasing degrees of accessibility:
- Level A: The most basic web accessibility features. Websites that do not meet this level are very difficult for people with disabilities to use.
- Level AA: Deals with the most common barriers for disabled users. This is the level that most organisations should aim for and is required for public sector websites in many countries.
- Level AAA: The highest and most complex level of web accessibility. It is not always possible to satisfy all Level AAA success criteria for some content.
Since its inception, the WCAG has evolved to meet the changing landscape of digital technology. The current version is WCAG 2.1, with plans underway for WCAG 2.2 (which should be released 2023) and 3.0, which promises to be more flexible and adaptable.
In a nutshell, WCAG provides a clear path towards a more accessible web, facilitating equal access and opportunities for all, including those with disabilities.
It’s also worth noting that, based on previous transitions, even when WCAG 3.0 is released, probably sometime in 2024/25, there will likely be a period during which WCAG 2.1 or 2.2 (which should be released 2023), will still be considered the current standard. Organisations will have time to adjust to the new guidelines.
The Business Case for Accessibility
While ensuring accessibility is a moral and often legal obligation, it’s essential to recognise that it also presents significant business opportunities. This is particularly relevant for small businesses looking to expand their reach and enhance their reputation.
Expanding Customer Base
Accessibility broadens your potential market. By making your website accessible, you ensure it’s usable by everyone, including the 15% of people worldwide with some form of disability. This also includes the growing number of elderly individuals who may face age-related impairments, and those with temporary disabilities. Essentially, an accessible website opens your business to a larger audience, potentially increasing your customer base and revenue.
Enhancing Customer Experience
Accessible websites often offer a better user experience for all visitors. Features that help people with disabilities, like clear navigation, easy-to-read text, and well-explained graphics, also benefit everyone else. They make your website more intuitive and user-friendly, enhancing customer satisfaction and potentially boosting repeat business.
Improving Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
Many accessibility features can improve your website’s SEO, helping you rank higher in search engine results. Search engines can’t ‘see’ images or ‘watch’ videos—they rely on text to understand and index content. Features like alt text for images, transcripts for videos, and well-structured content all make your website more accessible and improve its SEO.
Building a Positive Brand Image
In an era where consumers are increasingly conscious of social responsibility, having an accessible website can enhance your brand’s image. It shows you care about all your customers and are committed to inclusivity and equality. This can help you stand out from competitors, particularly in a local market where reputation is crucial.
Reducing Legal Risk
In many jurisdictions, website accessibility is a legal requirement. Non-compliance could lead to legal action, which can be costly and damaging to your business’s reputation. For small businesses, these potential legal costs and the associated negative publicity can be particularly harmful.
Future-Proofing Your Business
As the digital landscape evolves, accessibility is becoming more and more important. By investing in accessibility now, you’re future-proofing your business, ensuring that your website can be used by everyone, no matter how technology and user demographics change in the future.
In short, while there is an upfront cost to implementing accessibility, the potential benefits for small businesses are substantial. From improved customer experience to better SEO, reduced legal risk, and a wider customer base, the business case for accessibility is clear.
As we move towards a more inclusive digital future, website accessibility becomes not just a nice-to-have, but a must-have. By considering all users in website design and development, businesses can ensure they are part of this inclusive future, extending their reach, improving their SEO, and avoiding potential legal issues.
With the ongoing development of WCAG 3.0, the future of web accessibility looks promising. These updates aim to make guidelines more adaptable and easier to understand, ensuring that businesses of all sizes can implement them effectively.
The cost of making a website WCAG compliant can vary greatly depending on the complexity and size of the site, the current level of accessibility, and whether you’re doing the work in-house or hiring an external agency. While there are upfront costs involved, the potential benefits such as increased audience reach, improved SEO, and reduced legal risk can offer a valuable return on investment.
There are many resources available to help you improve your website’s accessibility. The WCAG guidelines from the W3C are a comprehensive resource. There are also online tutorials, blogs, and courses on website accessibility. For a more tailored approach, consider working with an accessibility consultant or agency.
While aiming for the highest level of conformance is a good goal, it’s not always feasible for every business, especially small businesses with limited resources. Most organisations aim for Level AA, as it deals with the most common barriers for disabled users and is often the level required by law.
There are a number of free online tools that can give you a rough idea of your website’s accessibility, like the WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool or Google’s Lighthouse. However, these tools have limitations and can’t catch every issue. For a comprehensive evaluation, you may want to consider a professional accessibility audit.
If your website isn’t accessible, you could be missing out on a significant market share, given the spending power of people with disabilities. There’s also a risk of legal action in many jurisdictions if your website doesn’t meet accessibility standards. Additionally, an inaccessible website can harm your reputation and customer satisfaction.
Many of the practices that improve website accessibility also improve SEO. For instance, providing alt text for images helps screen reader users, but it also gives search engines more information about the content of your images. Similarly, well-structured content benefits both people who use assistive technologies and search engines.
Website accessibility can greatly enhance user experience. Features that make a site more accessible, such as clear navigation, well-structured content, and descriptive link text, make it more user-friendly for all visitors, not just those with disabilities.
Find out more about our WCAG 2.1 AA Audit services to see how we can help you become compliant.