Web accessibility is the method of designing and developing a website in a way that removes barriers of usage for people with disabilities. The idea of accommodating those with impairments has been around for decades; the White House was renovated to make it easy for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to get around in his wheelchair. Just as the physical world has become increasingly accommodating, the digital world has been evolving to meet the needs of those with impairments.
Why It Matters
Let’s start with the obvious one: It’s the right thing to do. Just as handicap ramps make buildings accessible for the elderly and physically disabled, your website needs to be friendly to those with all kinds of impairments. No one likes to be left out, especially your customers; every customer that can’t use your site is a lost sale.
Another important reason to make your website accessible is that it shows that your company, as an entity, has values and considers inclusion as important. Unlike the past, where customers generally prioritized “value” or getting the best bang for their buck, buyers now tend to think about their own personal values when they select a product (e.g. a customer buys a product from a company because the proceeds go to a charity relevant to that customer). Website accessibility can become a light form of marketing as well. Impaired customers would lean towards buying products from a company with a website that is easy for them to use and in turn, will spread the word to others who are like themselves as well.
Gone are the days when jobseekers would take a job for the sole purpose of being employed. Company values have grown in importance to attracting talent to the organization and aligning with the company mission of inclusion in the workplace. Just like customers, the “talent” is looking to join companies that are “socially responsible” and share the same or similar values as their own. If a company is seen as doing good for others, it will attract like-minded talent to the organization.
If the above was not enough to convince you to start thinking about accessibility for your website, then at least be aware of the legal considerations involved. Federal regulations state that depending on how large your organization and how often your business operates, you may legally be obligated to have your website be accessible. There are different levels of requirements that your website may need to follow. These are A, AA, and AAA, with A being easiest to implement and AAA having the strictest requirements (a breakdown of the different levels can be found here).
The Truth About Implementing Accessibility Well
There are many good techniques out there (some of which will be covered later) for making websites more accessible, but good implementation of accessibility begins in the design phase. Planning your website UI and design based on who the user is and how he or she uses it should come before a single line of code is written. Role-based UX design fits in perfectly in the development life cycle; just include roles that can have the perspective of someone who requires accessibility.
While the above is great if you your website project has not started, what if you have a website already? Fear not. There are a few things you can do.
Google’s Chrome Browser is a great way to get started on the road to accessibility. Tucked away in the developer tools is a neat utility that can perform an accessibility audit. The audit can identify elements on your page that may be lacking accessibility features and give suggestions on how to address them. The developer tools also have a pane dedicated to accessibility. While the pane has a few different features, the most notable is the ‘accessibility tree’, similar to the DOM tree that shows how a screen reader perceives the webpage.
Another good idea is to make sure that all your interactive elements contain ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Application) attributes. ARIA attributes define ways to make web content and applications more accessible for those with disabilities. It extends existing HTML to provide a mechanism of interactions that would not be available to those using assistive technologies. In a page laden with may interactive elements, adding ARIA attributes can be a challenging and time consuming task, but many front-end frameworks and UI libraries, such as Bootstrap, will automatically create these attributes or are implemented in their guidelines (provided you properly follow them!). By putting ARIA attributes on all your interactive elements, you can ensure that all your visitors can fully experience your site.
There is no denying that there is some upfront cost to adding accessibility to your existing website. If possible, it is better to budget time and effort into the project plan and also during the project execution phase. By improving the accessibility of your website, you are showing the world that your organization cares about all people, thus making your business more attractive to work for while meeting the values of a wider audience. With the “talent” and consumers now having the power of preferential choice of where they work and what they purchase, it’s only a matter of time before highly accessible websites are no longer just a trend but the norm.