Why Should You Care About Web Accessibility?

October 21, 2021
Older person using computer

When I tell people about Access Armada, they often ask me to explain what web accessibility is. But once they have a better understanding of what it means for a site to be accessible, it’s usually pretty clear to them why this is a worthy goal. But there are quite a few compelling reasons why you should want to make your website accessible.

Accessibility is a civil right

I think a useful framing is that accessibility is a civil right. This is literally true in the sense that the Americans with Disabilities Act created an affirmative right to accessible public accommodations. And of course, this includes a But it's also true in the broader sense that it’s simply the right thing to do. (Even if you don’t think businesses should be required to provide accessible accommodations, I hope that everyone can at least agree that it is a socially desirable thing to do.)

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Accessibility is legally required

If you aren’t altruistically motivated, you should still be aware that the US federal courts have ruled that websites must be made accessible to users with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Other parallel obligations exist in many other countries including Australia (Disability Discrimination Act), Canada (AODA), Israel, and the European Union. In the United States, private citizens can file a federal lawsuit against a private business owner for an inaccessible website. Over the past five years, the number of lawsuits filed has risen sharply (and the number of private settlements is undoubtedly significantly higher.)

Standing rules under the ADA do not require that the plaintiff be a customer; as a result, a small group of plaintiffs and attorneys are responsible for many of the lawsuits (and demand letters threatening suits) filed each year. These claims are sometimes referred to as “surf-by” lawsuits; websites that have easily detected accessibility violations that can be found through an automated checker are particularly vulnerable.

While the ADA only provides for mandated remediation and reimbursement of the plaintiff’s attorneys fees, the Unruh Act under California state law specifies that a plaintiff can recover a minimum of $4,000 in damages for each accessibility violation. Furthermore, the California Consumer Privacy Act’s (CCPA) mandated cookie notices and privacy policies must also be accessible. Each violation could result in a penalty of up to $7,500.

The business case for accessibility

Finding your business on the losing end of a lawsuit is not a good look. In most cases, I’d even say that getting sued can reflect poorly on your business’ public image (whether or not the lawsuit is justified). For many companies, avoiding negative PR has a far greater impact on the bottom line than the costs associated with defending against a lawsuit.

In addition, having an accessible digital presence is critical in attracting and retaining customers with disabilities. The World Health Organization, in the World Report on Disability, has estimated that up to 15% of people worldwide experience disability in one form or another. This includes many people that may not immediately come to mind when you think about disability. To take a mundane example, many older people experience some vision loss. Users that have a harder time maneuvering on your site or understanding your content may choose to use a competitor’s site or even just give up when they are unable to find or do what they intended.

Improving everyone’s user experience

It’s natural to think about accessibility as something we are doing on behalf of others. But in reality, many of the accessibility guidelines and best practices as outlined in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) make websites better for everyone. This includes technical accessibility practices like making sure that colors in the design have sufficient contrast or including error notifications on incorrect form submissions. But content accessibility also makes sites easier to use and understand; this includes features like consistent navigation across the site and logical use of headings to set each page’s informational structure.

The accessibility SEO boost

Taking care to comply with accessibility requirements on your site can also pay dividends in your SEO rankings. There are some similarities in the ways that screen readers and search engine bots scan a site; for example, even with artificial intelligence, Google still has a hard time understanding the meaning of images in context. Providing alternative text for images, closed captioning for videos, and written transcripts for audio can help make sure that search engines can get the correct text and interpret it as intended. (It also represents another opportunity to make use of targeted keywords that you would like to rank for.) Similarly, the semantic HTML elements that are critical for accessibility (such as the header, footer, navigation elements, and headings) and metadata like the page title both make it easier for screen reader users to navigate the page and contribute to the search engine’s understanding of the page’s meaning.

Externally imposed requirements

Some of the people that approach us are barely aware of any of the reasons to prioritize web accessibility that we listed above. Typically in those cases, we hear from an employee or manager that is responding to a mandate. This might include a corporate decision, contractual requirements from a third party to build or remediate a site for accessibility, or a prerequisite for doing business with a government entity. While this scenario is always downstream of the legal and business reasons we have introduced, the teams responsible for implementation are not always made privy to the motivations behind the decision.

How to become accessible

Unfortunately, the ADA does not specifically address or define web accessibility and the federal DOJ has declined to issue its own regulations (as of 2021). However, the Web Content Accessibility guidelines issued by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) have become the established and accepted standard. In most cases, businesses looking to make their web presence accessible should aim to meet the requirements laid out in WCAG version 2.1 Level AA. 

There are a number of freely available accessibility checker tools that are available such as Google’s Lighthouse and the WAVE evaluation engine. These can identify some, but not all, of the most easily found violations. In order to become more compliant, businesses can obtain training for their designers and developers (if they have in-house teams) or contract a qualified digital or accessibility agency to assist them.

Many accessibility agencies sell comprehensive audit packages to document and catalog all known issues, which you can then take back to your developers to remediate. However, that option may be prohibitive for businesses that lack the budget; small and midsize businesses should consider working with an expert to prioritize the work to first address the most easily found and highest impact accessibility violations. This cost-effective approach can do the most to significantly reduce your legal risk and exposure while offering the biggest and quickest increase in accessibility user experience.

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