Digital accessibility standards have existed since the 1990s, yet accessibility remains woefully inadequate.
"The last statistic I heard is that 5% or fewer of websites are considered fully accessible, as measured by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 AA standard," says Adam Campfield, senior manager, accessibility, with a Fortune 50 company.
This should bother all of us. Digital accessibility isn’t just beneficial for the millions worldwide with disabilities. It’s good for everyone. Ethically speaking, creating websites and apps that all people can use with ease is the right thing to do. Pragmatically, it’s also good for business.
"At the most basic level, about 25% of the U.S. population has a disability," Campfield says. "Not excluding as much as one quarter of one’s potential customer base is an obvious smart choice."
Moreover, Campfield notes, many people who don’t technically have a disability still struggle with technology. "Since building for accessibility means the product is, overall, better designed for all humans to use, everyone gets an experience they can use, probably even a pleasant one. There are good reasons why companies that hire people with disabilities and produce accessible products see an increase in revenue of more than 20%."
According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which published the first version of WCAG in 1999, accessibility can drive innovation, enhance a brand, extend market reach and minimize legal risk. Websites and apps that don’t meet accessibility standards may lose customers and money. One frequently cited study found that U.S. eCommerce retailers without accessible sites lose about $6.9 billion dollars a year to competitors whose sites are accessible.
This creates opportunity. With so many websites and mobile apps not meeting even minimum accessibility standards, there's a huge opportunity for businesses that have invested in digital accessibility to gain a competitive advantage, increase market share and ultimately increase revenue. That may be especially true for businesses with an online retail component.
The sharp rise in lawsuits against inaccessible websites and their owners make the financial risks clear. Courts are developing a new perspective on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), ruling that it can reasonably be applied to the web or mobile apps that provide a public service. Some businesses are learning the hard way as they lose in court. Just ask Domino’s Pizza.
"Setting aside moral and legal reasons," Campfield says, "making accessible products in any space, digital or physical, is simply the smart choice for any business."
Timeline of Accessibility Acts & Laws
Where to start
Becoming educated on digital accessibility is step one. Jean Ducrot, senior accessibility support specialist at Pearson, says most business and website owners know little about digital accessibility guidelines. "There’s a misunderstanding among small-business owners that digital accessibility doesn’t apply to them. If you sell goods or services to American citizens, title III of the ADA applies to you regardless of where the sale takes place."
Even Microsoft Word, on which this and millions of other articles are written, has an accessibility checker that flags issues and provides tips on ways to increase accessibility so even independent writers can be sure they’re creating content all people can read.
One resource Ducrot recommends is the W3C. "The W3C has great resources to help people become educated on accessibility. And if you’re starting your career in tech and want to learn more about accessibility or if you've been in tech for a while and want to teach others, I recommend checking out Teach Access. Finally, the community-driven a11y project is a great resource for anyone who wants to know more about digital accessibility."
A little knowledge goes a long way. Campfield points to the increasing number of companies pushing overlays. "These are pieces of code companies claim can make an inaccessible website into an accessible one with no work on the owner’s part. They actually improve little or nothing and frequently cause assistive-technology users even more frustration. It's analogous to someone saying they can bring a building up to ADA compliance by enabling users to push a button and have a ramp laid over the top of the stairs to the building. If the stairs are steep or uneven, a wheelchair user still isn't going to be able to ascend them. More people today realize they need to be accessible but don’t fully understand it. They purchase these products thinking they’re making a good business decision without realizing they’re wasting their money."
Need to know
WCAG 2.1 level AA is the current standard for most businesses. There’s AAA level as well. While AA makes websites usable for all people, AAA makes them easier to use, but Campfield says most businesses don't consider AAA worth the cost.
Guidelines are fluid, however, and will likely evolve. "WCAG 2.2 is due out later 2022 or early 2023, and version 3.0 is in the works for release in the second half of the current decade. What’s important to understand," Ducrot emphasizes, "is that WCAG versions build on one another. One version doesn’t make an older one obsolete."
Guidelines evolve in part because they don't provide guidance for every disability. Some, including cognitive disabilities, are still under research and experts don’t yet agree on digital solutions. As solutions are found and successfully tested, they’ll become part of future WCAG versions.
Some accessibility features require more planning than others. "Take video captions," Ducrot says. "Although they're easier to create if accounted for upfront, they’re fairly easy to put together post-production. Services exist that can generate them automatically—although I recommend reviewing them before including them in a public video. On the other hand, some features require deeper design and technical knowledge to implement properly. For example, WCAG mandates that people must be able to enlarge text to a minimum of 200% of its original size. This seemingly intuitive requirement often requires major changes if only considered after the product goes live. Most websites and apps can support this adaptation with some tweaks, but it would be much easier if they had accounted for it up front."
Websites also must support zooming up to 400% with all controls and text remaining readable and operable. "Most existing product teams don't know where to begin because their current design architecture cannot support such a change," Ducrot says. "These two visual requirements alone often wreak havoc on product architecture at companies big and small if considered too late—and they’re only two of the 50 criteria in WCAG 2.1 AA."
Compliance isn’t rocket science, but it isn't a cakewalk, either. Ducrot says it falls on many shoulders. "Developers, designers, quality assurance engineers and product owners all have a role to play in making websites and apps accessible. They’re required to do so if they work on behalf of the government, and in many cases, if their products serve American citizens at large."
Experts agree that building accessibility in from the start is optimal, yet remediation of existing sites is also a viable strategy.
"Building it early and doing it right makes a better experience for all users of the website and sets it up for greater success," Campfield says. "It even helps with SEO. Working with a qualified accessibility expert and including users with disabilities is essential to getting it right. Building an accessibility product can be cheaper in the long run by ensuring the product is coded in the most correct and robust way."
Remediation starts with testing, which reveals the gaps that must be addressed to reach accessibility compliance. "Although there’s no way to test every aspect of digital accessibility automatically, there are free, powerful tools available," Ducrot says. "I highly recommend Accessibility Insights from Microsoft. You can run tests on Android apps, the web and Windows operating systems. These tools offer automated tests and also guide you through many manual tests, explaining exactly what you should be looking for. That's the first stop I recommend to business owners who are willing to invest their time to know where their digital products stand on the accessibility spectrum."
Some issues require professional support. "This is mainly because platforms and tools will require different approaches, especially if the digital product wasn't built with accessibility in mind."
When a business with financial resources seeks support, Ducrot recommends established accessibility consulting firms, including Deque and TPGI. "I've worked for TPGI so I know first-hand the quality of the services provided. Deque is an established industry leader with a great approach to remediating accessibility issues. For smaller businesses, I recommend going the independent consultant route, ideally one certified by the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP)."
Like Ducrot, Campfield says different sites require different strategies. "For a business that sees a lot of traffic and updates, such as eCommerce or sites that post frequent content updates, the smartest choice is to establish a group of in-house accessibility experts who advise on the design side and provide technical guidance to developers so that all new content is accessible. It's also important to have someone do accessibility QA. To begin fixing an inaccessible site, experts typically do a thorough audit and build a report of existing gaps. With some focused effort and dedicated time, a lot can be achieved to turn things around.”
If a site doesn’t update frequently—pushing out major updates only a few times a year—Campfield suggests hiring a company such as Deque or Level Access. "They provide accessibility testing and recommendations on a contractual basis and can be a good solution if a company wants to determine its gaps, address them and go from there without the need for guidance on a daily basis."
The big picture
We should be further along, but progress has largely been reactive versus proactive. "Enforcement of laws is slow and patchwork, relying on complaints and legal action to affect change in many cases,” Campfield says. "Significant gaps in implementation and practice remain." By "gaps" he means such absurd scenarios as agencies "sending a blind person printed mail to inform them of accessible communication options." Yes, that happens.
A new way of thinking is needed. In most design and computer-programming courses, for example, accessibility principles aren't taught, so students come out of them without the knowledge necessary to develop accessible products from the start. Educators can change that by rethinking courses. Global thinking must shift from "Accessibility doesn’t affect me" to "It’s a problem we can all help solve."
As Ducrot puts it, "Accessibility is for all humans. The laws have been in place for over 20 years and are updated frequently to keep up with technological advancements. It’s time for the business and tech communities to embrace them to empower everyone."
After all, Campfield says, "The digital world is the easiest place to grant access to all, if we can all take the time and consideration to do it right."