What Businesses Need to Know About Website Accessibility

What Businesses Need to Know About Website Accessibility

Website accessibility is no longer optional. With regulations and expectations around accessibility becoming more commonplace, businesses must consider the legal, social, and technical implications of making websites fully immersive for all audiences. 

We recently gathered a group of experts to unpack how website accessibility increases everything from customer reach to conversions, and how it can help your organization achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals. You can watch the webinar on demand for their full conversation. 

What is website accessibility and why is it important?

Website accessibility ensures that all your web content—web pages, text, images, and videos—can be accessed and understood by any person at any time, no matter their circumstance.

The first thing that comes to mind with web access is probably someone who is blind using a screen reader for text and images, or someone who is deaf or hard-of-hearing using captions on a video. But in reality, the benefits of website accessibility extend far beyond this. For example, many people benefit from video captions who don’t identify as deaf; some people use them because they have auditory processing disorders or simply can’t have their volume on at the time they come across your video. 

In other words, website accessibility should be the bare minimum to provide a positive content experience for people with disabilities—but it’s also beneficial for everyone. And without it, you’re likely excluding potential and current customers from your messaging.

What are the dos and don’ts of website accessibility?

Making your website more accessible may require a deepdive into the back end and development of your site. But there are also easy changes you can make just to your content that will improve the user experience.

Do:

  • Use clear text: The simpler the better. For example, adding the important takeaway from an infographic into your copy is better than trying to describe the entire infographic in alt text. 
  • Correctly number and format headings: This allows users with a screen reader to follow the flow of the content and skip around if necessary. 
  • Label form fields: Any contact form or lead generation form on your website should have correct labels associated with each field—like name, address, or company—to guide users through the form. 
  • Be mindful of capitalization: Avoid using all caps for emphasizing a point because it does not translate through screen readers. When using hashtags on social media, you should also capitalize the first letter of each word to separate them.
  • Add alt text and image descriptions to graphics and icons: The descriptions should convey the meaning of the image, not just how it appears. Harvard has a helpful guide to creating descriptive text, and each social media site—Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.—has its own guidelines.

Don’t:

  • Use low-contrast colors: Whether it’s in a graphic or on the website itself, always use high-contrast text and background colors to make it easier for low-vision and colorblind users to read the content. Use the Color Contrast Accessibility Validator to test your colors if you’re not sure.
  • List full URLs: Any URL should be embedded in a hyperlink that describes the content of the linked page, either plainly or within the context of the copy, like our Color Contrast Accessibility Validator link above.
  • Overload on images, PDFs, tables, and icons: Graphic assets are great visual aids, but they also add complexity and barriers, affecting website comprehension for someone who is not sighted. 

“Icons have their place, but don’t build your entire website out of them. Any way you can  remove complexity provides better results in the end.” 

—Alex Stine, DevOps Engineer and Accessibility Consultant

While providing a fully accessible web experience should be something you want to do, it’s also a requirement by law for many organizations.

Website accessibility laws and regulations

U.S. website accessibility laws

Within the United States, there are federal, state, and local laws related to website accessibility. 

At a federal level, Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states no individual can be discriminated against on the basis of disability and that they have access to the full and equal enjoyment of any place of public accommodation. Since being established in 1990, the law has evolved to apply to websites as well. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also requires federal agencies, governments, and universities to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities.

Additionally, there are similar state-specific laws, such as the California Disabled Persons Act & California Unruh Civil Rights Act, Arkansas Act 1227 of 1999, and Texas House Bill 2819

Global website accessibility laws 

If you do business globally, there are many accessibility laws that may apply to you. For example, the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ensure equal of opportunity and freedom from discrimination for Canadians. In the European Union, the European Parliament published a directive on the accessibility of the websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies. 

Are businesses legally required to make their websites accessible?

The short answer is yes. 

In the United States, the answer to this question is complex, varying based on industry, storefront locations, and more. However, with recent statements by the Department of Justice confirming that the ADA does apply to websites, it is best practice for businesses to make reasonable efforts to make their website, apps, and content as accessible as possible. This is the case for global business, as well, because new international regulations are surfacing all the time.

Note: the U.S. government even offers a tax credit up to $5,000 a year to make your website or mobile app more accessible. 

How does the accessibility of a web-hosting panel come into play?

Under many countries’ laws, a website host—just like other service providers—has a legal responsibility to provide access to its services in a way that doesn’t discriminate against those with disabilities.

Earlier this year, we had one of our featured agency partners carry out a detailed accessibility audit on our wpvip.com marketing site, our docs.wpvip.com documentation site, and our VIP Dashboard, which is a tool our account holders use to manage their applications. 

The audit identified areas where accessibility could be improved, from fundamental issues like layouts and heading structures, to improvements in the actual code. We’re now in the process of rolling out fixes to our sites to improve accessibility. We’ve also made accessibility training more widely available to our internal teams.

“We want our teams to understand why web accessibility is beneficial, how that can manifest in code, and why it’s not just a checkbox activity to avoid legal repercussions.” 

—Gary Jones, Engineering Lead, WordPress VIP

How can you identify accessibility issues on your website?

The good news about auditing your own site for accessibility is that you don’t have to do it alone, and you don’t have to be an expert. There are tools and agencies to help you improve your accessible user experience.

Plugins, extensions, and SaaS solutions

There are a lot of tools—many free—that identify accessibility problems on your website. 

The Equalize Digital Accessibility Checker WordPress plugin audits your website for W3C Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), ADA, and Section 508 accessibility errors. 

Browser extensions, such as WAVE, IBM Equal Access Accessibility Checker, and Deque, report on issues broken down by the WGAC. These extensions are especially helpful if you’re creating a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) to adhere to Section 508 requirements. 

Additionally, there are formal SaaS solutions that run accessibility scans on a weekly or monthly basis, offering real-time reports of potential problems to address and correct. 

“Accessibility isn’t something that you attain. It’s something that you maintain. The laws change, and technology changes. You have to stay on top of it.”

—Rian Kinney, Tech and Privacy Attorney, The Kinney Firm

Agencies and web developers

Another way to address potential problems and build a more accessible website is by hiring an agency or web developer who specializes in accessibility. 

During the vetting process, ask these key questions to ensure they can truly deliver an accessible website for your business.

  • What is your approach to accessibility, and when does accessibility come into your process? This will show you how important they consider accessibility in their web development process, and the expertise they have incorporating it into a website. 
  • Can you give me a list of a few websites you’ve built? Once they provide a list of URLs, you can not only test the accessibility of the website yourself, but also use some of the tools mentioned above to run your own accessibility audit. See if there are any red flags or obvious errors. 
  • Does anyone on your team have accessibility certifications from the International Association of Accessibility Professionals? This may indicate whether they take accessibility seriously. 
  • Ask any simple implementation question. For example, give them a scenario like, “I want to add a drop-down menu to a page on my website—how would you do that?” If the first thing they consider are the visuals, they may not have accessibility top of mind. 

Beware of agencies and developers that charge extra for website accessibility. More often than not, hosting companies make it seamless and easy for businesses to create an accessible website, so upcharging for accessibility should be a red flag.

“For hosting companies, making the service more accessible for [their customers] often means it becomes simpler and easier for everybody to use. That’s one of the great things about accessibility.”

—Gary Jones, Engineering Lead, WordPress VIP

How can website accessibility help your organization reach your diversity, equity, and inclusion goals?
Creating an accessible online presence is an essential practice for every brand. It’s also the right thing to do so that you can provide an equitable experience for all users.

Factors such as color contrast or a mobile-friendly interface impacts how every single visitor interacts with your site. More importantly, website accessibility empowers visitors with disabilities to easily navigate and consume the content on your site, enabling them to feel more comfortable and confident engaging with your business.

Beyond that, accessibility isn’t just for your customers. There are legal requirements to accommodate your employees in their jobs. It benefits businesses to hire a diverse team that includes people with disabilities to run user tests. They can spot accessibility issues you never considered, offering incredible insight into what can be improved.

“The more diversity you can have on your internal team, the better it is. Hiring a diverse team will bring a variety of different life experiences, knowledge, and expertise to better not just your website, but your entire organization.”

—Amber Hinds, CEO, Equalize Digital

In short, website accessibility provides everyone with a more positive and engaging experience—a crucial part of building relationships with potential customers and driving revenue for your business. 

Interested in diving deeper into website accessibility? Watch the full conversation here

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