Every day, hundreds of millions of people use websites to shop, conduct research, and consume videos and other interactive content without a second thought. But for the 1 in 4 U.S. adults living with disabilities, using websites is not as easy—especially when only a fraction of websites are deemed “accessible” to the disabled community.

However, the website accessibility landscape is changing: As the number of internet users continues to skyrocket—and more companies are held accountable in accessibility lawsuits—the days of treating website accessibility design as an afterthought instead of a priority are coming to an end. Here’s why:


First, What’s the Current State of Accessibility?

Web accessibility—or the building of websites and technologies so people with auditory, visual, cognitive and other disabilities can access them—has historically been viewed as a sub-discipline of user experience (UX). But as companies face mounting pressure to comply with standards like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), web accessibility design can, and should, be a multi-disciplinary approach.

UX designers, product development specialists, technical architects and quality analysts should collaborate to ensure accessibility is at the forefront of the design process. After all, designing for accessibility is like a full-time job: For starters, you must determine which accessibility features—like closed captions and transcripts for video content—you’ll need based on the media you intend to include. And you’ll not only have to complete a lengthy checklist of accessibility requirements, but you’ll also need to monitor for potential changes to accessibility compliance laws.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the other reasons why website accessibility design should be prioritized and become a multi-disciplinary effort:

Prioritizing Accessibility Earlier Eliminates Retrofitting

Website accessibility compliance requires a financial investment no matter which way you approach it. However, integrating accessible design into the early stages of development—then phasing in accessibility features with regular website updates—is often an easier and less costly approach.

But a phased-in approach doesn’t just save costs—it helps save time too. When a website is designed for universal access from the very beginning, it requires less coding than retrofitting it; after all, you’re building pages with accessibility in mind versus fixing what could be hundreds of pages.

When you’re designing for accessibility, consider the level of accessibility you want to initially provide. Evaluate your website’s media and determine which features—like alt-tags for images, clear labels for form elements, and video text translations—will help users with disabilities navigate your website through assisting technologies.

Complying with ADA Minimizes Risks of Lawsuits

Outside of government-related websites, accessibility standards haven’t been strictly enforced—at least, until recently. From 2017 to 2018, the number of federal website accessibility lawsuits nearly tripled, with the highest concentration of cases in Florida and New York. Courts in both of these states ruled that if a business website fails to meet WCAG guidelines, it can violate Title III of the ADA—a decision that affected several nationally recognized brands including Blick Art Materials, Five Guys and Winn-Dixie.

In one recent case, the Supreme Court allowed a blind man’s accessibility lawsuit against Domino’s Pizza to proceed. The man, Guillermo Robles, claimed that the pizza giant violated ADA rules because he couldn’t use his screen reader to order a pizza online. After the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Domino’s and other retailers must make its online services accessible, Domino’s tried to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court—but Justices declined to hear the petition, leaving Domino’s to defend itself in a potentially costly lawsuit.

If we can learn anything from these court cases, it’s this: While website accessibility laws are still a gray area, we’re not far from mandatory website accessibility compliance—so, companies need to begin updating their websites to prevent possible litigation.

Reach a Broader Audience

A disability could be any number of scenarios: It could be a senior citizen who can no longer read tiny text on a mobile phone; it could be a coworker who had surgery and is unable to use their mouse; or, it could be a hearing-impaired individual who needs captions to understand video content. But they all have one thing in common: They make up a huge market that, if isolated, could cost companies both in revenue and reputation.

One specific factor to consider is the aging population. Research indicates that the number of people aged 65 or older is expected to nearly double by 2060. And since over 40% of adults over 65 have disabilities, it’s fair to assume that we’ll have a large subset of internet users who will need assistance with websites in the future. But what does this mean for you and how you prioritize website accessibility today? It means while you are trying to accommodate your current audience’s needs, you should also be thinking of what they’ll likely require in the future. Staying ahead of your users’ accessibility requirements will ensure that everyone has fair and equal access to your website—and ultimately, it will prevent you from shutting out a key demographic.


Getting Started

If you’re wondering how to make your website more accessible, reading the WCAG 2.1 is a good place to start. These standards were published by the same organization— The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)—that set the international standards for the internet. In its most recent update, the WCAG guidelines include a list of features that businesses can implement for their users’ convenience.

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