As of 2022, the World Bank identified that over 1 billion people worldwide experience some form of disability. In the UK alone, 17.8% of the population are people with disabilities. However, considering the many nuances of disability, such as its overlap with age or the fact that many don’t self-identify as disabled, we can confidently assert that a higher percentage faces accessibility barriers. With almost 5 billion people worldwide using the Internet, this begs the question: is the web truly for all?
We’ll spare you the details: it’s not.
In fact, despite the high number of individuals with disabilities worldwide, 97% of all digital properties on the Internet have basic and easily fixable accessibility errors. You read that right: only 3% of the entire Internet is accessible. This might be because companies find it hard to justify the expense or lack understanding of the need for accessible websites. Regardless, one thing is clear: the Internet needs to catch up with its daily users’ needs because, as we’ll argue throughout this article, digital accessibility benefits all.
Right now, inaccessible websites are punishable by law in many countries around the world. These regulations are usually based on the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) guidelines, formally known as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Unlike websites in the public sector which have to adhere to the highest standard of accessibility (think government websites or the BBC), regulations are more lenient for digital properties in the private sector. As a standard, private sector websites should aim for a medium level of conformance with WCAG. However, with no legal obligation to meet specific WCAG standards, many simply fail to make accessibility a priority.
The debate on web accessibility is two-fold: there’s the moral argument and the utilitarian one. Questionable ethics aside, private sector websites that don’t prioritise accessibility are simply missing out on business benefits they might not even be aware of. In this article, we’ll explore all the reasons why websites should strive to offer as many accessible enhancements as possible. We’ll also provide some tactics to make your website more accessible, in a way that complies with what’s required by most reputable accessibility certifications.
But before we dive into the issue, it’s important to understand the types of barriers users with disabilities could face on the Internet. Here are some of the most common demographics your website needs to accommodate.
Some disabilities and their challenges
Visually-impaired and blind people
It’s estimated that around 88.4 million people worldwide are blind or have moderate or severe distance vision impairment, but when you consider the entire demographic of people with visual impairments, the number goes up to 2.2 billion. For blind people, common challenges revolve around screen readers. These are pieces of technology that help them interact with digital media via audio or touch. When websites and digital content aren’t optimised for accessibility, it can make it challenging for screen readers to accurately interpret and convey the information. So, poorly structured or coded websites can result in disjointed or confusing experiences for blind users. On the other hand, visually-impaired users often struggle with screen magnification systems that disturb website elements, or with low-contrast palettes that make it hard to differentiate between foreground and background colours on a page. Even more, colour blindness makes it hard for people to identify certain page elements without additional cues, like text.
Deaf and hearing-impaired people
Over 1.5 billion people around the globe suffer from hearing loss, with 430 million of them being nearly or completely deaf. As of 2022, video content makes up 82% of all consumer internet traffic. As the main way of interacting with digital media, hearing-impaired users are completely alienated in the absence of captions or transcriptions. Moreover, people who have been deaf since birth might have only learned sign language as their main form of communication. So, an additional step to make your website accessible for deaf people would be to provide sign-language videos for every written segment of your website, which can prove a costly and time-intensive endeavour.
People with learning disabilities
Approximately 1.5 million people in the UK have a learning disability. For them, a common issue is content using inaccessible language. This is why, for clear and understandable content, the W3C recommends:
- avoiding double negatives
- using concise sentences with one point per sentence
- appropriately structuring posts under headlines and paragraphs
- when needed, using simplified systems, like bullet points or numbered lists
Other inaccessibility issues include websites with complicated navigation systems, poor layouts and formatting, and forms or surveys with unclear requirements. For people with profound learning disabilities, special accessibility actions should be considered, like using visual aids, providing alternative formats and interactive features, and using assistive technology.
It’s important to recognise that certain disabilities naturally develop later in life. In this case, the elderly form an interesting demographic, as their accessibility requirements overlap with the aforementioned categories. Additionally, they could also have specific needs, like finding it difficult to interact with certain page elements due to a decline in motor skills, or forgetting how to use a website’s interface because of memory decline. In this case, developers should ensure keyboard accessibility, including descriptive links and interactive elements, as well as provide other assistive technologies.
These are just a few of the barriers certain people face on the internet. In reality, the disability spectrum is wider, with much more nuance and overlap. For example, some users could be deafblind people or suffer from cognitive impairments, they could be on the autism spectrum or live with ADHD. With the real and virtual becoming increasingly intertwined, lack of access to digital resources could alienate these people from participating in society, which brings us to the moral reason why we need a web for all.
The moral case for web accessibility
In its incipient stages, many thought of the Internet as a separate and distinct existential plane. The virtual was, they believed, completely antithetical to the physical world. In 2011, sociologist Nathan Jurgenson coined the term “digital dualism” to refer to this paradigm. Nowadays, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the real and the digital are not at all separate, but rather complement each other in complex systems that form the foundations of society.
For able-bodied people, the benefits are multifaceted. The Internet gives us access to a myriad of avenues that make our lives easier and more comfortable. On the Internet, we communicate, learn and shop, we can access entertainment and pay for necessities. Most importantly, the Internet has added a whole new layer to our social lives, which has both personal and professional ramifications.
Now, imagine being excluded from all this.
In their Big Hack survey, Scope, a disability equality charity in England and Wales, asked people from the disability community how the lack of web accessibility made them feel. 49% of respondents admitted to feeling excluded from society. “It makes me feel like the internet doesn’t belong to me, and that it’s not a welcoming place,” admitted one participant.
Accessibility barriers make it difficult and sometimes downright impossible for users with disabilities to fully participate in society, either as individuals or as consumers. Physical inability to partake in society is largely considered a form of discrimination, but the ethos seems to falter when it comes to digital engagement. Lack of web accessibility should then be considered a form of discrimination on the basis of disability.
Unfortunately, data shows that moral considerations are the least quoted drivers for web accessibility in the private sector. The three biggest reasons why companies choose to make their sites accessible are:
- universal ease of access and better online experience
- legal compliance
- revenue growth
So, if the ethical reasons aren’t enough of a driver for you, here is the business case for why you should consider making your website accessible.
The ROI of web accessibility
Perhaps the biggest ROI of accessible web content is avoiding the costs and damages of legal proceedings, which can have a long-lasting negative impact.
In the UK, The Equality Act 2010 protects any disabled person from direct or indirect discrimination, online and offline. However, breaching the Equality Act is a civil offence that is settled privately, which is far less damaging to organisations. Even so, there are instances of private sector websites being dragged through the mud for its non-compliance with this legislature. For example, in the early 2010s, the RNIB sued bmibaby for making their website inaccessible to blind and visually impaired people. They won the case in 2012, setting a precedent that businesses can be held liable for failing to make their websites accessible to people with disabilities.
Furthermore, The Sale of Goods Act 1979 ensures that the purchase of goods is an accessible experience for everyone. So, if keyboard-only users, screen reader users or users of any other type of assistive technology can’t complete a purchase on your website, you could be breaking the law.
Regardless, many private sector business owners consider themselves safe from legal action since, unlike the public sector, ensuring a minimum level of accessibility is usually enough. But what many don’t consider are the international laws at play. Indeed, if your website operates globally, you need to comply with international standards. This is especially problematic for businesses tapping into the US market. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of web accessibility lawsuits alleging violations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the US, and this trend is likely to continue.
This has set a precedent in the UK as well. A notable case is the 2017 RNIB v. WHSmith, alleging that the WHSmith website violated the Equality Act 2010 by not being accessible to people who are blind or partially sighted. WHSmith settled the case for £50,000. More recently. In 2021, a man with a visual impairment named Martin Stone sued National Rail, alleging that its website violated the Equality Act 2010 by not being accessible to people with visual impairments. Stone won the case, and National Rail was ordered to make its website accessible.
To avoid such complications, it’s important that you employ an accessibility-first approach to your web design and development.
Access to an untapped market
Failing to create a positive user experience for customers with disabilities can be a huge missed opportunity. According to Scope, the purchasing power of the disabled community is worth £274 billion. Combined with their families and allies, this number could be much higher, as it is the case in the US. So, businesses that fail to cater to their customers’ accessibility needs could be missing out on a significant revenue opportunity each week.
Moreover, an Inviqa article shows that:
- 82% of customers with access needs would be willing to spend more if the website was more accommodating.
- 71% of these users will click away from an inaccessible website
- 48% of them will likely find a different, more accessible provider and complete their purchase there
So, not only does an inaccessible website turn away potential customers, but it’s also handing them on a plate to competitors, to which they are now more likely to remain loyal. At least in e-commerce, in 2019, £6.9 billion is lost to accessible competitors annually.
Building trust in your brand
It’s no secret that younger generations are ever more socially engaged. According to an Accenture study, 62% of customers prioritise social responsibility when making purchase decisions, and 50% prioritise brands that stand up for societal and cultural issues.
Needless to say, building trust is one of the key principles of branding. A trustworthy brand reflects the values of customers by demonstrating authenticity and integrity. This way, you won’t only retain a loyal customer base, but also improve employee engagement and retention. A commitment to EDI goes beyond buzzword-ridden statements. As we’ve seen, data suggests that customers now want to see that you not only talk the talk but that you also walk the walk. Accessibility is one of the core pillars of EDI. So, providing a positive experience for users with disabilities on your website is one way of showing your commitment to the cause.
Search engine optimisation and user experience
While Google doesn’t officially acknowledge (as of now) that accessibility counts towards ranking, there are still many SEO benefits to providing accessibility features on your websites.
First, WCAG recommends keeping a clear and organised website structure and hierarchy, with headings, subheadings, and descriptive labels for links and images. This can, in turn, also make it easier for search engines to crawl and index your website. Moreover, this practice also helps all users easily navigate your site and find relevant content, which has the potential to reduce bounce rates.
As we can see, following accessibility guidelines can lead to a better user experience for everyone. Because search engines value user experience, accessible websites are more likely to rank higher in search results.
Lastly, something few consider is that, when content is accessible, it’s more likely to be shared and linked to by other websites and social media users. This can lead to increased traffic and improved search engine rankings.
Next up, let’s look into some examples of both public and private sector domains that greatly benefitted from making their websites accessible.
In 2017, Tesco collaborated with RNIB to make its in-store and online shopping experience more accessible to people with visual impairments. This involved implementing a range of measures. On their website, they developed new accessibility features that allowed customers to increase the font size and contrast This was tested on 70+ blind and partially-sighted shoppers.
Following the transition, Tesco was surprised to discover that all customers benefited from this change, even the ones with no visual impairments. Ultimately, revenues from online sales increased to £13 million annually, which constituted a 352% year-on-year online sales growth
In 2018, SSE Energy identified that its ageing customer base had trouble navigating its website. So, they took the appropriate measures to correct their accessibility issues.
As part of their accessibility remedial, they:
- ensured accessibility training for their employees, as well as stakeholder education
- fixed the code to simplify purchase journeys
- developed an inclusive design, by using high-contrast colours, clear and concise language, and keyboard navigation
- provided alternative text for images and captions for videos
- made PDF documents accessible
Lastly, their website was rebuilt to support assistive technology, such as screen readers and magnifiers, to help people with disabilities access digital content. Most importantly, they conducted accessibility training with real customers.
As a result, SSE Energy benefitted from:
- a 200% conversion rise for phone and broadband sign-ups
- a 79% conversion rise for boilers and heating sign-ups
- a 61% conversion rise for energy sign-ups
As you can see, accessibility efforts are fruitful, and these companies have been reaping the rewards.
We hope that by now, you understand the importance of a web for all, and why websites need to be made accessible. Still, you might ask: how do I do it?
So, let’s dive deep into what is required to achieve accessibility, by first explaining the WCAG principles and standards.
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, WCAG is a set of technical standards developed by the W3C to help ensure that websites and web applications also cater to people with special needs. Their guidelines aim to make websites accessible to everyone, regardless of their abilities. They are organised under four principles:
- Perceivable: Web content should be perceivable by users with different sensory abilities. This means providing alternatives for non-text content, such as images, videos, and audio so that users with visual or hearing impairments can understand it.
- Operable: Web content should be operable by users with a range of input methods. This means making sure that websites can be navigated and used with a keyboard, mouse, or touchscreen.
- Understandable: Web content needs to be easy to understand and use, especially for people with cognitive disabilities or those who are not familiar with the language or cultural context.
- Robust: Web content should be robust and work reliably with assistive technologies like screen readers and voice recognition software.
Additionally, WCAG has three levels of conformance: A, AA, and AAA:
- Conformance Level A: This includes the most basic accessibility requirements – it’s the minimum level of accessibility that all web content should meet. Conformance at Level A shows that the website contains some accessible content and can be used by many people with disabilities. However, it may still have some barriers for certain groups.
- Conformance Level AA: This encompasses additional requirements for accessibility beyond Level A, and is the recommended minimum standard for all websites. Level AA indicates that the web content is usable by most people with disabilities and that it has taken into account a wider range of disabilities.
- Conformance Level AAA: This includes the most advanced accessibility requirements, and is the highest level of conformance. Level AAA websites indicate that most people with disabilities can use them.
It’s recommended that private sector websites strive for at least an AA. However, we’ve seen how the more a website is developed with accessibility in mind, the more everyone benefits. So, if you want to prove your dedication to accessibility standards, you should consider getting an accreditation.
Some may consider accreditations a formality. After all, it’s what you practice that will ultimately make a difference. However, for many, this signals a real commitment to web accessibility. Going the extra mile and getting accredited implies that you put in a real effort in complying with WCAG, which not only builds up your reputation but also absolves you from potential legal complications.
In the UK, there are several web accessibility accreditations available. Here are some of the most well-known ones:
- The Digital Accessibility Centre (DAC) Accreditation
- The Shaw Trust Accessibility Accreditation
- The Disability Rights UK Accessibility Mark
- The RNIB See It Right Accreditation
- The AbilityNet Accessibility Accreditation
It’s also important to note that, while these accreditations can be helpful in demonstrating compliance with accessibility measures, they are not the ultimate guarantee that a website is fully accessible. To ensure this, you should conduct regular accessibility testing and gain user feedback.
All these accreditations are offered based on particular web accessibility standards. To gain a better understanding of specific standards, we recommend visiting each of their websites for support. To make your website accessible to people with disabilities, you should:
- Comply with web accessibility standards, such as WCAG 2.1.
- Implement accessibility features, such as text alternatives for non-text content, keyboard accessibility, and the ability to adjust font sizes and colours.
- Test your website with individuals who have different types of disabilities.
- Create an accessibility policy that outlines your organisation’s commitment to accessibility.
- Provide training and support for web developers and content creators on web accessibility.
- Regularly monitor and evaluate your website for accessibility issues.
And while all of the above make for a useful checklist, you might still be wondering where to start. We suggest first doing an accessibility audit on your website.
Not sure where to start? How about an audit?
Accessibility testing tools can only find a limited amount of issues, so manual testing is highly recommended. However, a good starting point is doing a basic audit, which doesn’t require extensive resources. There are a number of free and paid tools available to help you audit your website for accessibility issues, such as:
- TenonAccessibility Insights
These tools can help you identify and fix accessibility issues, making your website more accessible to people with disabilities.
If you’ve identified certain accessibility issues in your own digital product, you might be wondering how to actually implement change. Keep reading to find out how to approach the two components of an accessible website: development and design.
Web accessibility solutions
Before diving into the solutions, we’ll quickly note that creating a website with accessibility in mind from the get-go is much more practical and will make things easier for you in the future. However, data shows that, when creating websites, accessibility is usually an afterthought. This is why ongoing training is crucial for the development team to understand and implement web accessibility. It keeps them updated on evolving standards, fosters an inclusive design mindset, teaches them accessibility techniques and tools. Most importantly, it ensures compliance with legal requirements, and emphasises a user-centred approach. Training helps your team create websites that are accessible and usable for people with disabilities, creating a culture of accessibility in web development.
Let’s look at what you should look out for in web development and design.
On the web development front, here are some things to keep in mind, whether you are just now building a site or are looking to improve one:
Use semantic HTML
You should use HTML elements that convey meaning and structure to the content of a web page, rather than simply using generic, non-specific tags. This way, you’ll help search engines, screen readers, and other assistive technologies better understand the content and structure of a web page. By using semantic elements like <header>, <nav>, <article>, <section>, <aside>, <footer>, <h1> to <h6>, and so on, you can provide more meaningful information about the content on a web page, this way improving its accessibility and usability.
Provide alt-text for images
Alt-text is a description of an image that is read aloud by screen readers. It is important to provide alt-text for all images on your website to make them accessible to blind or visually impaired people. Alt-text can also help search engines understand what your website is about, which can improve your SEO.
Use meaningful link text
Meaningful link text is important for web accessibility. It helps people who use assistive technologies navigate websites and understand the context and purpose of each link. To create meaningful link text, avoid using generic phrases like “click here” or “read more.” Instead, use descriptive text that accurately reflects the content of the linked page.
Here is an example of good link text: “Visit our accessibility page for information on how we are improving web accessibility.”
Ensure keyboard accessibility
Keyboard accessibility facilitates website navigation for people who cannot use a mouse. To ensure keyboard accessibility, consider using semantic HTML, making all interactive elements accessible via keyboard navigation, ensuring proper focus management, and testing the website with a keyboard.
Use Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) attributes
ARIA attributes provide additional information to assistive technologies to help users with disabilities navigate and understand web content. They can be used to identify major sections of a web page, create accessible custom controls, identify dynamic content, and provide information about the state of an element. To apply them appropriately, it’s important to understand the intended use of each attribute.
Don’t forget about form accessibility
Forms accessibility is making web forms usable by people with disabilities. To make forms accessible, consider using semantic HTML markup, clear labels, helpful instructions, feedback, and alternative input methods.
Web design-wise, here are some aspects designers should consider:
Use sufficient colour contrast
Sufficient colour contrast ensures that all users can read and distinguish content. WCAG recommends a minimum contrast ratio of 4.5:1 for normal text and 3:1 for large text.
Use clear and easy-to-read fonts
Clear and easy-to-read fonts, such as sans-serif fonts like Arial or Helvetica, improve legibility for users with low vision, learning disabilities, or cognitive impairments.
Use visual hierarchy
Visual hierarchy uses clear headings, subheadings, and other design elements to emphasise important information and separate different sections of the website.
This is particularly important for individuals who use assistive technologies like screen readers or keyboard navigation, as it helps in managing focus and providing a logical reading order.
Use clear and consistent navigation
Clear and consistent navigation makes it easy for all users to understand the structure of the website and find their way around.
Provide adequate spacing
Adequate spacing between interactive elements helps users with motor disabilities accurately select the intended element and prevents accidental clicking. It also makes it easier for users with visual impairments to distinguish between different pieces of content.
While over 1 billion people worldwide experience some form of disability, only 3% of digital properties on the Internet are accessible. As discussed, we consider that the lack of web accessibility is a form of discrimination that makes it difficult and sometimes impossible for some individuals to fully participate in society. While people are becoming increasingly aware of companies’ social responsibility to provide accessible digital products for everyone, there’s still a long way to go. Indeed, research suggests that 1 in 5 people with digital access needs are often unable to complete tasks online. Making the Internet accessible to all should be a moral obligation. Besides, as we’ve seen, there are other benefits to businesses adopting more inclusive practices when building their websites. It’s thus crucial to prioritise web accessibility by adhering to WCAG standards and making websites more accessible, which would benefit not only individuals with disabilities but also the business itself.
Work with us
Committing to web accessibility is no easy task! For some of you, it might require a complete restructuring of your pages to accommodate all users. If you need expert help, Dusted is here for you. We are brand specialists providing web development and design services to clients across tech, finance, and professional services. At Dusted, we are committed to raising the bar by offering high-quality products that maximise your website’s chances of success. Get in touch to arrange a call about your website’s accessibility needs.