Managing a digital presence has never been more complex or higher profile. As business leaders, you need to stay on top of it all. You must know your business; foster innovation; satisfy stakeholders; achieve signature victories; all while creating solutions centered on your users. It can be rather daunting.
So, when the topic of web accessibility comes up, we get it. You’re not eager to dedicate even more time and energy to understanding all the nuances of what seems like a very technical topic. More likely, you just want to be sure that you won’t get burned.
In this article, we’ll talk about web accessibility in a totally different way than you’re used to. We’ll avoid technical terms and jargon. We’ll use analogies. And we’ll use plain language to show why you should care.
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Being Proactive and Strategic
Business leaders obviously want to avoid lawsuits and other negative fallout. But, it’s worth noting there is a clear business case for making websites accessible to people with disabilities (PWD).
Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults lives with a disability. That’s a large portion of your audience who may develop a negative association with your brand or opt for a competitor if you ignore their needs.
Furthermore, being accessible will help you gain a competitive advantage and attract more customers. You may still have an opportunity to become recognized as a leader in your industry for supporting full access for all.
What the Web Should Feel Like for PWD
Imagine you enter a large retail store to buy some basics – let’s say your list includes a few groceries, some laundry soap and a soccer ball.
But as you enter, you notice the store is completely dark inside. As you pass each aisle, a speaker tells you the category of items within that aisle.
When you pick an item off a shelf, the title, price and details about it are read aloud to you. Thanks to how pristinely clean and well organized the store is, you’re able to shop in darkness without much trouble.
When you’re ready to check out, you return to your starting point and you’re told where to go to complete your purchase. Voila!
What the Web Often Feels Like for PWD
Imagine you enter a large retail store to buy some basics – a few groceries, some laundry soap and a soccer ball. The store is dark inside.
As you enter, it’s quiet and you begin feeling around to orient yourself. You reach for an item off a shelf to help figure out which aisle you’re in and you hear a speaker announce a price per ounce, without knowing what product you’re holding.
As you go further into the store, you try to avoid tripping over items that are strewn about on the floor. The aisles are arranged in confusing diagonal and “T” patterns.
To your relief, you hear “Groceries” announced on a speaker, but you begin feeling around and discover you’re feeling books.
You want to leave, but you really need those groceries and laundry soap. The soccer ball, you can and will do without.
After more searching around and resorting to memorizing the absurd layout of the store, you have the items in your cart. Checking out is confusing too – you’re not sure if you paid twice, or whether you paid at all. You exit the store frustrated and aghast that a successful store brand can get away with doing business that way.
Unfortunately, this is the feeling of using many major web sites for users with disabilities. But it doesn’t have to be.
Content and Code
So, what does it take to make your site usable and accessible? Luckily, all it takes is a combination of time, training, and common sense to ensure your content and code meet guidelines. But this requires leadership’s dedication to making it a priority.
An accessible web site, like the dark retail store, must be well organized. The code must be neat and orderly; the content must be comprised of carefully nested categories, making it easy to drill in and out of topics.
Like the aisle speakers in our imaginary store, there are attributes in the code that will announce things to help orient users and provide clear context of what kind of element they’re using – such as whether it’s a data table or a photo caption.
Believe it or not, this is the essence of what makes a site accessible. It can get more technical, but mainly its about providing markers to orient users.
Common Barriers to Accessibility
Even though accessibility is relatively simple to achieve, it can paradoxically be very difficult in certain circumstances. The following conditions can create challenging barriers – but all can be overcome.
1. Outdated web site
Nothing presents more of a technical barrier than relying on an outdated codebase. We regularly help clients navigate the difficult choice between “fixing” accessibility problems in an outdated (pre-2012) site versus starting from scratch.
Our hope is that more and more organizations will come to realize the benefits of starting from scratch, which includes faster performance, greater mobile device support, and a future looking codebase.
2. Lack of internal support
Without internal support, your organization cannot become accessible. But with a shift in thinking starting at the top, your work will begin to naturally include PWD as an audience and consideration.
Some types of web features are more difficult to make accessible than others. Internal stakeholders will need to refrain from pushing for non-accessible features.
The partners you work with can shape your organization’s thinking. Be sure the consultants you hire understand accessibility.
Eventually, you will worry less about getting burned and focus more on creating experiences that are exceptional for everyone.
3. Staff skill set
It’s not likely that your staff is capable of creating accessible content with no training. Fortunately, the skills they’ll need can be learned pretty quickly.
Your staff will learn how to use the technology tools, how to fix existing problems and how to avoid introducing new problems. It can seem overwhelming at first, but they’ll catch on quicker than you’d expect.
Some of our clients have begun initiatives to change their culture from the grass roots by offering training to all employees. We believe this sends a strong message within the organization that they’re serious about making a lasting change.
Where to Start?
The time for waiting until later to deal with web accessibility is over. Organizations can avoid public embarrassment and litigation – and gain a competitive edge – by getting started today. Here are some things you can do:
- Reach out to an organization like WeCo Accessibility Services, or perhaps an individual you know, to see what it’s like for them to use the web.
- Do some more reading to educate yourself, including our past articles on accessibility.
- Finally, work with a consulting firm like ours. We’ve been down this path before and we can help make sure you are creating great experiences for all users – and we can help to get stakeholders on board.
To learn more about our capabilities and how we can help you, contact us to start a conversation today.
By Tony Johnson
Senior Front-end Developer
Tony has spent well over a decade building interactive applications. He collaborates in the full life cycle of projects – bringing a unique blend of technical savvy, creativity and strategic thinking to our user experience consulting services.View Tony's Bio