Web accessibility is probably the most important online issue you haven’t heard about. The internet has made it easy for everyone to find information, shop, meet people, and so much more. But what if you couldn’t see your screen anymore? What if you went to a site looking for something and there was no navigation, no text, and a video you couldn’t hear?
Would you stay on this hypothetical website? Not likely. And yet, for millions of people with disabilities, that’s exactly what some websites are like. As our dependence on the internet has grown, the push for better design and flashier features has left many users behind. In response to this, focus on web accessibility has increased in the last few years.
A recent court ruling against Domino’s Pizza brought web accessibility to the forefront. And for businesses with an online presence, ignoring web accessibility could now have major consequences.
What is web or online accessibility?
Let’s start with the obvious question: what is web accessibility? Web accessibility refers to website design and development features that make a site usable for all people, regardless of disabilities or limitations. The various ways this is applied:
- Visual impairments
- Websites need to work with assistive technologies like screen readers for people who can’t see. Designs also can’t rely on color elements that might be hard to discern for people with color blindness or other limitations.
- Hearing impairments
- You can’t rely on auditory elements without providing an alternative like captions or a transcript for people who can’t hear.
- Motor skills limitations
- People need to be able to navigate your site using keyboard commands or other assistive technology if they can’t operate a mouse.
- Seizure risks
- No strobe effects or flashing elements that could cause a seizure.
- Limited bandwidth
- Sites need to be functional for people with limited internet access, even if certain elements can’t be loaded.
How is a site judged for accessibility?
This is where things get messy. In the United States, there are no laws or guidelines specifically regulating web accessibility.
Internationally, the World Wide Web Consortium sets the standards for web accessibility. These standards, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, define three tiers of accessibility compliance.
- Level A is the most basic level and still leaves a lot of barriers for people with disabilities.
- Level AA is the tier most designers and developers aim for. It’s where most are able to balance design while ensuring sites are accessible to most people with disabilities.
- Level AAA is the most advanced tier. According to the World Wide Web Consortium, it’s not recommended as a general policy for entire sites “because it is not possible to satisfy all Level AAA Success Criteria for some content.”
While some countries have formally adopted the WCAG standards, the United States uses the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to judge web accessibility issues. Cases have been brought under Title III of the ADA, which says that public places must be accessible to all people or provide “an accessible alternative.” To date, websites have been considered “public places,” which means that any inaccessible site is in violation.
What about Domino’s?
Domino’s Pizza was sued by a blind customer under the ADA. The company tried to appeal the ruling, arguing that the ADA doesn’t cover websites since the regulations went into effect before the internet as we know it. But in October of 2019, the Supreme Court declined to hear Domino’s case, which means that companies can and will be sued under the ADA for being inaccessible.
What does this mean for you and your website?
The Domino’s ruling was undoubtedly a win for accessibility advocates. But since the U.S. doesn’t have more specific, comprehensive guidelines for what constitutes “reasonable accessibility” online, companies now worry they’ll be left guessing and hoping for the best.
Most designers and developers rely on the WCAG since they are seen as the global standard. If you currently have a website and a site manager, you should talk to them about auditing your site to see how accessible it is. Depending on the size of your site, this can be pretty time consuming. However, by auditing your site and taking steps to address any gaps, you’ll be able to demonstrate your company’s commitment to accessibility and protect yourself from legal action.
Bottom line: you need to start thinking about web accessibility.
To state the obvious, the internet of today is an essential part of our lives. We rely heavily on websites to complete countless tasks every day. Websites, like most communication tools and collateral, need to be tested and revamped with some regularity. And accessibility concerns make testing and updating even more important. Most reputable designers and developers now account for accessibility from the beginning and build in these best practices throughout your site. So if you haven’t yet considered accessibility on your website, this is your nudge to do so.