The greatest need on the internet today is something most organizations aren’t even aware of: website accessibility.
In today’s interconnected world, where everything from shopping to socializing happens online, a significant segment of society still face barriers when trying to access websites and apps.
As of this writing, about 16% of the global population, or one in six of us, has some form of disability. That’s more than a billion people worldwide who may encounter challenges while navigating the internet.
Imagine being unable to browse your favorite online store or access important information due to inaccessible websites. For people with disabilities, this is the daily experience. They can’t see or hear much of the content published online. They have trouble navigating websites and apps. And in many cases, it’s impossible to purchase products and services.
The sad reality is that website owners — including governments sites, organizations, and businesses — are either unaware of the need or haven’t prioritized accessibility.
They design the site to look good. They publish content in the formats they prefer. They’re not thinking about the millions of people with digital disabilities, who operate and perceive the Web in different ways.
And that’s the key. We need to be aware. We’ve got to remember that all people need to be able to access the Web, even those with disabilities.
In this guide, we explore website accessibility, why it’s important, and how you can start improving your website’s accessibility today.
Over the last few decades, regulatory entities — the DOJ, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the Web Accessibility Initiative, to name only a few — have been establishing standards that ensure everyone has equal access to the Web.
Laws are evolving slowly, but they’re already in place — and more importantly, they’re being enforced.
In the U.S., that’s done through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ). The ADA protects people with disabilities from discrimination by ensuring equal opportunities in all domains, including websites and apps. The DOJ enforces the act.
Bottom line, by law, all websites must be fully accessible to people with disabilities. For now, you have the flexibility to decide how you’ll fulfill that requirement, but in the coming years, it’s likely that laws will become more specific. Already, U.S. federal government websites must conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards.
Why Website Accessibility Is Crucial
If you’ve never experienced the barriers that people with disabilities live with on a daily basis, it’s easy to discount the importance of website accessibility. It takes extra time to create different formats of the same content. And it can be challenging to add accessibility features to your web pages.
It’s also easy to forget that there are millions of people who don’t engage with websites the same way you do:
- 2.2 million people have a vision impairment that requires a screen magnifier for the internet.
- 466 million people worldwide have a hearing disability.
- 19.9 million adults in the U.S. have difficulty lifting or grasping, which makes it hard to use a mouse or keyboard.
- 8.1 million people have a vision impairment that requires higher contrast and specific colors.
- 3 million adults and 470,000 children in the U.S. have epilepsy and can have seizures triggered by content that flickers or flashes at certain frequencies.
This lack of awareness creates barriers for people with disabilities. For instance, websites often have:
- Images substituting for words
- Poor color contrast
- Color alone to provide information
- No text alternatives to images
- No captions on videos
- Inaccessible online forms
- Mouse-only navigation
- Flickering images
Depending on the disability, these barriers can make it impossible for visitors to perceive or engage with your website. They can’t read your content, watch your videos, buy your products, or sign up for your offers.
They’re essentially sidelined, excluded from your website.
That’s why the DOJ supports prosecution in cases of noncompliance. Inaccessible websites lead to social exclusion. They limit the ability of people with disabilities to participate in society. They create unnecessary barriers to simple activities such as online shopping or accessing important information.
By prioritizing website accessibility, you can make a huge difference in people’s lives, giving them equal access to your products, services, and content.
Website Accessibility: Where It Started
Website accessibility isn’t a new concept, and it’s not limited to one organization or country. It’s a worldwide effort to ensure everyone has equal access to the internet.
In the United States, it began in 1990 with the ADA. As mentioned above, the ADA protects people with disabilities from intentional and unintentional discrimination.
Title II of the ADA applies to state and local governments, including universities and colleges. Title III applies to businesses and public places like hotels, restaurants, retail stores, and entertainment venues. Both require organizations to provide equal access to people with disabilities.
The evolution of ADA compliance for websites
Initially, the ADA appeared to impact physical spaces: special accommodations, ramps, automatic doors, public transportation, etc. Over the years, however, court rulings have shaped and expanded the law to include digital spaces as well — including websites, PDFs, and apps.
August 7, 1998: Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was amended to require federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. This marked a significant step towards recognizing accessibility obligations in web design.
July 26, 2010: The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) initiated an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) seeking feedback on accessibility requirements for public accommodations websites. While no specific guidelines were issued at that time, it set off a series of legal battles over website accessibility.
February 11, 2015: The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) brought lawsuits against Harvard and MIT for their failure to caption their free online programming, making it inaccessible to the deaf.
June 25, 2015: The DOJ filed a brief supporting the NAD in both cases, stating:
“A public accommodation has an obligation to ensure that the content of its videos is accessible to every person with a disability in the public at large, not just individuals who are customers or potential customers. For the universities, this means that the obligation goes beyond providing access for people who are not students or potential students.”
This set a new standard for other public-facing websites. Accommodations must be made for all people, even if they aren’t paying customers. But it still didn’t tell websites how they should meet that requirement.
January 9, 2023: The DOJ is apparently exploring guidelines for state and local governments. It published a NPRM stating,
“The Department intends to consider various alternatives for ensuring full access to websites of state and local Governments and will solicit public comments addressing these alternatives.”
Note: This notice includes a section discussing the risks to people with disabilities if local governments aren’t accessible. It was assigned the Regulation Identifier Number (RIN) of 1190-AA79.
Lawsuits and court cases that have shaped ADA website compliance
Three early cases significantly impacted our understanding of ADA website compliance.
2014: The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and Heidi Viens filed a lawsuit against Scribd, Inc., for failing to make their digital reading subscription service work with screen reading software. Scribd moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that the ADA only applies to physical locations. But on March 19, 2015, the Court ruled that the ADA includes online businesses:
“Now that the internet plays such a critical role in the personal and professional lives of Americans, excluding disabled persons from access to covered entities that use it as their principal means of reaching the public would defeat the purpose of this important civil rights legislation.”
2017: Andrews vs. Blick Art Materials, LLC clarified the ADA’s extent even further. Blick was accused of making it almost impossible for blind users to engage with or even purchase products on the website. The Court ruled that Title III of the ADA covers the website of a company with no physical locations.
“The title of Title III is ‘Public Accommodations and Services Operated by Private Entities,’ not ‘Places of Public Accommodation and Services Operated by Private Entities.’”
2016 to 2019: Domino’s Pizza LLC v. Robles was filed after Robles discovered he couldn’t order a customized pizza from the Domino’s app. He contended that Domino’s website didn’t allow his screen reader to read the page. After Robles filed the suit, Domino’s added a telephone number to their website and app, so users could call for assistance.
In January 2019, the court ruled against Domino’s Pizza, stating that their website must comply with the ADA and be fully accessible to individuals with disabilities.
“The statute applies to the services of a place of public accommodation, not services in a place of public accommodation. To limit the ADA to discrimination in the provision of services occurring on the premises of a public accommodation would contradict the plain language of the statute.”
These lawsuits highlighted the need for full digital accessibility and generated awareness around ADA website compliance. They also sparked a surge of ADA-related cases.
The law firm Seyfarth has tracked ADA Title III lawsuits every year since 2013. Between 2013 and 2021, they saw a 320% increase in accessibility cases, and in 2021, more than 11,000 businesses were taken to Court for violating accessibility requirements.
Keep in mind, these are not frivolous lawsuits. Without equal access to websites, these individuals are missing out on opportunities. And the businesses running those websites are being held responsible in the same way they’d be held responsible for not providing a ramp to a physical door.
Things most of us take for granted — like watching educational videos, or ordering a pizza, or purchasing art supplies — aren’t possible for people with digital disabilities.
By law, if someone experienced barriers to entering a pizza restaurant or art store, they could file a discrimination suit. It’s no different online. As the world becomes increasingly digital, it’s vital that we build ramps to our digital properties, making them accessible to everyone.
Website Accessibility: A Win-Win
Improving your organization’s accessibility will require some new protocols and processes, but in the long run, it’s worth the effort. Not only can it help protect you from legal liability, it can benefit your organization in multiple ways.
More traffic and engagement
For individuals with disabilities, trying to access information online can be frustrating. Ninety percent of websites are inaccessible to people who use assistive technology online. And most sites don’t offer a way for visitors to adapt their digital content to make it more accessible.
As a result, people may land on your website, realize they can’t engage with it, and leave.
An accessible website removes barriers for people to explore your content and products, increasing your pool of potential customers by as much as 25%.
As a bonus, these same efforts can boost your searching engine optimization results, since search engines prioritize accessibility.
Improved user experience and customer satisfaction
Captions on videos… alt-tags on images… logical navigation and site structure. These don’t just help people with disabilities. They give every visitor a better experience.
The features that help hearing or visually impaired users also give your “abled” users more options. This improves the user experience for everyone, building trust and creating deeper satisfaction.
Strong brand reputation
By prioritizing ADA compliance, you demonstrate your desire to serve all people. You help an underserved market feel seen and understood. You also send a powerful message about your commitment to inclusivity and social responsibility.
This can improve your brand reputation, attract a wider audience, and establish your organization as a leader in your space.
Principles of Accessibility
The ADA hasn’t issued specific guidelines for how private organizations in the U.S. should comply — only that they must comply — but an international standard has been set by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). They developed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to provide a single shared standard for Web content accessibility.
WCAG is the most widely accepted standard for website accessibility. Not only is it required by the U.S. federal government and its contractors, it’s required by the governments of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
So far, we’ve focused on the social and legal ramifications of making your website more accessible, but we need to remember that accessibility is fundamentally about people.
Inclusivity should be embedded in our everyday thinking, and we should actively participate in making the world — both online and off — more accessible to people with disabilities. To facilitate this mission, WCAG guidelines outline four principles and 12 guidelines for basic compliance requirements.
4 principles of accessible design
WCAG 2.0 stipulates four principles of accessible design, known by the acronym POUR. To comply, a website must conform to all four of these principles.
WCAG requires websites and apps to be:
- Perceivable – Users must be able to perceive the information being presented. It can’t be invisible to all of their senses.
- Operable – Users must be able to operate the interface components and navigation.
- Understandable – Users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface. It can’t be beyond their understanding.
- Robust – Users must be able to access the content with assistive technologies. And as technologies advance and change, the content should remain accessible.
12 guidelines for accessible content
Under the four principles are 12 guidelines for making digital content more accessible to users with different disabilities.
- Provide text alternatives for any non-text content, so it can be changed into other forms as needed.
- Provide alternatives for time-based media.
- Create content that can be presented in different ways without losing information or structure.
- Make it easier for users to see and hear content, including separating the foreground of the page from the background.
- Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
- Provide users enough time to read and use content.
- Don’t design content in a way that’s known to cause seizures.
- Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and understand where they are.
- Make text content readable and understandable.
- Make Web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.
- Help users avoid and correct mistakes.
- Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.
These requirements are then broken down to three conformance levels: Level A, AA, or AAA.
Remember, websites are required to conform in full to WCAG 2.0 Level A at a minimum.
Methods for Achieving Website Accessibility
Once you’ve decided to improve your website accessibility, it can be challenging to know where to start. Here are some tips and best practices to guide your journey.
Adopt web design and development best practices
Most web design and development best practices already have accessibility in mind. But they evolve over time, so it’s important to stay on top of changes as they arise.
Semantic HTML – You must always write HTML code with accessibility in mind, using the correct HTML elements for the correct purpose. Semantic elements use clear labels that identify the purpose rather than the function of a tag. For instance:
- <strong> stresses the importance of the text, instead of <b>, for “bold.”
- <em>, for “emphasis,” indicates italicized text, instead of <i>, or “italics.”
- <button> clearly identifies a button, instead of a generic <div> tag.
These tags are named for the purpose they serve, not the appearance of the text. This makes it easier for screen readers to identify the element.
Semantic HTML is also better about clearly defining the different parts of a web page, as this illustration shows:
Proper Use of Headings (h1 through h6) – Headings should be used to define the structure of the page — not decorate it. Screen readers rely on headings and other tags to understand the hierarchy of the information being shared. When headers aren’t used properly, it can confuse the reader.
Alt-Texts for Images – We typically think of alt-texts for images as an SEO play. But alt-texts and descriptions can make it easier for screen readers to understand the content being displayed on images. Even if you aren’t optimizing for search engines, you need to optimize for assistive technologies, and that means including an alternative text for images.
Here are a few other best practices to keep in mind:
- Avoid using color alone to convey meaning.
- Create a responsive layout
- Make interactive elements, such as links, easy to identify.
- Provide clear, consistent navigation options.
- Ensure forms include clearly associated labels.
- Include alternatives to audio and video content.
Testing and evaluation
To ensure websites meet ADA accessibility standards, testing and evaluation should be an ongoing process. Regular manual review, automated testing, and user testing are necessary to address any accessibility barriers that may arise.
Manual review – Examine the website’s code, structure, and content to identify potential issues or areas for improvement. This process requires expertise in ADA guidelines and accessibility best practices to accurately evaluate a website’s compliance.
Automated testing tools – Evaluating tools are useful, but they should always be combined with manual verification. They can scan websites or web pages for common accessibility errors, making it easier to set priorities. Unfortunately, they may miss issues that need to be corrected.
User testing – The best form of testing is user testing with people who have the disability you’re optimizing for. As they interact with the website, they can give you valuable input about the barriers they encounter and areas where improvements can be made.
Regardless of the type of testing, your goal is to meet these four criteria:
- Does it meet the needs of people with all disabilities?
- Does it balance the needs of different disabilities?
- Does it provide the right solution for each disability?
- Does it use clear language to express needs or techniques?
Here are some tools you can use to identify accessibility issues:
The AChecker Web Accessibility Checker is a good online tool for evaluating the accessibility of a specific page. It lets you choose the guidelines you’re checking against and gives a comprehensive list of issues it finds on the page.
Colour Contrast Checker tests color contrast. WCAG 2.0 level AA requires a minimum contrast ratio of 4.5:1 for normal text and 3:1 for large text. WCAG level AAA are stricter, requiring a contrast ratio of 7:1 for normal text and 4.5:1 for large text.
With this tool, you can check the color contrast ratio of your foreground and background, and you can see how it appears with different fonts.
Trace Center Photosensitive Epilepsy Analysis Tool (PEAT) identifies seizure risks in web content and software. According to the Maryland Initiative for Digital Accessibility, web or computer content won’t trigger a seizure if either of the following is true:
- There are no more than three general flashes and no more than three red flashes within any one-second period, or
- The combined area of flashes occurring concurrently occupies no more than a total of one quarter of any 341 x 256 pixel rectangle anywhere on the displayed screen area when the content is viewed at 1024 by 768 pixels.
Accessibility for All
Website accessibility isn’t a once-and-done task. It’s an ongoing commitment. By implementing Web design best practices, utilizing available accessibility tools and resources, and conducting thorough testing, you can make your website accessible to all users, regardless of their “ableness.”
The benefits more than make up for the effort:
- Unlocking your website to visitors who are eager to do business with you.
- Optimizing your site for search engines as well as assistive technology.
- Providing a rich digital experience for all your visitors and customers.
The challenge, of course, is figuring it out. Sadly, there’s no easy fix to achieve website accessibility. And for many organizations, it feels overwhelming.
Step one, of course, is to recognize the urgent need for digital accessibility. The next step is simply to begin, because every little step makes a difference. And a good place to start is a website overlay that gives visitors more control over their website experience.
AccessXL is a groundbreaking accessibility solution that empowers visitors to toggle on or off the features that could make your website easier to perceive.
It’s compatible with WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards, and once installed, it places a discrete accessibility button on your website. Visitors just click the button and select the assistance they need to engage with your website..
Here’s what you’ll see when you click the button:
Reading Accessibility Features…
- Content scaling
- Readability font
- Dyslexia friendly
- Highlight titles & links
- Text magnifier
- Font sizing, Line weight and letter spacing
- Text alignment
Visual Accessibility Features…
- Epilepsy safe mode
- Cognitive disability mode
- ADHD friendly mode
- Blindness mode
- Visually impaired mode
Visual Contrast & Color Features…
- Dark & light contrast
- High & low saturation
- High contrast
- Text & title color
- Background color
Online Experience Features…
- Mute sounds
- Hide images
- Virtual keyboards
- Stop animations
- Highlight hover & focus
- Big black & white cursor
- Reading guide
- Keyboard navigation
- Reading mask
- Text to speech
AccessXL is your best first step to making your websites accessible. It isn’t a complete solution — no software can make that claim. But it will improve visitors’ ability to perceive and engage with your content. And when it’s combined with an improved workflow and proper coding, it could help you become WCAG compliant.
If you’re looking to improve your website accessibility, AccessXL will help you unlock your online content:
- Allowing users to customize their browsing experience in real-time without having to rewrite code.
- Offering options for users to adjust text size, color contrast, font styles, and other visual elements according to their preferences.
- Providing alternative navigation options such as keyboard accessibility and screen reader compatibility.
Achieving ADA website compliance may seem daunting. But with AccessXL, you can improve your website accessibility today: It’s easy. It unlocks your website for a wider audience. And it immediately upgrades your user experience.
Improve Website Accessibility Today
It takes all of us to create a more accessible digital world where everyone can engage and participate fully. Get started today.
Not sure about the best way to improve your website accessibility? Follow these steps to hit the ground running.
Step 1 – Install AccessXL on your websites to instantly improve its usability.
Step 2 – Make your website WCAG 2.0 Level A compliant.
- Implement WCAG’s 4 principles and 12 guidelines.
- Overwhelmed? Ask how our team can help.
Step 3 – Provide accessibility training for your team
- In-house training
- AccessXL YouTube
- Subscribe to the AccessXL newsletter