An Introduction to Web AccessibilityRevamping websites to prioritize accessibility provides an enhanced experience for screen reader users and sighted-users alike.

A table at a convention, exhibiting special keyboards designed for people who are visually impaired.

What Is Web Accessibility & Why Does It Matter?

Web accessibility is the inclusive practice of ensuring equal access to content on the World Wide Web for people with physical disabilities, situational disabilities, and socio-economic restrictions. As technology like wireless internet, cable internet service and DSL internet have evolved, so has the type of content on the web evolved - and so has our reliance on it. Low cost, high bandwidth internet connections are arguably a necessity today. Equally important is the need for accessibility in all web-based content. Practically speaking, there are two main issues: Access to internet connectivity, and access to content. While the first issue is reasonably straightforward, accessibility in content is a more complex issue that is less well-understood.

The Importance of Web Accessibility

Just as Braille signs or wheelchair ramps help ensure accessibility for persons with physical disabilities, web accessibility helps ensure that internet content is equally accessible to all users. Accessible web content not only provides equal opportunity to users, but reaches a broader base in doing so - placing it ahead of competitors who lack accessibility features. With 81% of Americans accessing the web on a daily basis, prioritizing accessibility for all users is essential.

Despite such high levels of online activity, 21 million Americans still lack access to broadband connectivity - with significant contributors coming from rural communities at 30%, schools at 40%, and healthcare facilities at 60%. Internet access demonstrates only one side of the struggle for accessibility. Assuaging these affected areas, companies such as Verizon are slowly replacing old copper-based landlines with fiber-optic lines. These fiber-optic lines deliver reliable, high-speed internet access over long distances.

Companies such as T-Mobile, on the other hand, have focused on offering mobile services. Prepaid Wireless services like Boost Mobile offer access to high-speed internet for users who might not otherwise qualify for a longer term plan or wireless contract. Ensuring mobile access is another important practice, as many lower-income Americans are "smartphone-dependent" internet users.

Another digital divide is seen between individuals with a disability and those without - as disabled Americans are about three times more likely to say they never go online. Despite the evolution of tools made specifically for revamping web accessibility, dozens of lawsuits have been filed in recent years, claiming some sites to have violated the law by failing to be usable for individuals with disabilities.

For Individuals

Making websites more accessible improves the experience for users with or without disabilities. Low-contrast colors, excessive pop-ups, and disorganization of content are factors no one wants to deal with when surfing the web. Features such as captions on videos, on the other hand, can be enjoyed by individuals with disabilities, non-native English speakers, or even those who simply prefer text.

For Businesses

Websites optimized with accessibility in mind also aid businesses. With a more user-friendly website, businesses may benefit from increased numbers of visitors, and thus, a higher ranking in search engines. Business prioritization of accessibility can also solve unanticipated problems, extend market reach, and minimize legal risk.

Is Web Accessibility Legally Required?

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires federal agencies in the U.S. to "make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities." Private businesses, on the other hand, are more complex; they must maintain accessible websites, but are not technically required by law to comply with these standards.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), all public places must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. The 2017 court case, Robles v. Domino's Pizza LLC, confirmed that websites are to be counted as public places. Despite the Department of Justice reaffirming the ADA to include websites, a lack of technical standards often prevents private businesses from violating any specific laws. As a result, lawsuits continue.

In short, websites must be accessible even though ADA has yet to provide a set of technical standards.

Tips to Improve Web Accessibility

Although web owners cannot guarantee high-speed internet availability to their users, they can utilize the following tips to ensure their website meets ADA guidelines:

  • Choose the Best Content Management System - Choosing a content management system that supports accessibility is the first step in making an inclusive website.
  • Use Tables for Only Tabular Data - Tables should only be used for tabular data. Using tables for the layout of a website makes it inconvenient to screen reader users, as the software must inform the user of each element of the table.
  • Design Your Forms for Accessibility - If forms are not labeled appropriately, screen readers are unable to properly interpret the text. Designing your forms with accessibility in mind will ensure that screen reader users and sighted-users alike may fill out your company's forms.
  • Give Your Links Relevant and Descriptive Names - When using links in your content, be sure to accurately describe in the anchor text where the link will be going. This practice helps both screen readers users and sighted-users.
  • Choose Colors Carefully - Choosing high-contrast colors can make a website more readable and visually appealing to users. Low-contrast colors, on the other hand, make for a more difficult user experience. Website owners should also be sure to use approachable colors. Colors that are too bright may negate users with photosensitivity or colorblindness.
  • Avoid Automatic Media - Similarly, avoid automatically-playing media files. Unexpected music, photos, or videos are not only bothersome, but also may negatively impact individuals with epilepsy or other photosensitivity disorders.
  • Create Transcripts and Captions for Video - Creating transcripts and captions for video files may help users who are visually impaired, who are not native speakers of the language spoken in the video, and who have cognitive disabilities such as ADD. With a movement supporting subtitles in movie theaters on the rise, websites may wish to follow suit.
  • Include Alt Text - Media should always include alt text so that screen reader users can understand the message behind associated content, such as images and infographics.
  • Allow Keyboard Navigation - If feasible, allowing keyboard navigation helps those who are visually impaired. Keyboard navigation makes it possible for users to browse the web without having to rely on a mouse.

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