Have you ever thought about how a blind person reads the news? Or how someone who is paralyzed from the neck down does their weekly grocery shopping online? Or have seen a deaf person trying to enjoy a few funny videos on YouTube with closed captioning?

Just imagine what would happen if you couldn’t use a mouse, hear a video, see text and graphics, or focus on what’s on the page. That’s just a snapshot of the issues that disabled web users face.

Nearly 50 million Americans have some form of disability. That’s almost 15-percent of the total population. Plus, an aging Baby Boomer generation means that number is sure to rise in the coming years. Websites that don’t address the needs of the disabled are not only shirking their obligation to promote inclusivity and equal access, but they are unwisely limiting their own reach.

What is Accessibility?

Simply put, accessibility means having the opportunity and ability to use something. That something might be a sports league, subway system, or building, but it can also be the internet or countless other parts of life that the able-bodied often take for granted.

Designing with accessibility in mind entails removing obstacles for people with disabilities. In the case of a sports league it might mean using a ball that beeps for blind people. Subways enhance accessibility by adding elevators and audio warnings. Buildings make themselves more accessible by installing ramps next to entrances with stairs.

All manner of products, devices, services, and environments can be improved (and expand their audiences) by taking not just the perfect user into consideration, but the widest possible range of individuals.

What is Web Accessibility?

When it comes to the internet, accessibility is a growing area of concern. More and more of our daily lives are mediated by digital technologies. Individuals that cannot use web-enabled devices are at an incredible disadvantage. It’s harder for them to apply for jobs, do their shopping and banking, connect with friends, or merely enjoy the web for entertainment.

According to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), a program developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the largest international standards organization governing the web, web accessibility means building websites such that individuals with auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual impairments can: “perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web.”

What Does it Mean to be Disabled?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describe a disability as: “any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions).”

Disabilities come in many forms and levels of severity, but according to Microsoft’s Inclusive Design methodology, there are three broad categories that cover all types:

  1. Permanent: Irrevocable loss of function, such as the loss of sight, hearing, speech, or a limb
  2. Temporary: Short-term injuries that hinder function, such as a broken leg or sporadic tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  3. Situational: Impairments owing to the current environment, such as a venue that is too noisy to hear well in or a vehicle with poor visibility

Disability Statistics in the United States

Sadly, the disabled among us too often go unnoticed, but they are numerous:

  • 8.2 million people live with sight loss
  • 13 million people are color blind
  • 43.5 million people are dyslexic
  • 11 million people consider themselves deaf or have serious difficulty hearing

Why is Web Accessibility Important?

Recently, a growing movement has emerged that is looking to decrease its reliance on digital tools (there’s even a National Day of Unplugging). While looking up from our phones now and then to enjoy the world around us is a worthy goal, it’s just not practical anymore to be disconnected long-term for the vast majority of people.

Just about every part of our lives from education to commerce, healthcare, recreation, and employment requires some form of internet access. Building websites that are accessible to all people, including those with serious functional impairments, is a fundamental tenet of inclusive design because it creates a world of equal access and opportunity for all.

Furthermore, the web, because it’s so flexible and interactive, is actually far easier to adapt to the needs of disabled persons than legacy mediums. You’d have a hard time designing a paper book that reads to the blind or a radio program for the deaf, but the tools for adding those types of capabilities to a website are plentiful.

For example, WordPress, the world’s most popular Content Management System (CMS) can be upgraded with many excellent plugins and addons like WP Accessibility, which solves common readability issues by enlarging fonts and increasing color contrasts. Screen reader options are also common.

There are also regulatory obligations mandating web accessibility, in some cases. Canada, for instance, passed a law requiring corporations to maintain accessible websites or face fines of up to $100,000 per day. The WAI maintains a list of resources for keeping track of disability and accessibility regulations.

Inclusive Design Also Benefits Website Owners

In addition to improving the lives of disabled persons, there are several very real advantages afforded to brands and organizations that run highly accessible websites.

For starters, they aren’t playing catch up with regulators and forced to constantly rebuild their sites to stay in compliance with disability laws. Secondly, they generate positive word-of-mouth public relations for providing a valuable service and promoting inclusivity.

Also, accessible web design ties into Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Google and other search engines’ web crawlers, which scour the net to add sites to their indexes, are similar to a blind person using a screen reader. It can’t ‘see’ your images and hence relies on metadata like image alt text. Sites that are easier to crawl get better placement on search results pages.

Perhaps the biggest benefit, however, is an expanded reach. Websites that aren’t usable by individuals with physical impairments are needlessly giving up on literally millions of potential customers and brand advocates.

Conclusion

It is important that the Web be accessible to everyone in order to provide equal access and equal opportunity to people with a disability, whether it is a permanent, temporary, or situational issue. By making your website accessible, you avoid legal complications, instill SEO best practices, and increase the number of users that are visiting your website.

Just take a moment to comprehend how web accessibility affects lives. What if you break an arm playing football and can’t use the mouse, or you can’t find your glasses and you need to do your work, or you simply have age-related accessibility needs? Sooner or later, everyone benefits from a website that is accessible.