We have somehow reached a point in time where the integration of life in digital and physical spaces has spawned scores of scholarly articles with titles like “The emerging online life of the digital native.” In a practical sense, it has become increasingly difficult to participate in society without using the internet in some form. Communication, commerce, access to education, and transportation all take place online in full or in part.

The law and our interpretation of it is beginning to recognize that access to digital spaces is as much a civil right as access to buildings or parks. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodation, traditionally thought of as physical spaces. This assumption was successfully challenged in court for the first time last summer when the southeast-based supermarket chain Winn-Dixie was brought to trial for failing to address accessibility in the recent website redesign.

Although Winn-Dixie is the first time a website has been tried in court as a place of public accommodation under the ADA, it follows a line of accessibility lawsuits filed against Target, Netflix, Scribd, and others. In denying Netflix’s motion to dismiss its lawsuit, Judge Posner wrote, “[that the ADA] does not include web-based services as a specific example of a public accommodation is irrelevant … the legislative history of the ADA makes clear that Congress intended the ADA to adapt to changes in technology.”

In attempting to adapt to changing technical accessibility requirements, courts are turning to WCAG to fill in the gaps. The Section 508 refresh uses WCAG 2.0 level AA, and the U.S. is not the only country to reference WCAG in law.

The carrot

While avoiding both a costly legal battle and expensive website retrofit can seem like enough of an incentive, even that fails to take into account the missed benefits of building accessibility into a product in its early stages. Most immediately and obviously, individuals with disabilities will move to or away from a platform based on how easily they can use it. This effect also spreads to family and friends, who can offer a lot of loyalty to a company that shows they care about equal access. Products sold to companies rather than individuals will have similar opportunities since any business that employs people with disabilities will need accessible tools.

There are additional, more subtle benefits to considering accessibility that radiates outward to affect all users. It might take a low vision user to bring attention to something like insufficient contrast on text, simple changes like considerate use of white space, larger text, high contrast, and a readable font can streamline the experience for people with dyslexia, non-native language speakers, older populations, or someone reading a screen in the sun.

Another example: the deaf community has been a big part of pushing for quality captions on videos. I use this feature all the time scrolling through Facebook in a public place; the same goes for watching TV in a bar. Jen Simmons of The Web Ahead tweeted that a full 12% of the time, people watch her show with the captions turned on.

SEO also benefits from specific accessibility best practices, which is unsurprising: both benefit from thoughtful content design. Meaningful headings in the correct order and well-written image alt text help both screen readers and search engines.

Cost of change

It’s tempting to encourage accessibility by minimizing the required costs, but in truth, it does not come for free, even at the beginning of a project. The traditional programming wisdom about value and bugs still applies, however: the cost to remedy increases exponentially the later the problem gets identified (source: Scott Ambler).

Accessibility is often left until late in the development and testing cycle, increasing the perception of its cost. If it is instead integrated as a project requirement through planning, wireframing, designing, developing, and testing, the investment is minimized. The actual amount of extra time needed would depend on the complexity of the project. If it’s possible to use native HTML elements and simple content organization, accessibility might come almost free. Another easy way to get a leg up is to evaluate third-party resources – frameworks, libraries, media players, etc. – for accessibility and choose the one that has the best support. Filing bugs against any external resources already integrated into a product is another reasonable way forward.

In the end, though, any customized website or app will eventually require some investment in planning, specialized knowledge, research, and testing. How much extra resources will depend on how early in the product cycle accessibility is introduced.

Easy wins

Although complex user flows will require an investment in thoughtful planning no matter what, some simple changes that can immediately boost the usability of web content. Here are a few that hit the sweet spot of minimum difficulty for a high reward:

  • Style focus states so they’re clearly visible
  • Check that all form fields have an associated text label
  • Add alt text to images and graphics that convey information, or add alt="" to any that are purely presentational
  • Check color contrast against WCAG AA guidelines: 4.5:1 for small text, and 3:1 for large text
  • Choose a legible font and structure content to maximize readability
  • Add an accessibility help page with a contact method. Be responsive. This is a fantastic way to prevent legal issues and retain customers while working on making an existing product accessible.

Next steps

The list above is only an entry point, not at all a checklist for accessibility. There are in fact many excellent accessibility checklists already published, but no single checklist can fill in for an understanding of how to design, develop, and test for accessibility. Creating an accessible website or web app requires both the willingness to commit to that goal and an investment in knowledge and training – not just for developers, but also for designers, content writers, testers, PMs, and anyone involved in creating the product.

At SitePen, we help our customers build impressive user experiences and applications for all users. If you need help building an accessible application, or need help improving the accessibility of an existing application, we’re here to help! Contact us for a complimentary initial consultation to discuss your options!