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Web Accessibility 101: What is it, Why it Matters, And How to Ensure Your Site is Accessible

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Dec 6, 2022
min read

Web accessibility is a complex topic, but that doesn't diminish its importance. For legal, ethical, and user experience reasons, it's a core priority for any website owner looking to make their online presence accessible to all types of online users.

At its core, web accessibility is the process of "designing websites and digital content so they are usable by everyone." That means making sure that everything on the site, from words to visuals, can be consumed by visitors with vision, hearing, or cognitive impairments as well as any other types of disabilities.

A non-accessible website is a potentially significant misstep in unlocking your entire target audience. More than 60 million adults live with a disability in the United States alone. If they can't consume your digital content, they won't have a chance to buy into your messaging. And that's before we even consider the technical and legal implications of failing to follow accessibility standards.

In this guide, we'll cover not just the importance of web accessibility and the types of disabilities that are important to keep in mind, but also the steps you can take to ensure that your website is accessible. Let's dig in.

5 Types of Disabilities Relevant to Web Accessibility

A person interacting with a website

Given the wide range of disabilities within both the United States and globally, a basic understanding of the challenges your audience might encounter when visiting your website is an important start to optimizing your website. Broadly, these 5 types of disabilities are especially relevant for website owners.

1. Visual Disabilities

Users with visual impairments can range from low vision to color blindness and legal or complete blindness. In each case, the user will struggle to discern visual nuances that are vital to a positive experience on your website.

Making your website accessible for users with visual disabilities includes choosing the right colors, ensuring sufficient contrast, allowing for font size adjustments, optimizing for keyboard shortcuts, and including alt text for visuals to help users with screen readers.

2. Hearing Disabilities

Like other disabilities, hearing impairments vary in intensity. About 50 million Americans suffer from tinnitus, while about 1 million Americans are functionally deaf. Hearing disabilities can range from damage to the outer or middle ear that prevents sounds from passing through to the inner ear, to inner ear damage or auditory processing disorders that prevents the brain from making sense of the noise.

Building accessible websites for people with hearing disabilities means providing text overlays and captions of any audio and video content. The website should never rely on sound alone to convey a message, while any live events streamed on the website should offer live captions or sign language interpretation.

3. Neurological Disorders

The broader term of neurological disorders includes any type of disability that affects the brain, nerves, or spinal cord. Epilepsy, chronic headaches, strokes, and Parkinson's Disease all fall into this category.

Users with neurological disorders can struggle to consume websites because they may be unable to understand and retain information, read long text paragraphs, or make nuanced cursor movements to hit just the right button. Simplifying navigation, keeping text short and simple, and avoiding any type of flickering graphics are all steps to take in building accessible websites for these users.

4. Cognitive Disabilities

Cognitive or intellectual disabilities describe any limitations in mental functioning, including limited communication or social skills. Common conditions under this umbrella term include learning disabilities, ADHD, and autism-spectrum disorders.

Building a website accessible to these audiences depends heavily on not overloading users with information. Less is more, and consistency is key to improving content consumption. Successful websites also use icons and common visuals to draw connections to concepts that go beyond the written word. Finally, website owners should expect these audiences to take longer in consuming information on any page, avoiding fast-rotating visual carousels or time-limited content.

5. Motor Disabilities

Users with motor impairments are unable to use traditional means of navigating a website as a result of limited muscular control, paralysis, lack of coordination, missing limbs, and more. Depending on their exact impairment, they will use assistive technology to navigate the website instead.

Truly accessible websites need to account for users of these technologies. Keyboard-friendly navigation is essential, including an obviously displayed ability to tab through the page or a navigation bar to get to the right spot. Forms should be tolerant of minor errors, and websites need to be built for voice recognition software that some users prefer over a keyboard and mouse.

5 Reasons Web Accessibility is Crucially Important

A man checking whether a life-size website is accessible or not

The general answer to why web accessibility matters is simple: because it's the right thing to do. But even behind this obvious answer, there are a number of more nuanced reasons why the concept is essential for creators and owners of digital content in any industry.

1. An Internet Created for Everyone

The internet should be built for everyone, regardless of country, social class, disability, or any other variable. Accessibility ensures that this remains true, avoiding the exclusion of any audience groups based solely on their ability. This closely follows the social model of disability, which avoids treating users with disabilities as inherently unequal and instead looks to create an equitable, fair environment for everyone.

2. SEO Implications

Search engine optimization is on every website owner's mind, and accessibility can play a major role. The overlap between web accessibility and SEO is significant, and many of the optimizations made for one concept also apply to the other. As Google prepares to crawl the mobile versions of websites in 2023, accessibility will only rise in importance. If websites want to rank for relevant search terms, the mobile version of their site must be accessible and optimized.

3. Improving User Experience for Everyone

Many of the optimizations suggested as part of web accessibility are actually just good UX practice. Shorter paragraphs, non-clashing colors, ALT text, and closed captioning all make your website more intuitive and are all UX best practices even without the accessibility context. This once again aligns with the social model of disability, which states that adapting the environment to accommodate people with different functional abilities improves opportunity and quality of life even for people without impairments.

4.  Expanding Your Target Audience

Think of it in reverse: if the United States is home to more than 60 million people with disabilities out of 330 million total residents, a non-accessible website automatically reduces your potential audience by nearly 20%. Making your website accessible, on the other hand, prevents this audience segment from seeking out competitors who better accommodate their needs, and increases your business opportunity in the process.

5. Legal Implications of Web Accessibility

The final reason may also be the most compelling. Put simply, making your website accessible is not optional. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers websites and requires any organization to make a website designed for public use to be accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities. According to one report, businesses in the U.S. lost more than $1 billion in combined legal fees in 2022 because of accessibility issues.

How to Ensure Your Website is Accessible for All Users

Web accessibility may be complex, but its benefits are compelling. Compliance with ADA and WCAG 2.1 standards is not just legally necessary but can bring about real business benefits. These steps can help you get started in ensuring accessibility for all of your current and potential website users.

Add Alt Text to All Visuals

Alt text is nothing more than a line of code that describes the visual it's attached to. At the same time, it's an absolutely vital piece of web accessibility. Alt text helps screen readers understand exactly what the visual is designed to show, allowing anyone with disabilities to gain the full experience rather than missing out on the non-text web element entirely.

Account for Contrast Sensitivity

Anytime you use colors on your website (which is really anytime you build an element on your website), ensuring that the colors work well together is essential. Older users often have decreased color sensitivity, and users with color blindness have trouble distinguishing between colors like red and green. A strong contrast ratio is essential, ensuring that text or visuals are clearly distinct from the background on which they're placed.

Structure Your Content Mindfully

Content structure is among the most complex areas of an already complex topic. The backend code of the content needs to be set up for screen readers and other assistive technology, but even the entire setup of your website depends on this concept as well. Navigation should remain clear and simple while written content needs to be short and guided by lists rather than long paragraphs. Getting this piece right for your audience can go a long way toward making your website more usable.

Avoid Any Flashing Animations

Any type of flashing visuals can be a distraction for users with cognitive disabilities. For users with epilepsy or a history of seizures, they can be actively harmful. The WCAG suggests avoiding unnecessary animation in general, and that's especially true when considering animations that actively intrude on cognitive abilities with flashes or intrusive sounds.

Work With Accessibility Experts

Ultimately, we're still just scratching the tip of the iceberg of accessibility. Working with reliable experts can go a long way toward making sure that every bit of digital content you build is designed for all of your potential readers and users.

For example, the web accessibility experts at YesLMS allow institutions and business organizations to offer learning opportunities to users of all abilities thanks to a cloud-based, easy-to-use LMS. The YesLMS platform is efficient for both learners and administrators, and is built to scale. Its comprehensive accessibility features ensure that no person at your organization is left out, opening up learning opportunities to everyone in the process.