Hand on door handle preparing to open doorIf you’re like the majority of people, you turn on your computer, look at the screen, and start typing or using your mouse to navigate. With your mobile device, you touch, tap, and drag while looking at the screen to get the result you want.

That’s not everyone’s experience, though. For approximately 19% of us (in the United States), using a device isn’t that easy. Roughly one in five people* has a disability of some sort that may restrict their ability to use technology to its fullest.

And, if you work in a government organization or one that does business with or for the federal government, accessibility isn’t an option—it’s a requirement.

A little background: Federal government agencies are required to ensure all their information is accessible to employees and the public—including those with disabilities. That’s thanks to the 1998 Section 508 Amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The intent of Section 508 is to eliminate barriers in technology and give all citizens full access to electronic and information technology (EIT). For technology to be considered accessible, a person with disabilities must be able to use the EIT just as well as someone without a disability. Many states and local governments enforce the same requirements.

While private sector businesses aren’t covered under Section 508, that doesn’t mean they can ignore accessibility. Consider how much purchasing power the federal government has—if you want your business or product to be part of that consideration, you must be able to demonstrate that your offerings are accessible.

Even if you don’t sell to government, making your content, products, and website accessible expands your customer base—and provides a positive customer experience for all users. If your website isn’t accessible, potential customers with disabilities may not discover your site—and if they do, they’ll likely have a frustrating experience. Businesses with disabled employees or customers are unlikely to consider products that aren’t accessible.

Think of it this way: do you really want to lose up to 19% of your potential customers?

Section 508 outlines a number of criteria for accessible technology. To get you started, here are some common examples of accessibility issues.

On-screen navigation. Blind or low-vision users rely on screen readers to read aloud all text on a website and they often use keyboard shortcuts to navigate. On mobile devices, they may rely on audio feedback to orient them as they drag a finger across the screen. If your sites or products don’t support these navigation methods, users with limited vision will experience frustration that can lead to poor impressions of your company, negative reviews, and lost sales.

Images. Many businesses use images to advertise their products. Blind and low-vision users who can’t see the images on your site rely on alternative text (alt text)—read by screen readers—that describes the image. It’s important to not only include alt text, but to include the right kind of alt text to help these users. Descriptive and robust alt text describes all information conveyed by the image.

Let’s say you provide this image in an online store that sells sweaters for pets:

Image of big bulldog sitting in the snow wearing fitted sweater that is primarily grey but with white and red bands. Cabled sweater ribbing runs lengthwise and sweater has short sleeves.

Good alt text might say: Image of big bulldog sitting in the snow, wearing fitted sweater that is primarily grey but with white and red bands. Cabled sweater ribbing runs lengthwise and sweater has short sleeves. This description is more likely to result in a sale than Image of sweater #12345.

(By the way, alt text is important for search engine optimization (SEO), too.)

Video and audio. Users who are deaf or hard of hearing may be unable to hear the video’s audio, so captioning is a must. Do you provide transcripts of your audios and videos? Transcripts allow anyone who cannot access this content from the web to read a transcript instead.

Links and buttons. People who use screen readers need to hear a description of where a link or button will take them. “Click here” is an empty phrase that doesn’t help a user know where they are going. (It’s also actually bad usability and bad for SEO.) Make sure all your links and button labels provide clear and accurate information about the destination page or button result.

Headings. Screen readers read headings in order, so make sure you use heading 1, heading 2, heading 3 and so on—and not in any other order. And keep the content that follows a header brief and concise—no one likes to read (or hear) too much information at once.

The above examples just scratch the surface of website and online content accessibility.

Ideally, websites and content are built to support the variety of assistive technologies that customers with disabilities use. That’s why it’s best to understand the criteria for creating accessible content before you start designing and implementing your website. But it’s never too late to do an assessment of existing assets and collateral to identify issues and then take corrective actions. Because making your assets and content accessible benefits both users and your business—it’s a win-win for everyone.

If you’re wondering whether your website, application, or content is accessible, watch for our upcoming Accessibility Checklists, which you can use to check your assets for accessibility issues. Subscribe to our blog, using the form on the right, to get notified of new content.

Need assistance?

Resources Online is an Accessibility Center of Excellence. We have a full team of accessibility experts, including federally certified Trusted Testers, to help your business ensure that your offerings are accessible to everyone. Contact us for help making your website and product content accessible.

*Data source: Nearly 1 in 5 People Have a Disability in the U.S., Census Bureau Reports, United States Census Bureau press release, 2014 

3 thoughts on “What is an accessible website—and why should you care?

  1. This is something I’ve recently been mentioning to my clients as well. It’s not something we tend to think about when building a website, but 19% is nothing to sneeze at.

  2. As a former educator who now works in the IT business, I know full well how important it is that websites be accessible to all. Nearly a quarter of the population needs this to happen!

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