If you’ve never thought about how accessible your website is to those living with a disability, you’re not alone. Humans are wired to see the world from an individual lens; for many of us, that can lead to an ableist perspective. According to WebAim’s 2022 report, 96.8% of the web’s top one million sites are not fully accessible to everyone. However, with growing awareness about disability issues alongside the enactment of web accessibility laws in several jurisdictions worldwide, that statistic is hopefully about to change.
What is website accessibility?
Website accessibility refers to designing and building sites so that people with disabilities can use them. The aim is for every visitor to be able to perceive, understand, navigate and interact with the site.
Disabilities that affect a person’s access to websites include:
- Auditory: difficulty hearing content
- Cognitive: difficulty understanding content
- Neurological: difficulties related to many conditions such as epilepsy or a brain tumor
- Physical: difficulty with the physical aspects of using a site
- Speech: difficulty interacting verbally with a site
- Visual: difficulty seeing content on a site
In many cases, people have multiple disabilities, which create significant barriers to accessing information.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a non-profit international community that develops web standards, points out that web accessibility benefits everyone — not only people living with disabilities. It cites examples such as people using a slow internet connection, those with temporary disabilities such as a broken arm or lost glasses, and people with changing abilities due to aging.
Some aspects of making accessible websites are straightforward to put into place, while others are more complicated and require more knowledge. Most of the time, it’s easiest to build an accessible website from the start rather than going back to rework features that are not accessible.
In the spring of 2022, the Manoverboard team created the Make-It-Accessible website as a resource for designers, developers and content creators. It provides more detailed information about accessibility considerations for each of these roles. We hope it will inspire and motivate other website design studios and agencies to make accessibility a priority.
Ethically, universal design should be our default
Much of what we want and need to do in our daily lives depends on using the internet. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes this reality and identifies access to information and communications technologies as a human right.
Thanks to principles of universal design conceived by architects, product designers, and environmental design researchers, our built world has improved over several decades regarding accessibility. Sidewalk curb cuts, building ramps, and auditory light signals are just a few examples of how we have started to make our physical environment better for everyone.
The web and web technologies have to catch up as the distinctions between what we do online and offline are increasingly blurring. It is simply not ethical to exclude the 15 percent of individuals worldwide who experience disability from using the web easily and without restriction.
Accessible websites are good for organizations
We know that the easier a site is to use, the longer visitors will stay and engage. Designing for accessibility is not only the right thing to do ethically; it also makes sense strategically.
If you ask most organizations whether they want as many people as possible to use their website, the answer will be an enthusiastic yes.
Yet, in its most recent survey, the U.K. research group Click-Away Pound reportsthat 69 percent of disabled website users click away from retail sites with accessibility problems racking up an estimated £17.1 billion (26.5 billion CAD) in lost spending.
In Canada, 16% of people live with a disability. The rates are even higher in the U.S., with one in four Americans affected. That’s a lot of people unable to access ideas and information or complete a task like donating or completing a form online!
Website accessibility mandates are here — or on the horizon
Virtually all organizations want to reach the largest audience possible. Unfortunately, the biggest motivation for some to build accessible websites sooner rather than later will involve the legal consequences of not doing so. The Domino’s Pizza case in the U.S. is often cited as the springboard for more litigation to come resulting from sites and apps that are inaccessible to disabled customers.
Several jurisdictions in North America and worldwide either have legislation mandating web accessibility, or it is coming soon. In some jurisdictions, such as New York State, a business could be in violation of accessibility legislation regardless of where it is located in the world. So, if someone in New York City uses a website based in Toronto, Canada, that website must meet the state’s accessibility standards.
Every jurisdiction’s legislation is unique. However, mandates regarding website accessibility universally reference W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). For each guideline, there are three levels of testable success criteria: Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA.
Accessible Canada Act and provincial legislation
In Canada, several pieces of legislation apply to accessibility and align with the Canadian Human Rights Act and provincial human rights codes.
The Canadian federal government passed the Accessible Canada Act (ACA) in 2019, which aims to make organizations under federal jurisdiction barrier-free by 2040. The act established The Accessibility Standards Canada Development Organization to create specific standards for nine priorities, including information and communication technologies.
Several Canadian provinces have also passed accessibility legislation that extends to public sector and private organizations, including Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and British Columbia. Each jurisdiction has specific timelines for standards development and compliance.
Manitoba is one of the provinces further ahead on its accessibility compliance deadlines. The provincial government states it will comply with web accessibility standards by May 1, 2023. Public sector organizations must comply a year later in 2024 and the private sector must comply in 2025. As anyone who runs an organization knows, these dates are not far away.
Americans with Disabilities Act and state legislation
In the United States, several different pieces of legislation apply to website accessibility at the state and federal levels. Their evolution and path to enforcement have a long and winding history, as outlined by this Search Engine Journal post, Website Accessibility & the Law: Why Your Website Must Be Compliant.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is civil rights legislation that applies to state and local governments (Title II) and businesses open to the public (Title III). While the ADA does not explicitly address web accessibility, websites and applications are usually considered part of a business.
Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act sets out website accessibility requirements for federal agencies and their vendors (those doing business on the agencies’ behalf). Those who do not comply are at legal risk of fines up to $150,000 and loss of federal funding.
Federal websites must comply with the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act, which reinforces ADA requirements for federal public websites.
Many states have adopted legislation based on these federal regulations and standards. California and New York are examples of states that have human rights code legislation that run parallel to the ADA, reinforcing private sector compliance with website accessibility standards.
Manoverboard’s accessibility journey
Our team at Manoverboard has been building websites with accessibility in mind since 2005. As a Manitoba-based Certified B Corp, we are committed to providing leadership and new solutions to issues affecting the planet and people’s wellbeing. Making websites everyone can use is essential to how we practice design.
For new and returning clients, we’ve tailored our services specifically to address their website’s accessibility needs beginning with a site audit to understand how customers or clients experiencing disability would interact with their site.
The most obvious reason your website should be accessible to everyone is that it is the right thing to do. Meeting accessibility standards also happens to make good strategic sense. Every organization wants its website to reach its audiences, which means making it possible for everyone to use regardless of ability. Accessibility legislation exists or is pending in many jurisdictions, which provides additional incentives to conform with standards. As lawsuits, particularly in the U.S., rise, more organizations are paying attention to how well their websites stand up to the standards.
Please note that we are not legal experts. To learn more about the accessibility legislation in your region, we encourage you to go online and reach out to the relevant parties. What we can help you with is understanding the international WCAG standard and how well your current website conforms. A path towards compliance and reaching your full audience potential are within reach. Let us know if we can help.