Four Kitchens

Why your website will benefit from an accessible design

4 Min. ReadDesign and UX

For some organizations, incorporating accessibility standards in website design and development is seen as a cost-prohibitive and potentially restrictive extra step. This perspective not only results in excluding a significant audience from your website but is also short-sighted, discriminatory, and ultimately against the law. However, with a shift in mentality and design approach, you can ensure your website provides an inclusive experience that leaves your organization better prepared for the future.

If your organization is failing to account for accessibility in its digital design and development, it’s falling short of its potential. For context, in the United States, failing to accommodate users with disabilities means that you’re excluding roughly one in four adults, or roughly the populations of California and Florida combined. Globally, the scale grows even larger: People with disabilities make up more than 15% of the population. A lack of consideration for the needs of this audience isn’t just exclusionary — it’s also bad business sense.

Plus, with the advent of new federal guidelines, higher education institutions, government agencies, and ecommerce sites all  face legal consequences for failing to be inclusive. If you’re not already incorporating accessibility into your website functionality, you will eventually be forced to undertake some kind of remediation. Such consequences are both expensive and harmful to your reputation.

And yet, too many websites fail to accommodate the needs of all users. Designers, developers, and the organizations they serve may view accessibility as too costly or restrictive to consider. But designing for inclusivity simply requires an extra measure of effort, which yields considerable rewards.

Fortunately for developers, 80 to 90% of accessibility considerations come down to following best practices. Using these coding guidelines also ensures your organization is well-positioned for the technology of today and for the future.  So, as you consider a website launch or redesign, why not employ design methods that begin with an inclusive, empathetic approach?

Accessibility in digital design is a legal requirement

Organizations in the public and private sector are required by law to accommodate a disabled online audience.

When the federal government passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, websites were still years from the mainstream. However, subsequent Supreme Court rulings required businesses to provide disabled access to both their physical locations and their virtual spaces. In 1998, Section 508 was added to the law to ensure it applied to government services as well.

For developers and IT managers, accessibility considerations include accommodating screen readers for the visually impaired, keyboard navigation to assist those with impaired motor function, and video captioning to accommodate auditory issues.

But adoption was relatively slow until 2017, which brought Section 508 up to date as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) was introduced by the World Wide Web Consortium. As a result, the number of website accessibility lawsuits rose from 814 in 2017 to more than 2,000 a year later. No institution should consider itself exempt.

But your organization shouldn’t see a threat of legal action as the central motivator to consider accessibility. Websites that offer a more inclusive experience don’t just expand your audience organically, they’re also more likely to receive higher SEO rankings. With such incentives, inclusive design methods are increasingly viewed as less of an additional consideration than standard practice.

Maintaining accessible web design demands an ongoing, holistic effort

Contrary to perception, organizations that take accessibility into consideration at the start of a digital project aren’t incurring higher costs. By preventing a later redesign, an inclusive approach to development ultimately saves money now and in the future. In most cases, these considerations are not excluding design ideas. They just require extra effort on the development side to ensure details like custom JavaScript responds to a keyboard as well as a mouse.

Resources are available to evaluate whether your current design considers audiences with disabilities. For a cursory look at your site’s accessibility, tools such as WebAIM’s WAVE browser plugin or Axe by Deque examine details such as color contrast and the structure of your site pages. For a more thorough accessibility audit, your development teams can access your site with screen readers on desktop and mobile platforms and compare the results.

Ensuring the inclusivity of your website is an ongoing process — but not in the way your organization may expect. Best practices in the WCAG have undergone slight changes with subsequent versions, but the impact on frontend development best practices has been minimal.

However, unless your site is purely static, its long-term accessibility is dependent on those who maintain its content. Every new post and update must continue to uphold existing best practices, such as using alt text for images. A sustainable, inclusive website is as dependent on your content editors as its content management system.

Accessibility in web design starts with empathy for all users

Excluding users with disabilities is a costly oversight for your business. In addition to the financial impact of being found in violation of legal standards, your organization risks further losses in development time, potential audience and, ultimately, reputation.

Every organization operates on budgetary constraints, and cost is a factor when deciding who develops your website. But if your developer doesn’t properly understand or implement accessibility standards, your organization will be held accountable in the future. Plus, if accessibility requirements are baked into the design process, you can avoid the costs of retrofitting an existing design to standards that have been in place for years.

Ensuring your website is designed and developed to accommodate disabilities also leaves your organization better prepared for the future. Think of accessibility as following a similar path to responsive design, which rose to prominence over 10 years ago. Designing websites to accommodate different browsers, screen sizes, and resolution was once seen as costly extra work. Now, as mentalities and approaches have changed, responsive design is a given for every website.

Shifting the paradigm of website development toward inclusivity and empathy for all users isn’t easy. But, by starting with your organization’s website, these changes can be within reach for everyone.