Have you ever felt left out or left behind? Like you didn’t quite get the joke or the full story? Nobody likes to feel left out. Website accessibility ensures none of your potential customers feel left behind in your pursuit of the best possible website.
A lot of people hear that word thrown out and think about people in wheelchairs or on crutches in those coveted parking spots. But what does it really mean in the digital space? Let’s break that down.
The same way that a restaurant would have a ramp to accommodate that person in a wheelchair, web accessibility is about making accommodations for people with disabilities in the digital space. There are a few major challenges that many people in the disabled community face when they’re trying to interact with content online.
One example is keyboard navigation. Someone with a severe physical disability might not be using a mouse. Instead, they’re going to be using their keyboard. The universal key that they’re going to be using to navigate through a site is the tab button. You may have done this in the past. Often, you can tab through a form by using the tab button to get through. That’s all fine and good. But if a website hasn’t made the adjustments towards accessibility, a person would press on that tab key and it would skip over the entire menu. If they tried to get to the shopping cart, it’s impossible. They might fill out a job application and hit enter, and nothing happens.
Things like that make those websites completely inaccessible to people who have to use keyboard navigation, and they are not able to do some of the more important things in their lives. In the example above, it’s a job application, but it could be setting up a vaccine appointment or a dentist appointment. These things are critical to their daily lives, so we need to start making those adjustments in the digital space to accommodate people with disabilities.
As we get older, our body changes, so accessibility isn’t just for people that are born with disabilities. Accessibility is good for everyone. What I mean by that is if we think about that ramp outside that restaurant, the people that are using it are not just people with disabilities, or on crutches, or even in wheelchairs. There might be a mother pushing her stroller, there might be a man with his bike, and there might be an elderly person that would rather go up the ramp because it’s safer for him. The same thing goes for digital accessibility.
Some of the adjustments that we make are, for example, wearing reading glasses, like I do. I’m not a young guy, so I have to wear reading glasses. If I come across a website that has very small font or the contrast doesn’t really work for me and I can’t read it very well, I can use a tool on my computer to increase the size of all the fonts or increase the contrast to something that’s more readable. Both of those things give me the ability to make those adjustments on the fly. So these tools increase access, not just for people in the disabled community, but everyone.
My relatives are getting older, and their vision is not what it used to be. Besides aging, sometimes accidents can suddenly take away someone’s ability to do things. People who have been in car accidents might have limited mobility in their hands. My wife is a physical therapist, so she deals with trauma injuries, whether it’s sports-related or whether it is environmental injury. From seeing her work, I know there are so many different things out there that can impact a person’s ability.
In terms of how that impacts websites, a lot of people are gonna say, “Okay, great blog post, guys, but isn’t my website accessible by default? If I can see the website on the computer or my phone, isn’t that accessible?” A lot of people think digital accessibility is kind of a given. You just go to the website. Anyone can go to a website! But remember what we talked about with the keyboard navigation and using the tab button. If you’re not making adjustments to people who need to use tools like that, then the website will be completely inaccessible to them.
Now let’s talk about another kind of inaccessibility. People who have very poor vision or who are blind often have to rely on their screen reader to tell them what is in front of them. Again, if we’re not making those adjustments for that population, then we have lost the ability to connect with them. But let’s back up. What is a screen reader? Essentially, it is a piece of software that goes through the entire site and audibly describes what is in front of them. Many of them are free, but others, like Jaws, which is a screen reader software, are paid. In order for it to work properly, there needs to be descriptions there.
I’ll give you an example. Websites often have a lot of images, and to code those images, you’re going to need what’s called alt tags, basically image descriptions. But the majority of website owners and developers don’t include alt tags because they’re expensive to produce. There are so many images, and usually images are dynamic, so they could be changed and reuploaded and taken down frequently. As a result, when you have an AI technology like accessiBe, which can create alt tags on the fly, that allows the screen reader to pick up that image and give the user that is blind a real description of what is in front of them. That is making a huge shift from inaccessible to accessible for that particular user and across that entire community. We see there that it is really important for technology and software to work in conjunction with those assistive technologies to give that user the best possible experience.
Another thing to note as we talk about making websites accessible is the number of people in the disabled community. Many people don’t realize that when you tally all of the disabled communities, including cognitive disabilities, motor disabilities, and visual disabilities, we’re talking about something in the neighborhood of 20–25% of the population. Almost one in four Americans have a disability that inhibits them in some capacity. People who, for example, are colorblind would have issues navigating certain sites. People who have cognitive disabilities, like ADHD, might have certain issues focusing and understanding certain parts of sites. This is a very significant part of the population, so the idea of web accessibility then becomes a pragmatic issue. If you’re going to spend all this money designing a website, driving traffic to your website, you want to make sure that everybody that goes there can access the content. That includes the disabled community as well.
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