Until relatively recently, few people had heard of web site accessibility, let alone knew what it means. Due in large part to the work of the RNIB, the subject hit the mainstream in about 2003. From industry magazines to the BBC, the topic of website accessibility started to enter the collective consciousness.
However, there is still a great deal of misunderstanding surrounding the issue of web accessibility. This article gives a brief description of web accessibility and shows how having an accessible website can have a positive impact on your business, both in terms of public relations and return on investment.
What exactly is Web Accessibility?
Simply put, web accessibility is about making a site accessible to the largest range of people possible. For the majority of website owners, this is simply good business sense. After all, the more people you have using your site the better.
Making a website accessible involves removing potential barriers to access and one of the best ways of doing this is to build sites to 'web standards'. We've covered the issue of web standards and browser compatibility in more depth elsewhere. To recap, different web browsers were developed based on different sets of rules. This meant a site might work in one browser but not another. These days, browser manufacturers have started settling on a standard set of rules, web standards. By using web standards you can help to ensure your site is accessible by the widest range of browsers available.
Who does this affect?
People often think that web accessibility relates only to people with physical disabilities. Although they are often most affected by poorly designed sites, accessibility is a much wider issue and, at a fundamental level, affects us all.
- Blind, visually impaired and colour blind people are probably the most obvious group of individuals affected by accessibility issues. This group also makes up a very large percentage of web surfers
- People with physical disabilities, such as those with impaired mobility
- People surfing the web using mobile phones and PDA's. These people are possibly the most affluent and technically advanced group of people suffering from web accessibility issues.
- People using old browsers or old computers. Many companies and organisations have standardised on older browser versions and don't use the latest computer equipment.
- People using slow internet connections.
- The 'Silver Surfer'. One of the largest growing markets on the web, with accessibility issues such as diminishing mobility, reduced hand-eye co-ordination and poor vision.
- Young Internet users who may also have poor hand-eye co-ordination, coupled with a low reading age.
- People who don't speak or understand English fluently.
As you can see, problems with access to websites can affect a large proportion of web users. Each individual group may only account for a small percentage of your traffic, but all these percentages start to add up to meaningful numbers. On even a moderately busy site you could be turning busloads of people away every day.
So how does this affect me?
Under UK law it's illegal for a business to discriminate against people with disabilities. This relates to online as well as offline businesses. So if your site is inaccessible, you are potentially breaking the law. (See the Disability Discrimination Act for more information.)
Aside from being a legal requirement for many websites, accessibility makes sound business sense. Building in accessibility from scratch costs a few percent of the overall budget, but the rewards - and returns - can be great.
The positive aspects of having an accessible website are:
- Ability to tap into affluent niche markets like the 'Silver Surfer' or people using PDA's and phones.
- The positive PR that comes from adopting a socially responsible attitude and complying with web best practices.
- Accessible websites are inherently more search engine friendly. After all, Google is the largest "blind user" on the web.
- Increased turnover from more people using your site.
The negative aspects of an inaccessible website are:
- You could be turning away large numbers of potential customers each day without even knowing it.
- When people have a positive experience of a website they generally don't tell people. But if they have a negative experience they are likely to tell everybody!
- Excluding people from your website can generate very negative PR.
- Your website might even find itself open to litigation.
Web accessibility is a broad issue and one that affects both web users and website owners. Making your site accessible shouldn't be seen as a drain on resources but a positive way of being found, seen and used by the greatest number of people, whoever they may be and whatever device they happen to be using.