We have a lot of words that we use to describe people with disabilities. We have words like ‘differently abled’, or ‘blind’, or ‘motor impaired’, but there are some really important labels that we often forget, like ‘customers’, and ‘viewers’, and ‘students’. While members of the disability community might do some things a little differently, they are also a group of consumers twice as large as the entire nation of Australia in the United States alone. When we’re talking about so many people, we’re discussing massive buying power. People with disabilities watch shows, buy products, subscribe to services, and take classes. They’re fans, foodies, and potential brand evangelists just waiting to happen! When we make our web presence accessible to people with disabilities, we’re not just doing the right thing; we’re unlocking a huge group of customers that we otherwise would have missed out on.
Web accessibility is about including people by making sure that people with disabilities can use the sites we build. Can someone using a screenreader navigate to your contact form? Can a purchase be made on your site without using a mouse? Can that enrollment application be filled out by someone who can’t see the screen? Concepts like these need to be taken into consideration to ensure that we’re including everybody. Yes, it is about recognizing humanity in all of its diversity and doing our very best to give everyone the experience they came for. However, making websites accessible isn’t a charitable act. It’s not a nod to an edge-case scenario to satisfy a requirement somewhere, nor is it about spending money to put in features that are only going to benefit a few people to give us the warm fuzzies inside. At the end of the day, it’s good business. After all, we’re talking about impacting 56.7 million potential users, and that’s if we’re only counting users in the United States (Source: US Census Bureau, 2012). If your website wouldn’t work for anyone in the state of New York, there is no chance that you would even consider launching it. So how is it that we disregard web accessibility as an ‘extra feature’ to be culled when there are nearly twice as many Americans with severe disabilities than New York residents?
Usually we disregard accessibility because we don’t realize the large impact of that decision. As human beings, we collectively suffer from something called the “False-Consensus Effect”. Essentially, we naturally gravitate toward people who we have a lot in common with, validate our experiences amongst ourselves, and end up with an incomplete world view. For instance, many Deaf people associate mainly with other Deaf people within their own community. It might be more challenging for a hearing person to form a friendship with someone Deaf without knowing ASL, so a lot of hearing people don’t have many (or any) Deaf friends. However, the fact that your average hearing person doesn’t know many Deaf people doesn’t mean that there isn’t a huge thriving Deaf community. Non-inclusiveness is cyclical. Poor accessibility leads to people with disabilities not being able to fully take part in the mainstream community. From there, it’s out of sight, out of mind. Poor visibility and representation lead to mainstream society forgetting to make accommodations for them — or worse, actively deciding that it’s not worth the cost or trouble to do so based on an obstructed view of the impact of that decision. The carousel of non-inclusiveness spins around and around, but we have the power to break the cycle.
The thing about exclusion is that it rarely feels personal to the side doing the excluding. Businesses don’t skip web accessibility because they hate people with disabilities and want to keep them out of their websites. A lot of the time, accessibility gets skipped because stakeholders have never heard of it before and have no idea they should be doing it. Sometimes businesses skip accessibility on their websites because they don’t know what it would entail to implement it, or are worried about the budget or the timeline. Web accessibility doesn’t happen for lots of reasons, but for the business, it’s not personal.
Consumers, on the other hand, absolutely choose where to spend their money and which brands to follow based on personal reasons, and accessibility is very personal when you’re the one who needs accommodation. One of the strongest motivators for repeat business and brand evangelism is how your company makes its target market feel. If your company excludes a user from your online experience, that person now has a negative association with your brand, and that’s pretty hard to undo. After all, everyone likes to feel like they matter. If someone arrives at your site to find that no one considered their needs or made any accommodations for them, it sends a pretty strong message that you either forgot them or disregarded them. Either way, it doesn’t make a great impression. As my grandmother used to say, “You can’t take it back once you spit.”
Breaking the Cycle and Creating Loyal Customers
On the bright side, if you make a site with great accessibility, customers with disabilities will remember that, too. Delighted users love to return to deliver repeat business again and again. Additionally, the disability community is pretty tight-knit, and they often shout it out loud through their circles when a brand does things right for them so that other people know where to go to find a good experience. As a result, a small amount of accessibility work can buy you a huge network of loyal customers.
For instance, consider the case of Legal & General (L&G) on W3.org. After a full accessibility audit, they decided to take the plunge and make their site fully accessible. Within a day of launching their newly accessible site, they saw a 25% increase in traffic. Over time, that increase grew to a full 50%. Visitors who converted into leads receiving quotes doubled within three months, and L&G’s maintenance costs fell by 66%. Within 12 months, they saw a 100% ROI. Talk about a lot of bang for your buck!
CNET has some a11y bragging rights, too. After adding transcripts to their website they saw a 30% increase in their traffic from Google. How come? It’s because accessibility is awesome for SEO! Between the easy-to-crawl site outlines, the relevant keywords found on the alt-text for all of the images, and the adherence to best practices, accessible sites are prime picking for Google’s algorithms and tend to rank more highly in searches.
Of course, there are also cautionary tales; just ask Target about their pockets being $9.7 million lighter (before paying their own attorney’s fees) after a settlement with the NFB over their non-compliant online shopping experience. After a very expensive lesson learned, Target’s website is now beautifully accessible for everyone.
The fantastic news is that accessibility usually isn’t especially time-consuming or challenging to do in the grand scheme of a normal web development project — especially if you plan for it from the beginning and implement it as you go along. By defining accessibility as a priority for your web presence right at the beginning and checking for it along the planning, design, and development stages, you’ll be on the right track to reach your entire market base at launch. Oh, and don’t forget your editors! Once you launch your awesome accessible site, make sure that you keep it that way by ensuring that your editorial team knows how to post new content that is access-friendly with alternative text for images and other accessibility basics in place. In the end, access-savvy sites are business-savvy sites, and like most business-savvy endeavors it requires some investment to give you a return. Including everybody? That’s priceless.
Whether you’re thinking about building accessibility into a new web presence, already have a site that needs a little bit of a11y love, or are keeping a wise eye toward the ADA and WCAG 2.0 / Section 508 compliance, Lullabot can help! If you’re more of the do-it-yourself type, there are some great resources to be found through the Web Accessibility Initiative, on the University of Washington’s Accessible Technology page, and from the American Federation of the Blind. Want to get an idea of how your site is currently doing? Try running it through the free WAVE tool.