Digital accessibility isn’t optional. In the United States, websites and mobile apps must be accessible under laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If your business isn’t compliant with the ADA, you may face stiff penalties including fines and private litigation.
And the United States isn’t the only nation with accessibility regulations: As we’ve discussed in other articles, most developed countries have laws that prohibit disability-based discrimination, and the majority of those laws apply to digital content. Every brand can benefit from an accessibility-first mindset, but unfortunately, most organizations fail to offer digital content that meets a reasonable standard of accessibility.
To ensure compliance with local and international non-discrimination laws — and to reach a significantly wider audience — you’ll need to prioritize accessibility when designing your business and development processes.
Accessibility compliance enables better outcomes
If non-discrimination laws didn’t exist, your organization would still have excellent reasons to improve accessibility. The business case for an accessible website is strong; about 1 in 4 U.S. adults live with some form of disability, and most people occasionally encounter situational or temporary disabilities.
If you’ve ever operated your smartphone in bright light or turned off your sound while browsing the web in a public place, you’ve dealt with a situation that changed your digital behavior. Accessibility improves experiences for a wide range of users, expanding your brand’s reach.
By creating accessible content, your business can reach more people, improve conversion rates, retain more customers, and enjoy better search engine positioning. Accessibility provides an excellent return on investment, particularly when prioritized early — and consistently.
Of course, legal compliance provides a strong incentive for many organizations, and your accessibility plan should incorporate practices that ensure compliance. The first step is to identify consistent, objective specifications that will guide your initiative.
Using WCAG as a digital accessibility framework
For digital content, the consensus standard for accessibility is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). While WCAG conformance is voluntary for most private businesses, the guidelines are frequently cited in ADA litigation, and many international laws use WCAG as the basis for their requirements.
WCAG requires content to be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. These principles can apply to virtually any process or task, and they’re helpful when drafting internal documents to guide decision making. For more information on each principle, read: What Are the Four Major Categories of Accessibility?
The guidelines do not provide specific guidance for internal company communications or physical accommodations. However, its principle-based framework is useful for addressing issues outside of digital compliance.
Create an accessibility policy for digital content
Every member of your organization must understand the importance of accessibility. Draft an accessibility policy as early as possible, and ask every team to include accessibility considerations during planning and design.
A comprehensive accessibility policy should include:
- Well-defined goals for meeting technical specifications. Most businesses should set WCAG Level AA conformance as their digital conformance goal. In addition to WCAG, your business may create goals for demonstrating compliance with laws like the ADA, Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), and other relevant laws and industry-specific regulations.
- An accurate scope. Will you make third-party partners aware of the policy, or will you evaluate their content independently? Are you working with an accessibility partner? Defining the scope of your policy will make it more useful for both customers and employees.
- A timeline for meeting your goals. A short timeline might not give your team enough time to remediate issues, while an excessively long timeline may indicate that you’re not prioritizing people with disabilities. Make adjustments to your timeline as needed, but try to set them realistically at the outset of your initiative.
Your accessibility policy will provide a basic framework for building better business processes. However, the policy is a starting point — you’ll also need to create a plan to identify and remediate barriers.
Will creating an accessibility policy highlight your business's compliance issues?
Some leaders think that by identifying organizational shortcomings, they’re inviting negative attention from employees and customers with disabilities.
This isn’t the case: If your business offers a poor web experience for a portion of your audience, those people are certainly aware of the issue. Creating an accessibility policy demonstrates that you’re making a good-faith effort to correct those problems — provided that you support your policy with action.
Communicate the important of accessibility to your team
When establishing business processes, make sure to communicate the importance of accessibility. Give each department realistic goals, along with the resources they need to succeed.
Tips to keep in mind:
- Establish responsibilities for remediation. When an accessibility barrier is identified, who needs to fix it? Who will communicate the remediation to customers, if needed? Make sure your employees understand what’s required of them, and avoid assigning too many responsibilities to a single person or team.
- Establish processes for accessibility testing. As we’ve discussed in other articles, automated accessibility tests can be useful for finding major barriers, but automated tools may report false positives or false negatives. Work with an accessibility partner to create a reasonable audit strategy that incorporates both manual and automated tests.
- Incorporate accessibility training in onboarding. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility offers training and self-paced courses to help employees learn useful principles and best practices.
- Ask your team for feedback. Demonstrate that you’re listening to their responses and facilitate an open dialogue: Employees should see that you’re prepared to take action to help them meet accessibility goals.
Finally, make sure every team member understands the objectives of accessibility. An accessible mindset will remove barriers before they affect real people. Don’t think of accessibility as a one-time project, but as an ongoing commitment to building products and services that offer equivalent benefits for everyone.
Working with an accessibility partner can help you build an approach that focuses on why accessibility is important. For more information, contact the Bureau of Internet Accessibility for a free consultation.