The COVID-19 pandemic impacted nearly every facet of modern life, and “stay-at-home" orders profoundly accelerated certain digital trends.
In a September 2021 Pew Research poll, 90% of U.S. adults said that the internet had been “essential" or “important" for them personally during the outbreak. 40% of respondents said that they used digital technology in new or different ways compared with before the beginning of the outbreak of the pandemic.
For many consumers, web accessibility became an urgent priority. As more people began relying on the internet to work, order food, attend classes, and schedule vaccinations, more people recognized the importance of accessible online resources.
Of course, we’re now nearly three years from COVID-19’s first outbreak. In the U.S., most stay-at-home orders have ended, and many workers have returned to physical offices (although many employees have resisted strict return-to-work policies). That prompts an important question: Did the pandemic have a lasting effect on the state of digital accessibility?
Some brands were prepared to address the challenges of the pandemic
As we’ve discussed in other articles, accessibility benefits everyone — not only the 1 in 4 U.S. adults who live with disabilities. It’s also a strong selling point for digital brands, which became immediately apparent during the outset of the pandemic. After all, if people can’t access a website or app, they can’t use it.
Major businesses took immediate action to build accessibility into their products:
- Zoom, which became an essential communication tool during the pandemic, expanded its accessibility features by adding automatic closed captioning. In 2021, the company made auto-generated captions available to all free users.
- In early 2021, Apple introduced an expansive set of accessibility enhancements for its iOS operating system, including eye-tracking support for the iPad, audiogram support, and VoiceOver Image Description improvements.
- Slack, a popular communication platform that became essential for some remote workers, enhanced screen reader functionality in November 2022. Since then, the company has continued to improve accessibility by focusing on keyboard navigation and screen reader support.
These types of changes were crucial for providing individuals with disabilities with more consistent online experiences — and enabling businesses to market their products to a wider group of consumers.
For many disability advocates, the improvements were a welcome sign of changing priorities. Generally speaking, when brands begin valuing accessibility, they don’t change course.
In 2022, most websites still have serious accessibility barriers
But while many businesses improved their online offerings, others have lagged behind. Accessibility advocacy organization WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind) conducts an annual analysis of the top 1 million home pages on the internet, using automated testing to determine the prevalence of accessibility barriers.
As WebAIM notes, their methodology is limited. Automated accessibility audits can result in false negatives and false positives, and WebAIM didn’t manually test every homepage.
However, the 2022 report provides an overview of the state of digital accessibility, and it isn’t especially optimistic: 96.8% of tested homepages had identifiable issues that prevented them from conforming with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the international standard for digital accessibility. This was a slight improvement from 97.4% of homepages in 2021 and 97.8% in 2019.
The good news is that many larger organizations are apparently trying to fix the problem. As the Wall Street Journal reports, the number of job listings with “accessibility" in the title grew by 78% from July 2020 to July 2021.
Brands that continue to ignore accessibility face challenges in the post-pandemic era
While stay-at-home orders have subsided, the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over — and even if consumers' internet habits continue to change, accessibility will remain an important priority.
Brands with inaccessible online content take significant risks:
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other laws prohibit businesses from discriminating on the basis of disability. In 2021, the number of web accessibility lawsuits rose dramatically.
- Consumers are more likely to support brands that demonstrate social responsibility. Accessibility can be a powerful tool for branding — and poor online experiences can have the opposite effect.
- The practices of website accessibility overlap with the best practices of search engine optimization (SEO). Inaccessible websites may draw less organic traffic, and future search engine algorithms are expected to prioritize user experience metrics.
Ultimately, the pandemic highlighted the importance of providing better experiences for users with disabilities and drew attention to the growing accessibility movement. Even so, accessible websites were never optional: Every organization has both a legal and ethical responsibility to produce inclusive content.
At the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, we’re excited to see more organizations take steps to meet these responsibilities. We’re also excited to showcase the substantial business benefits of an accessible mindset, which will continue to grow as more consumers demand a better internet.