If you’ve only got a few employees, you might not think much about web accessibility. While you understand that your website is an important marketing tool, you have limited resources — hiring a firm to audit for accessibility may seem like an unnecessary expense.
But 1 in 4 U.S. adults live with some form of disability, and if your website doesn’t accommodate those users, you’re missing an enormous opportunity. You might also face legal repercussions: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other non-discrimination laws require businesses to provide accessible digital content.
Here’s the good news: You don’t necessarily need to spend thousands of dollars to adopt the best practices of accessibility. In fact, you can handle a lot of the work yourself — and when you invest in inclusive design, you provide every user with a better experience.
Small businesses must comply with the ADA
Title III of the ADA requires businesses to make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities in places of public accommodation. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), websites qualify as places of public accommodation.
Small businesses may be exempt from certain ADA requirements because of the “undue hardship" clause: If a certain accommodation would be too expensive or disruptive to implement, the business doesn’t always need to make the change.
However, digital accessibility isn’t always expensive, and ADA lawsuits frequently target smaller businesses. In June 2022, for example, more than 70 web accessibility lawsuits were filed against small wineries in California, citing alleged violations of the ADA.
Web accessibility helps small businesses grow their audiences
As the DOJ notes in its guidance on web accessibility, “an inaccessible website can exclude people just as much as steps at an entrance to a physical location.” When you fix barriers that affect your users, you can attract more customers — and many of the best practices of accessibility benefit all users, regardless of their abilities.
The business case for accessibility is strong. Some of the benefits of an accessible website include:
Better search engine positioning, since accessibility practices overlap with the best practices of search engine optimization (SEO).
Higher customer retention rates.
Better returns on marketing investments.
Reduced operational costs and enhanced brand sentiment.
Put simply, small businesses can’t afford to ignore accessibility. If your organization operates online, you need to think about all of your users — and every business has potential customers with disabilities.
What makes a website accessible (or inaccessible)?
Disabilities can affect people in a wide variety of ways, and an accessible website should consider the needs, preferences, and expectations of as many users as possible.
For many small business owners, this is an intimidating prospect. Your website needs to provide a great experience for people with conditions that affect their vision, hearing, cognition, mobility, and memory. The scope of disabilities is broad, and no website is perfectly accessible for 100% of users.
Fortunately, there’s a rulebook for making improvements: The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG contains pass-or-fail statements called success criteria, which you can use to evaluate your content.
WCAG is organized into three levels of conformance. Most small businesses should conform with all Level AA success criteria (read more about the differences between WCAG levels).
WCAG Level AA addresses common barriers that affect users with disabilities, including:
Missing image alternative text (also called alt text or image alt text), which may prevent people with disabilities from understanding your content.
Missing captions and transcripts, which may impact people with hearing disabilities.
Low-contrast text, which may be unreadable for people with certain vision disabilities. Poor color contrast can also affect people who browse your website in bright natural light.
Inaccessible online forms, which can affect people who use a keyboard to browse the internet (and prevent them from completing your checkout process).
Missing “skip navigation" links, which enable keyboard users to bypass blocks of repeated content.
Inaccurate page titles and subheadings, which may impact navigation for users with vision, mobility, or cognitive disabilities.
You can test your content with automated tools such as the Bureau of Internet Accessibility’s free website analysis. However, some success criteria must be evaluated manually — they can only be identified with human judgment.
For example, WCAG requires pages to have accurate, unique title tags. An automated tool can determine whether your pages have title tags, but not whether those titles accurately describe the page’s content.
While web accessibility carries a cost, it’s a great investment
To create truly accessible online experiences, you’ll need to audit your website against WCAG — and ideally, manual tests should be performed by people who have disabilities. Experts who have experience with screen readers and other assistive technologies can provide useful insights for remediating (fixing) issues, and their experience can be invaluable when forming a long-term, sustainable strategy.
Of course, hiring experts carries a cost, digital accessibility provides a strong return on investment. Accessible design is simply good web design: When your website meets WCAG’s Level AA requirements, you’ll spend less on web development over time. You’ll reach more people and showcase your brand’s commitment to its customers.
The Bureau of Internet Accessibility can help you take the first steps. To get started, test your website against WCAG Level AA with our free automated analysis or download our free eBook: The Ultimate Guide to Web Accessibility.