Every Website Has Users with Disabilities — Make Sure You're Aware of Them

August 13, 2021

More developers treat accessibility as a priority than ever before, but the vast majority of websites still fail basic accessibility tests. For some businesses and non-profit organizations, accessibility might seem like an unnecessary investment; after all, if your site isn’t specifically geared towards people with disabilities, why spend resources developing an accessible approach?

That mindset ignores a significant portion of the internet’s population. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 26 percent of adults living in the United States live with at least one disability. As the population ages, that number is expected to increase: About 40 percent of adults aged 65 or older have a disability. Additionally, many people encounter temporary circumstances that affect the way they use the internet.

Put simply, every website has users with disabilities, and every website can benefit from an accessible approach. To understand why, you’ll need to consider how your audience interacts with your site — and how they react when your site isn’t intuitive.

Remember, disabilities aren’t always obvious.

Users won’t always tell you when they have problems with your content. While tools like Google Analytics can be helpful for honing in on certain large-scale issues, you can’t determine whether your audience is encountering barriers by looking at usage data.

Some people browse the web with assistive technologies like screen readers, but screen readers aren’t user agents, and analytic tools can’t reliably detect them. That is unlikely to change, since screen reader detection creates legal, ethical, and privacy concerns.

And as we discussed in an earlier article, web accessibility isn’t only for people who are blind or people who have permanent disabilities. Hundreds of conditions and situations can affect browsing behavior, and any accessibility concerns will eventually cause real-world problems for your users.

A poorly optimized website can create major obstructions for users in a variety of ways:

  • If a website doesn’t provide text alternatives (alt text) for images, users might miss important information if they have low vision or if the images fail to load.
  • Users who have low vision or color vision deficiency (color blindness) may be unable to read content with poor color contrast.
  • Sites with poor heading structures may be difficult to navigate if the user accesses the page without a mouse or with assistive technologies.
  • Online forms with rigid time-out policies may not give users sufficient time to complete the form.

This certainly isn’t a comprehensive list, but it’s important to understand that these types of issues don’t just affect people who use assistive technologies. If a visitor can’t navigate your site easily, they probably won’t report the problem — they’ll simply go somewhere else. By neglecting their real-world users, brands that neglect accessibility lose billions of dollars each year.

Ignoring accessibility is expensive, even in best-case scenarios.

If your website doesn’t have any users with disabilities, that’s a big problem. When more than a quarter of the population is avoiding your site, you certainly need to re-think your approach.

Even so, developers have dozens of practical reasons to pay attention to accessibility. If your site receives no traffic from users with disabilities — which, again, is extremely unlikely — accessibility helps with SEO and results in a drastically improved user experience.

An accessible approach can improve customer retention, increase engagement, and achieve higher search engine rankings. Businesses and non-profits also have a legal obligation to make their digital resources accessible to everyone.

The principles of accessibility aren’t targeted towards specific disabilities.

If you’re researching accessible web design for the first time, these types of considerations can seem overwhelming. Fortunately, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide a crucial framework for creating content that works better for everyone.

WCAG addresses a wide variety of disabilities and conditions by using a principle-oriented approach. Conforming with current WCAG standards will help you create future-proof content and deliver a more consistent (and much improved) browsing experience.

The WCAG framework helps developers, programmers, and content creators build an accessible mindset. A WCAG Accessibility Audit can provide valuable information about accessibility issues that currently affect your audience; whether you’re retrofitting an existing site or planning a new project, an audit is an excellent starting point.

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