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Should you have a separate accessible website?

Apr 10, 2019

When an organization’s website was not originally built to be accessible to people with disabilities, sometimes the question comes up: “Instead of remediating our existing site, should we create a separate website that’s accessible?”

The question often comes with good intentions and there are some people who think it’s a good idea. While an offensive idea to many, there are reasons it might seem to make sense — it takes time and money to fix a website, and depending on how robust or complicated a site is, it can be easier to create a new one (often a text-only website is the idea), so it’s a win-win, right?

In short, not really. Our opinion on the subject is firm: a separate web presence for people with disabilities is a form of segregation, it can be discriminatory, and it should be avoided as a solution for achieving accessibility compliance unless there is absolutely no way around it in the rare occurrence that the existing content and functionality are necessary and cannot be made accessible.

If you are asking that question, whether a separate accessible website is a viable option, please also consider these questions.

Is separate-but-equal okay?

At the heart of the question of having a separate accessible website are probably the questions of whether there is such a thing as separate-but-equal, and if so whether that is acceptable in this country. Most civil and disability rights advocates would say no to both.

Here’s why: Granting one segment of website visitors access to one website and forcing another segment to a different website is, in no uncertain terms, segregating the population based on disability. If we accept the premise that many websites are places of public accommodation, which plaintiff-favored rulings in digital accessibility lawsuits confirm, then we can liken this scenario to other public places for ease of comparison. Most people would not, for example, consider it acceptable for people with disabilities to be forced to use a separate park, or school, or bus, or restaurant — the same line of thinking should be applied to websites.

Is it really equivalent, even if it’s accessible?

Often, but not necessarily, when people think of a separate accessible website they are picturing a text-only website with limited or non-elaborate navigation. When the core website (more on this in the following section) was built, it was done so with particular goals and strategies for meeting those goals in mind. The design and experience were then created around those goals.

So, can that be replicated in a text-only or otherwise limited website? Probably not — if that were the case, an alternate version probably wouldn’t need to be considered at all, meaning the alternate version would be the only site that’s needed if it truly satisfied business goals and provided the desired customer experience.

Accessibility doesn’t automatically indicate equivalency.

How will the accessible website be maintained?

The existing website will always be thought of as the main or core website, and the separate accessible website will always be thought of as secondary. As such, content enhancements will be made with the core website in mind. Even so, those enhancements would need to be reflected on the accessible site at the same time. This means that the alternate version would need to be prioritized, funded, updated, and maintained with identical scrutiny and care as the core site.

It’s also important to consider the future features and uses of your organization’s web presence. The next time there is a big sale to promote or some new functionality is added to the website, will it be equally as intuitive for users on the alternate website to find and use that material?

Is it really the most accessible option?

This is a really important consideration that might not always make it into the conversation. Using a text-only website as the example, the idea is that people who use assistive technology like screen readers will find it more accessible (because text is naturally pretty accessible to those devices).

It is a common misconception that accessibility is only for people who are blind. So, while text may be more accessible for one group, this doesn’t consider people with other types of disabilities that impact their needs and preferences for using the web. One easy example to support this point is the website visitor who has strong vision but is unable to use a mouse so they navigate with a keyboard. This person does not benefit from having all the intended design and functionality removed from the website, and in fact removing or limiting elements like navigational controls can make it more difficult to get around. If the core website is not keyboard accessible and the alternate website is insufficient, at least one group of people was just excluded from the full content and experience.

How will people find it?

In order for people to use a separate accessible website, they would need to know it exists and how to get to it. Would marketing materials advertise two websites, with one specifically identified as being the accessible site? Is the existing inaccessible website accessible enough that people could easily find a link out to the alternate version? Recalling that accessibility is not only for people who are blind or use assistive technology, keep in mind these links or instructions for finding the alternate version would need to be prominent and visible (hidden or screen reader-only text isn’t useful for somebody who is seeing what’s displayed on-screen).

Is it legally sufficient?

The answer to that question could be no. In one recent example, the Department of Transportation determined that Scandinavian Airlines System’s attempt to have a separate accessible website violated  the Department’s accessibility requirements, resulting in a settlement.


If you have received a demand letter, want to understand if and how the ADA applies to your website, or are ready to begin your accessibility efforts, contact us. Our team of accessibility experts is ready to answer your questions and create a plan for your unique business needs. We look forward to helping you achieve, maintain, and prove digital compliance.

Or, get started with a free and confidential website accessibility scan.

Use our free Website Accessibility Checker to scan your site for ADA and WCAG compliance.

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