What Story is Accessibility Data Telling Us?

June 13, 2022

Statistics aren’t everything — but if you’re trying to convince your team to think about accessibility, numbers can certainly help you make your case. 

By looking at recent metrics from inside and outside the accessibility community, we can understand how the digital landscape will change over the next few years (and what that means for content creators). Here are a few key takeaways from recent studies and surveys. 

The number of web accessibility lawsuits continues to grow

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other non-discrimination laws, most businesses have a legal responsibility to provide accessible web content. One report from Accessibility.com found that 2,352 web accessibility lawsuits were filed against U.S. organizations in 2021.

That’s an increase of 14.3% from 2020, and most experts don’t expect the trend to reverse anytime soon: The global population is aging, and older adults are more likely to have disabilities that affect their internet usage. As accessibility becomes more of a practical priority, websites with major accessibility issues will stick out — and many will encounter legal consequences as a result.

Fortunately, webmasters have an excellent resource for earning (and demonstrating) compliance. The international standards for accessibility are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG’s Level AA success criteria have been cited as a reasonable standard for Title III ADA compliance by the Department of Justice.

Currently, most major websites fail to pass all WCAG guidelines (we’ll discuss those statistics in a moment). Until that changes, the number of accessibility lawsuits will continue to rise. 

Related: Web Accessibility Lawsuits Dramatically Rose in 2021. Here’s Why.

The internet is (slowly) becoming more accessible 

Each year, the non-profit group WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind) performs automated accessibility audits of the homepages of the internet’s top 1 million websites. While automated testing has significant limitations, WebAIM’s reports provide an overview of the state of digital accessibility.

At first glance, WebAIM’s 2022 numbers don’t seem encouraging:

  • Over 50 million distinct accessibility errors were detected — an average of 50.8 errors per page.
  • 96.8% of homepages had detected WCAG 2 failures
  • 83.% of homepages had low-contrast text below WCAG 2 Level AA thresholds 

While the numbers aren’t great, they’re actually an improvement over previous years. The total number of detected errors decreased by 1.1% since February 2021, and the number of homepages with detectable WCAG 2 failures decreased by 0.6%. Usage of WAI-ARIA (accessibility markup used to improve experiences for people who use assistive technologies) also increased.

For accessibility advocates, the internet isn’t improving quickly enough — but at the very least, the trends are heading in the right direction. 

Many brands still fail to think of accessibility as an investment

Like every investment, accessibility has a cost. Unfortunately, many organizations focus on costs without considering the enormous benefits of accessible design. 

In 2016, Microsoft commissioned a study on the economic impact of accessible web design and inclusive design. 31% of respondents said that “high costs" were the most significant barrier for providing accessibility technologies, while another 26% cited “lack of funding available" as the most significant barrier. 

This showcases a common misconception: The idea that accessibility is an “extra,” rather than a fundamental part of product development. Accessible design is closely aligned with the best practices of universal design, and many WCAG success criteria have benefits for all users — not just those with disabilities. 

For example, adding alternative text (commonly called alt tags) to images makes content more useful for people who use screen readers, but alternative text can also benefit users who browse on slow internet connections. Adding captions to videos accommodates people with hearing disabilities while giving all users more ways to engage with content. Put simply, web design needs to be accessible to reach the widest possible audience.

Related: Including Temporary and Situational Disabilities in the Accessibility Conversation

Businesses that take a proactive approach to accessibility see the most benefits

When accessibility is a priority throughout development, the associated costs are low. Following WCAG can result in lower long-term website maintenance costs, along with higher user retention rates, improved search engine positioning, and numerous other business benefits.

By ignoring accessibility, brands miss out on these opportunities — and add to the long-term costs of compliance. Remediating issues is always more expensive than planning for accessibility, but accessibility is a worthwhile investment at any stage.

To find out how your website stacks up against WCAG 2.1 Level AA guidelines, download our free Definitive Website Accessibility Checklist.

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