How to make your website accessible to everyone
Scrolling through a website, selecting a drop-down menu and ordering a product – it’s not the same routine for all your customers. For millions of Americans with disabilities, browsing the web requires the help of assistive technology, which adjusts page settings such as text size, color, contrast, and keyboard navigation to facilitate reading websites. Blind and visually impaired users depend on accessibility tools such as screen readers that read text aloud through a speech synthesizer or braille display.
Artificial intelligence-based web accessibility software called overlays is marketed as an automated solution to ensure your website is usable and compliant with federal law. All it takes is installing a widget, and the software will do the work for you – continuously scanning inaccessible code and updating it automatically.
However, disability advocates and accessibility experts say these apps often make websites harder to use. Users describe the AI-powered overlays as redundant at best. At worst, programs can render websites virtually unusable by interfering with assistive technologies. In 2021, over 700 web developers and accessibility advocates signed an open letter calling on businesses to stop using overlays. A 2021 survey by accessibility nonprofit WebAIM also found that more than two-thirds of industry professionals said these products weren’t effective.
Lucy Greco, a web accessibility evangelist at the University of California, Berkeley, first heard about overlays around 2013, when they were touted as a one-line-of-code solution. In 2020, the industry narrative turned to AI “From the start, they were very disruptive and caused a lot more problems than they solved,” says Greco, who is blind. and has worked on accessibility issues for decades. “It wasn’t really fixing anything and more importantly breaking things.”
The problem is not the AI itself. Technology can be an effective tool to help developers or report errors such as unlabeled graphics. The problems arise when algorithms are used to fix flaws that require human intervention, such as determining the appropriate alt text for an image. Karl Grove, Director of Innovation at Level Access, has spent two decades consulting with major corporations and the federal government on accessibility. In his research work on superpositions, he saw AI describe a product image on an e-commerce site as a woman in a dress. Nothing about the design of the clothes. Not very useful for a customer. “Unfortunately they don’t deliver,” he says.
Here are three tips to make sure your website is accessible to everyone.
1. Don’t adopt accessibility just for compliance.
Companies with inaccessible websites risk missing out on a large portion of the population, as 12.7% of people in the United States live with a disability, according to the US Census Bureau. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the even higher estimate at one in four, or 61 million Americans. Just as stores and restaurants must ensure their physical locations can accommodate people with disabilities, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses must also ensure their digital presence is compliant as well.
The number of lawsuits over website accessibility has more than tripled in the past five years, according to law firm Seyfarth Shaw. This rapid rise has emphasized ADA compliance over usability, accelerating the adoption of AI as a defense against potential claims. “It’s kind of the perfect storm,” Grove says.
Still, industry professionals caution against approaching accessibility solely as a shield against lawsuits. If you want to grow your business by reaching as many people online as possible, you need a user-friendly website. Inaccessible sites not only exclude the disabled community – they are often the most difficult for any consumer to navigate. Whether you can see the screen or use a mouse, the same features will determine your user experience. Is the homepage clean and easily navigable or busy and cluttered with ads?
“The website that you think is the hardest to use and understand is probably inaccessible,” says Greco. “You can have a 100% compliant website that’s still not accessible,” she says.
2. Don’t expect a “set it and forget it” solution.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to making your website accessible. The most cost-effective tool for creating and maintaining an accessible website is a skilled programmer. If business owners prioritize disability from the start, it will be a much less expensive investment, says Greco. Many popular CMS platforms like WordPress, Drupal, and Shopify can be accessed right out of the box, Grove notes.
Their advice for finding the right web developer: ask about their experience with disabilities. “If someone doesn’t know the W3C guidelines,” she says, referring to international web standards, “they might not be the right person to hire.”
Grove suggests hiring a web developer with an IAAP certification, which is granted by the International Association of Accessibility Professionals. Still, he cautions that the industry standard is “not a guarantee either.” “It’s really, really hard these days to know if a person knows what they’re doing,” especially for small businesses, he admits. So take your time to hire the right developer.
3. Solicit input from the disability community.
One of the most effective ways to ensure your website is accessible is to contact the people who know the problem best. This is why entrepreneurs should seek input from the disability community. Most cities have local service organizations dedicated to people with disabilities. Greco advises contacting these organizations, which can help find people with different disabilities to test your web content and serve as a discussion group.
Even for a small business, these tests can be very inexpensive, says Greco, who estimates that a typical rate would be around $150 for 90 minutes. “It’s not such an onerous price, considering the value of the effort you get from people.”
As with any new technology, entrepreneurs need to keep a realistic view of AI capabilities “People think AI is some kind of magical thing, and really it’s about automating statistics,” says Groves. “That’s the most educated guess.”