What is website accessibility and why is it important?

In the rapidly evolving digital age, website accessibility has emerged as a critical component of an inclusive society. With the internet serving as a veritable lifeline for countless individuals, ensuring that websites can be easily navigated and utilised by people with disabilities has become imperative. From education and employment to security and healthcare, the significance of web accessibility cannot be overstated.

  • 15-20% of the population is neurodivergent (icaew).
  • 2.2 billion people have vision impairments (WHO).
  • Learning difficulties affect at least 20%, with over 15% alone being dyslexia related (The Reading Well).
  • 87% of the global population speaks a language other than English as their mother tongue (Babbel). 

At its core, website accessibility pertains to designing and developing websites in a manner that accommodates and empowers individuals with disabilities. These disabilities can encompass a range of challenges, including vision impairments, hearing limitations, mobility issues, cognitive difficulties, and more. By implementing assistive technology tools, website creators can eradicate unnecessary barriers and foster an environment where everyone can access vital resources. Besides the social, ethical and practical reasons for building accessible websites there are increasing legal implications and also benefits to stakeholders and businesses who adopt best practice. 

We will here endeavour to explore the main reasons for the need to build and maintain accessible websites, including: 

  1. Inclusivity
  2. Legal compliance 
  3. Ethical responsibility
  4. Improved user experience 
  5. Expanded audience and market reach 
  6. SEO – Search engine optimization

From screen readers that convert text into audio for those with visual impairments, to keyboard navigation adjustments that enable individuals with mobility limitations to navigate effortlessly, these assistive tools are transforming the digital landscape. Furthermore, modifications such as altering colours and displays and creating seizure-safe profiles cater to specific disabilities. These practices minimise the digital divide, promote equal opportunities and provide access to important resources from healthcare, education and employment. The wider implications of this are far reaching. 

Legal compliance
In the United Kingdom, a concerted effort is underway to bridge the digital divide and make cyberspace more welcoming to everyone. At the forefront of this mission stands the Equality Act 2010, a pivotal piece of legislation that lays down the framework for equitable access to online resources by individuals with disabilities.

Guiding the charge is the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), wielding authority to enforce the Equality Act and spearhead compliance with its tenets. The EHRC, in its role as champion of inclusivity, has proffered a roadmap for website accessibility, delivering indispensable counsel to organisations eager to create more welcoming digital ecosystems.

Beyond this, the UK government has implemented the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations of 2018, a landmark policy directive compelling public entities – spanning government departments, local authorities, and NHS institutions – to usher their websites and mobile applications into alignment with specific accessibility benchmarks. These benchmarks, modelled after the globally recognised Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1, offer a comprehensive blueprint for enhancing digital accessibility.

The WCAG 2.1 guidelines operate on a tiered system of conformance, distinguishing between three levels: A, AA, and AAA. Public sector websites, under the mantle of the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations 2018, must achieve, at a minimum, level AA conformity with the WCAG 2.1 standards. Disregarding these regulations could plunge organisations into legal quagmires, replete with the specter of litigation and potential financial repercussions.

Recognizing the paramount importance of digital inclusivity, organisations are well-advised to embrace and adhere to the website accessibility laws in the UK. Compliance not only serves as a legal safeguard but also heralds a more inclusive, user-friendly digital landscape, ultimately benefiting a broader spectrum of individuals in their online endeavours.

Ethical responsibility
Accessibility is a matter of social responsibility, recognising and valuing the diversity within society. It ensures everyone has equal opportunities to access information, services, products, and engage in online activities.

Improved user experience
The integration of accessibility features has emerged as a powerful catalyst for enhancing usability, transcending the boundaries of disability to benefit all users. 

Much like the architectural principle of a well-lit, ramp-accessible entrance benefiting not only wheelchair users but also parents pushing strollers and travellers manoeuvring luggage, digital accessibility yields advantages that extend far beyond its initial scope. For example, clear and organised content, concise text, and logical navigation structures benefit everyone. Accessible websites tend to have cleaner and more intuitive designs, making it easier for all users to find information and complete tasks.

Some accessibility optimizations, such as optimising images and reducing unnecessary animations, can result in faster page load times. Faster loading pages contribute to a better user experience by reducing frustration and providing quicker access to content.

Many accessibility enhancements, such as responsive design and adaptable layouts, make websites work better on mobile devices. As more users access websites through smartphones and tablets, ensuring a positive mobile experience is crucial for retaining visitors.

Expanded audience and market reach
The expansion of market reach through accessible websites is a multifaceted benefit that can have a significant positive impact on businesses and organisations. 

  • Reaching a Larger Audience: By making your website accessible, you open the door to a broader and more diverse audience. People with disabilities represent a significant portion of the global population, and they, along with their friends and family, are potential customers or users. Capturing this segment of the market can lead to increased revenue and growth.
  • Inclusivity Drives Customer Loyalty: When individuals with disabilities find that a website accommodates their needs, they are more likely to become loyal users. This loyalty can translate into repeat business and positive word-of-mouth recommendations within the disability community, further expanding your user base.
  • As businesses aim to expand their reach globally, accessible websites become a competitive advantage. Accessibility standards are often international, so ensuring your website is accessible can help you reach a global audience and compete in international markets.
  • As we have explored, the benefits of Accessibility features often make websites more mobile-friendly. As an increasing number of users access the internet through mobile devices, an accessible website provides a better user experience on smartphones and tablets, expanding your reach to mobile users.
  • Commitment to accessibility sends a positive message about your brand’s values and inclusivity. This positive image can attract a wider customer base, including those who actively seek out businesses that prioritise accessibility.
  • In industries where accessibility is not yet a standard practice, having an accessible website can give you a competitive advantage. You’ll be able to reach customers who may have been neglected by competitors with non-accessible websites.
  • Accessibility can be a selling point when seeking partnerships or collaborations with other businesses, organisations, or influencers. It demonstrates your commitment to social responsibility and inclusivity, which can attract like-minded partners.

SEO – Search engine optimisation
Many accessibility practices overlap with search engine optimization (SEO) techniques. By implementing accessibility features, websites can potentially improve their search engine rankings and visibility.

Search engines, like Google, aim to provide users with the best possible search results, and they take into account various factors to determine the quality and relevance of webpages. 

Here’s how accessible websites can benefit SEO:

  • Improved Indexing: Search engines rely on web crawlers to navigate and index web content. Accessible websites typically have clean and well-structured HTML, which makes it easier for search engine crawlers to understand and index the content accurately. Proper HTML structure and semantic markup can help search engines determine the hierarchy and importance of content on a page.
  • Faster Load Times: Many accessibility improvements, such as optimising images, reducing unnecessary scripts, and implementing efficient coding practices, can result in faster page load times. Speed is a known ranking factor for SEO, as faster-loading pages provide a better user experience. Search engines may prioritise websites that load quickly in search results.
  • Mobile Compatibility: Accessibility features often align with responsive web design practices, making websites work well on both desktop and mobile devices. With the increasing emphasis on mobile-first indexing by search engines, having a mobile-friendly website is crucial for SEO.
  • Alternative Text for Images: Providing descriptive alt text for images, a key accessibility practice, not only helps users with visual impairments but also assists search engines in understanding the content of images. Alt text provides context and relevance, which can contribute to higher search engine rankings.
  • Structured Data Markup: Accessibility considerations often lead to the use of structured data markup, such as Schema.org. This markup helps search engines understand the content of webpages more effectively, leading to rich snippets and enhanced search results (e.g., star ratings, event details, and product information) that can improve click-through rates.
  • Clear and Concise Content: Accessible websites tend to have clear and concise content that is easier for users and search engines to understand. Well-structured headings, organised content, and plain language can improve readability and help search engines identify the main topics of a page.
  • Enhanced User Engagement: Websites that are easy to navigate and use are more likely to keep users engaged and reduce bounce rates. Lower bounce rates and longer visit durations can signal to search engines that your website provides valuable and relevant content.
  • Avoidance of Penalties: Some accessibility issues, such as inaccessible forms or navigation barriers, can lead to a poor user experience and high bounce rates. Search engines may penalise websites with high bounce rates or usability problems, negatively affecting SEO rankings.
  • Broadened Audience: By catering to users with disabilities, you expand your potential audience. More visitors, including those with disabilities, means more opportunities for engagement, shares, and backlinks, which are important SEO factors.
  • Legal Compliance: In some regions, accessibility is legally mandated. Ensuring that your website complies with accessibility laws can prevent legal issues that might negatively impact your website’s reputation and SEO performance.

Incorporating accessibility best practices into your website’s design and content not only benefits users but also aligns with SEO best practices. A more accessible and user-friendly website can lead to improved search engine rankings, higher organic traffic, and better overall SEO performance.

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