A federal law taking effect Jan. 18 will require many websites to be accessible to the disabled. Rather than fear it, online retailers should see this as an opportunity.

Beth Franssen, accessibility expert, Nexient

Beth Franssen, accessibility expert, Nexient

Consider the can opener. It has a lot to tell us about accessibility and the web. The easy-grip can opener was designed to help older people with diminished hand dexterity, but has seen wide adoption due to its comfort. Who doesn’t want a more enjoyable can-opening experience?

Likewise, digital accessibility—the strategies that help make websites and other digital tools usable by people of different abilities—makes digital life better for everyone.

The January 18 deadline

A federal law that goes into effect on January 18, 2018, will require many websites to be more digitally accessible. The race to become “Section 508” compliant has been stressful as companies of all kinds discover that the new requirements aren’t just for government agencies.

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Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act says all information and communication technology used by the federal government—websites, mobile apps, software, electronic documents, etc.—must be accessible to users with visual, auditory, motor or cognitive disabilities. The law applies not only to government websites, but also to any organization that receives federal funding or company that does business with the government.

Since the U.S. spends $500 billion on contracted services every year, a vast number of privately run websites are facing a January 18 deadline. This could affect any retailer that the federal government buys goods from, such as sellers of office supplies and computers. It could also include anyone who sell services, as well as manufacturers, distributors and wholesalers that sell in bulk to federal agencies.

Making a website more accessible enforces disciplined thinking about the purpose of each page and button.

In addition to Section 508, companies must consider the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA requires nearly every private business that serves the public to provide equal access and accommodations to all Americans. If banks, movie theaters and grocery stores must be physically accessible, what happens when their services are offered online?

Private companies are already facing ADA lawsuits that claim people with disabilities are having difficulties using websites to shop and get information. A Florida grocery store was found to be in violation of the ADA by a federal judge in June 2017 when a blind customer was unable to download coupons, order prescriptions or find store locations on the company’s website.

Accessibility offers opportunities beyond compliance

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Rather than fear these compliance rules, enterprises should see the push for increased digital accessibility as an opportunity.

My experience is that improved accessibility can also translate to improved visitor experience, usage, loyalty—and even profit.  Why is this?

Making a website more accessible enforces disciplined thinking about the purpose of each page and button. If a screen reader for the visually impaired is confused by a website design, it’s a good bet the majority of users of all abilities will be confused.

Accessible design forces you to unclutter and clarify calls to action—and that means a better experience for every user. A better experience can translate into more sales.

A spectrum of ability

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When designing a website to be more accessible, you are helping a much larger population and customer base than you might initially imagine. Consider how the University of California San Francisco defines a “spectrum of ability.” For example, visual impairment might range from a blind person to someone who simply forgot her reading glasses at home. Hearing issues could include deafness or a person in a noisy environment who doesn’t have earbuds to listen to content. A passenger on a bumpy bus could have limited motor control.

“Disabilities can be permanent, temporary or situational,” UCSF says in its accessibility mission statement. “It really does not matter why you may need to zoom-in or read captions. What matters is that it is always possible.”

This philosophy is as good for business as it is for users with special needs. And soon, most organizations will be compelled to adopt the philosophy.

Technical tips for better accessibility

Cleaner copy and consistent usage of metadata are important aspects to accessibility. Be sure to use H1 and H2 header tags—they may not be visible to users, but they’re key for helping make the purpose of a website clear. These practices also improve search engine optimization (SEO), which drives traffic and more revenue. Everyone wins when websites are accessible.

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While the prospect of fixing an inaccessible website can be daunting, examples of companies who rose to the challenge can provide inspiration and helpful tips. For example, the travel site Trivago chronicled its accessibility journey in a detailed blog post. Trivago was motivated to act after accessibility consultant Karl Groves presented a talk entitled “I never knew a website could hurt somebody.”

Trivago started with small steps that can make a key and immediate difference. Here are four tips that any organization could begin with:

Color contrast changes

The most common form of color blindness is red-green, which affects eight percent of men and a half percent of women with Northern European ancestry, according to the National Institutes of Health. Paying attention to color contrast on a website is a simple and effective way to ensure lots of people can read the content.

Readability must follow visual order

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There needs to be a logic in the order material appears. The submit button shouldn’t appear before a human reader knows what they are signing up for. Machine screen readers need to know when images behave like buttons, so the user doesn’t miss something important.

Keyboard navigation

It’s important that keystrokes—and not just a mouse or touchpad—can accomplish the following on a website: a) Enter a search term; b) Enter start and end dates; c) Select goods and quantities; d) Navigate the results list and perform a click-out to a required deal.

Improved HTML semantics

The following HTML code instructions help screen readers more efficiently and effectively translate a website: a) Ensuring that all buttons use <button>; b) Converting all links to use <a>; c) Adding labels to all the fields in a form.

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You will learn a lot on your own accessibility journey. You’re likely to uncover features that are poor experiences for any customer. You will find clarity as you focus on your digital objectives while improving the overall customer experience. For this reason, organizations should not look upon the deadline of January 18, 2018 with apprehension. It is a day that signals a new beginning where accessibility is good for everybody.

Nexient specializes in agile software development, which it defines as “an adaptive and collaborative approach to developing new software products and solutions. It advocates early delivery and continuous improvement through the efforts of cross-functional teams made up of software developers and designers.” The company has offices in the San Francisco Bay Area, Michigan and Indiana.