If They Can't See Your Site, They Can't Buy Your Stuff

An Accessible Site Is Both Ethical and Smart Business

By Published on .

The web opens doors. It brings the world into our homes. Yet sadly, for people with disabilities, only 3% of that world is accessible, according to the 2006 United Nations Global Audit of Web Accessibility.

Agencies and retailers often give a wink and a nod to the website accessibility topic, but in truth few know the breadth and the impact of the issue. They should. It's not just the right thing to do; it's good for business.

Consider that about 51.2 million Americans are disabled and 29% of those people ages 15 to 64 use the internet at home (per the U.S. Census Bureau). By our estimates, those statistics translate to $1.4 billion in lost opportunity during the holiday season alone.

If that's not reason enough, consider the case of Target and Apple's iTunes, both of which recently settled accessibility lawsuits with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) to the tune of $6 million and $250,000, respectively, and agreed to work to make their sites fully accessible in 2009.

But keep in mind no legal precedent has been set in the U.S. and the National Retail Federation believes the suits won't result in online accessibility standards. Retailers can avoid being the next Target and exhibit good faith by creating best practices and following them.

What's required to make a site accessible? To put it simply, it's in the code.

People with disabilities use screen-access technology to translate web pages, making them readable. Depending on their preferences, the pages can be magnified, converted into Braille or synthesized as speech. But if the pages are coded incorrectly, those technologies can't do their job, and people with disabilities can't perform the same tasks (such has buying your product) as the rest of the online population.

It's always simpler and more cost effective to build accessibility in from the beginning than it is to add it later -- in an ideal web-made world we would. But even making just a few small changes during regular updates and scheduled maintenance can incrementally address site accessibility.

Seek out specialized knowledge and test your site to find out how accessible it is by testing for it. The organization of site content ultimately makes a site functional for everyone, so lead your design with information architecture. For example, robust descriptions of visual elements such as images can be implemented in ways that make them invisible to sighted users but easily accessible to screen readers.

Keep in mind the path to purchase is at the core of most web accessibility issues. Can people complete a transaction on your site without using a mouse? Site visitors should be able to tab their way through your entire site if needed -- including checkout. Map your current site's path to purchase and ensure none of these barriers exist. If they do, create an alternate path.

But remember this isn't just about checkout -- it's about all content. Don't get so caught up the latest rich internet applications that you create content roadblocks. If your site has a killer Flash module on the home page, that's great. Go for it. But be sure to provide good text alternatives for any non-text content, ensuring those with disabilities can access the same information. Don't fear that accessibility will somehow degrade your site experience. Creativity is not hampered by accessibility -- but it should be accessible to everyone.

Feeling overwhelmed? Look to your agency (or agencies) to help your brand tackle the topic. Developers -- not lawyers -- are best equipped to address accessibility. Besides, there's plenty of good news to go around. Consider the added benefits to making your site more accessible (besides saving your brand from future legal snafus). Taking accessibility into account may help with SEO, overall user satisfaction, usability and minimize abandonment. It can even mean great PR for the brand. And it's the right thing to do.

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Chris Berk is chief technology offer of Resource Interactive, a digital agency that creates accessible experiences for its clients, including Hewlett-Packard and Wal-Mart.
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