What is Accessibility?

Accessibility refers to designing devices, products, and environments such that individuals with disabilities or sensory impairments can successfully use the device or product.

In 1990, the United States Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, commonly referred to as the ADA. The ADA mandates that public and private spaces be made accessible to individuals with disabilities that include (but are not limited to):

  • Sensory impairments
  • Cognitive impairments
  • Physical limitations

For example, the ADA requires on-ramps as an alternative way of accessing a staircase for individuals who may use a wheelchair. Another example is that stop lights use hues of green, yellow, or red that are readily discernable to individuals with visual impairments (like colorblindness).

Although the ADA has forced public and private spaces to incorporate accessibility best practices, one frontier that has been mostly untouched has been digital accessibility, or, accessibility in digital media, like websites and mobile apps. In this article, we'll explore digital accessibility and why it is essential on the Internet.

What is Digital Accessibility?

Although the concept of digital accessibility refers specifically to digital media, it's not much different from the general idea of accessibility.

The requirements for accessibility in digital media are, of course, very different, however.

Some examples include (but are not limited to):

  • Screen readers that parse a website for a user with visual impairments
  • Videos on websites are closed-captioned for individuals with hearing impairments
  • Images include "alt text" for individuals with visual impairments
  • Websites must be navigable by keyboard for users who may not be able to operate a mouse (i.e., navigating using the "Tab" on a keyboard)

The examples above demonstrate only a subset of how websites or mobile apps incorporate digital accessibility. For the full list of digital accessibility guidelines, there is a global standard known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG). Per WCAG's abstract, WCAG "covers a wide range of recommendations for making Web content more accessible."

To learn more, visit WCAG at the following link:

Why is Digital Accessibility Important?

Evolving Technology

The ADA was passed during a time where the Internet was still growing and evolving (1990). Since that time, the popularity of the Internet (and general accessibility to it) has exploded. As new technologies are invented, the methods they use to incorporate elements of accessibility will have to be revisited, perhaps even by challenging the current ADA.

Legal Ramifications

The Internet's explosion in popularity has emphasized the accessibility of websites and other digital media. As such, it also has pushed the ADA to new limits. Should the statutes in the ADA cover digital media as well? The U.S. Department of Justice certainly thinks so:

"[T]he Department has long considered websites to be covered by Title III despite the fact that there are no specific technical requirements for websites currently in the regulation or ADA Standards".

In the past, accessibility lawsuits focused on lack of on-ramps, lack of braille in signs, and the like. Today, accessibility lawsuits also focus on the lack of accessibility in digital media, which emphasizes the user demand behind incorporating accessibility best practices.

Capturing Total Markets

Upwards of 80% of the United States population shops online, which, naturally, was unheard of before the widespread popularity of the Internet.

For individuals with physical impairments, what might've been an inconvenient shopping experience in the past may now be much more convenient online. For individuals with visual or auditory impairments, however, an online shopping experience can be inconvenient if there is a lack of digital accessibility. This lack of accessibility can prevent them from shopping online. For business owners, this also represents a failure to capture the total market, demonstrating how digital accessibility, overall, is best for business.

New Jobs

The recognition that accessible web design is good for business is also reflected in the job market. Simply searching "web accessibility" on job search websites like LinkedIn or Indeed demonstrates the immense amount of of job postings for developers, designers, and UI designers related to web accessibility.

Universal Design Benefits All

Earlier, you read about one example that showcases an ADA mandate: on-ramps should accompany staircases to accommodate individuals with physical impairments. The reality is that this mandate doesn't just benefit those with physical impairments; it also benefits individuals with baby strollers, bicycles, and more.

The same is true for digital accessibility. For example, having alt tags that explain the content of images are useful to all users whenever images don't load due to connectivity problems. Writing more semantic HTML tags and image captions also can improve your website's standing in search engines, as they provide the search engine more information about the content that your site delivers. In short, incorporating accessibility (digital or otherwise) contributes to a universal design that ultimately benefits all, which can improve the user experience for everyone.

Conclusion

The general concept of accessibility, which previously applied mostly to physical, public and private spaces, now applies to the digital world, thanks to the widespread popularity of a new technology: the Internet.

New technologies, litigation, business strategies, and more continue to push the definition of accessibility. Today, this definition has expanded to included digital media, like websites and mobile apps. The Internet continues to provide digital solutions to a wider audience, making it imperative for web developers to incorporate elements of digital accessibility.

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