Digital accessibility typically refers to how the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies in the digital realm. In the same way that a wheelchair ramp makes a building structure accessible for people with mobility issues, digital accessibility makes online content available to all users, including those with disabilities.

Why Should You Care About Digital Accessibility?

Here are four reasons why now is the time to focus on digital accessibility:

1. Digital Accessibility Means Making Your Assets Accessible to ALL People

If you want to provide good customer experience to ALL customers because it’s the right thing to do, then you’ll want to make accommodations in order to serve the significant portion of the population that has disabilities.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 15 percent of the world population lives with a disability. That’s more than 1 billion people with disabilities – the equivalent of the population of North and South America combined. Of those, 38 million (close to 4%) live with a severe disability such as blindness.

Some estimates are even higher. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. live with a disability.

Most people are likely to experience a disability in their lifetime, and disability may be temporary or permanent. Aging adults commonly experience some loss of short-term memory, vision, hearing, and fine motor function — abilities that many of today’s technologies require. The U.S. has seen the over-65 population rise from 35 million in 2000 to over 49 million in 2016, and that demographic is growing.

Types of Disabilities

  • Visual impairments such as low vision or blindness
  • Hearing impairments such as deafness or being hard of hearing
  • Mobility impairments
  • Cognitive impairments
  • Learning disabilities
  • Disabilities that develop as part of aging
  • Colorblindness

Disability Figures Around the World

  • 1.3 billion people are affected by some form of blindness and visual impairment. This represents 17% of the world’s population.
  • 466 million people have a disabling deafness and hearing loss. This represents 6% of the world’s population.
  • About 200 million people have an intellectual disability. This represents 2.6% of the world’s population.
  • 75 million people need a wheelchair on a daily basis. This represents 1% of the world’s population.

Source: World Health Organization

2. People with Disabilities Have $1.2 Trillion in Annual Disposable Income

Aside from the benefit of doing right by being as inclusive as possible, if you don’t make your digital assets accessible to people with disabilities, you stand to loose out on revenue and customer loyalty. Consider these statistics from Forrester:

  • 71% of shoppers with disabilities will click away from a website if it is too difficult to use
  • Most people with disabilities will pay more money for the same item on a competitor’s website if that site is more accessible
  • The 1 billion people with disabilities have over $1.2 trillion in annual disposable income ($490 billion in the U.S. alone)
  • That number balloons to $8 trillion when you include their friends and family who prefer to support organizations whose products are accessible

3. There’s a Legal Risk If You Don’t Demonstrate Work Toward Digital Accessibility

According to research done by the Sayfarth law firm, the number of website accessibility lawsuits was projected to top 2,400 for 2019 – a 196% increase over 2017. That averages out to about seven website accessibility suits filed in federal court every day. In fact, digital website accessibility represents 22 percent of all ADA cases filed.

In October 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court made national news by refusing to hear a case from the Ninth Circuit panel. That lower court decision ruled that:

  • ADA Title III applies to all websites and mobile apps, when there is a connection between the website and a physical location (like a restaurant or store)
  • Though there is no formal legal standard for how companies’ websites and mobile apps must comply with ADA Title III, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) success criteria are acceptable as a blueprint

Given the outcome of this landmark case, it is likely that the number and pace of lawsuits filed will continue to climb.

What U.S. laws apply to digital accessibility?

  • Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applies to federal agencies. So if your organization provides products or services to a government agency, your website is required to be accessible
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination based on disability by federal agencies and recipients of federal assistance. So, if your organization receives federal funding or assistance, your website is required to be accessible
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires any person, business, or organization covered under the Act to communicate effectively about their programs, services, and activities. The Ninth Circuit panel ruled in October 2019 this does apply to information provided through a website for Title III
    • Title II applies for state and local governments
    • Title III applies for public accommodations and commercial facilities
  • Other or state or local laws could apply

4. There Are More Ways Than Ever to Engage Employees with Disabilities

It’s not only consumers, but also employees who benefit from technologies that make accommodations for various disabilities. Many companies are finding new and innovative ways to provide digitally accessible technology to make the workplace inclusive for all workers.

Gartner predicts that the number of people with disabilities employed will triple by 2023, due to AI and emerging technologies reducing barriers to access. The agency noted a shift toward enabling an augmented workforce using microchips, implants, and wearables. This ranges from hearing or vision implants for improved perceptions, to connectivity implants to allow direct access to data and virtual systems. If you have a hearing aid today, chances are good that it is Bluetooth enabled and you can connect directly to your devices.

What Does It Take to Make Your Site Digitally Accessible?

To level-set, nearly all websites have accessibility problems today – that is, 98% of websites, according to Forrester. Just as it takes time to build a wheelchair-accessible ramp, digital accessibility takes time and effort – and ongoing maintenance.

  1. Making your site accessible begins when your company makes a public commitment to conforming accessibility standards, both internally and externally. The announcement demonstrates intent toward taking action.
  2. The next step typically is to engage an accessibility expert/advocacy firm. The vendor will train your staff on how to recognize impediments to digital accessibility so that your company can be proactive in designing websites and apps that are compliant. The vendor will also perform a website/mobile app audit to identify all items that need to be remediated. Violations could include items such as adapting colors or color contrast, or adding descriptions to images so that they can be read by audio/visual screen readers and tabbing devices.
  3. Once that process is complete, the vendor will issue:
  • An Accessibility Statement for websites, or
  • A Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT), which acts as a self-disclosing document for applications, software, and other non-web/mobile-based systems

For both statements above, there are four levels of conformance: Supports, Partially Supports, Does Not Support, or Not Applicable. The statements also indicate how accessible a product is according to the Section 508, WCAG, European Union, or International (International includes all three standards). There are a few different versions of WCAG, and WCAG 2.1 AA is recognized as the gold standard.

Not all elements of a website are able to be made digitally accessible, and some barriers may be outside the company’s control. For instance, if your website includes a chatbot for live customer service interaction or digital self-service, that third-party bot technology may not be digitally accessible. Companies that aim to meet WCAG guidelines are advised to identify such exclusions, and then work to minimize them over time by replacing inaccessible third-party technology with compliant options that are barrier-free for users. Click here to read about Astute Bot, one of the first chatbots to be digitally accessible and help companies to remove exclusions.

Choosing the Right Accessibility Vendor

At a minimum you should choose a company that is a member of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) with Certified Professionals in Accessibility Core Competencies (CPACC’s) to conduct your digital accessibility testing, remediation, and conformance processes. You will also want your vendor to use both an automated testing process, as well as manual testing of each Success Criteria within the guidelines. That’s because the automated testing process is only able to capture a portion of violations and won’t provide a full test of accessibility.

In conclusion, while the initial process to make your website and app digitally accessible and compliant will take resources, once your team has learned the ropes, ongoing maintenance will become routine “business as usual.” And you will be confident in the fact that you’re making your site accessible to everyone.


Disclaimer: This article is not intended to be a source of legal advice. Speak with legal counsel with questions or to get advice.