How to make your site accessible to everyone

Scrolling through a website, selecting a dropdown menu, and ordering a product is not the same routine for all of your customers. Millions of Americans with disabilities need the help of assistive technology to navigate the Internet, which adjusts page settings such as text size, color, contrast, and keyboard navigation to make websites easier to read. Blind and visually impaired users depend on accessibility tools such as screen readers to read text aloud using a speech synthesizer or braille display.

Artificial intelligence-based website accessibility software called overlays is sold as an automated solution to ensure your website is usable and compliant with federal law. All it takes is to install the widget and the software will do all the work for you, constantly scanning for unavailable code and updating it automatically.

However, disability advocates and accessibility experts say these apps often make websites difficult to use. Users describe AI-based overlays as redundant at best. In the worst case, programs can render websites nearly unusable by interfering with assistive technology. In 2021, over 700 web developers and accessibility advocates signed an open letter urging companies to stop using overlays. A 2021 survey by accessibility nonprofit WebAIM also found that over two-thirds of industry professionals said these products were ineffective.

Lucy Greco, a web accessibility evangelist at the University of California, Berkeley, first heard about overlays around 2013 when they were presented as a one-line solution. By 2020, the industry narrative has shifted to AI. “From the very beginning, they were very disruptive and caused a lot more problems than they solved,” says Greco, who is blind and has worked on accessibility issues for decades. “It didn’t actually fix anything and, more importantly, it didn’t break anything.”

The problem is not the AI ​​itself. This technology can be an effective tool for helping developers or pointing out bugs such as unmarked graphics. Problems arise when algorithms rely on correcting deficiencies that require human intervention, such as identifying suitable alt text for an image. Karl Grove, Chief Innovation Officer at Level Access, has spent two decades advising major companies and the federal government on accessibility issues. In his work, exploring overlays, he saw AI describe a product image on an e-commerce site as a woman in a dress. Not a word about fashion design. Not very helpful for the buyer. “Unfortunately they don’t deliver,” he says.

Here are three tips to make your site accessible to everyone.

1. Don’t use availability just for compliance.

According to the US Census Bureau, businesses with inaccessible websites risk missing out on a large portion of the population as 12.7% of people in the US live with a disability. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates this figure is even higher – one in four, or 61 million Americans. Just as stores and restaurants must ensure that their physical spaces can accommodate people with disabilities, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, businesses must also ensure that their digital presence is compliant.

According to law firm Seyfarth Shaw, lawsuits related to website accessibility have more than tripled in the past five years. This rapid growth has forced an over-focus on ADA compliance over usability, which has accelerated the adoption of AI as a defense against potential claims. “It’s kind of the perfect storm,” Grove says.

However, industry professionals caution against approaching accessibility solely as a defense against lawsuits. If you want to grow your business by reaching as many people as possible online, you need a user-friendly website. Inaccessible sites not only exclude the disabled community, but are often the most difficult to navigate for any consumer. Whether you can see the screen or use the mouse, the same features will define your user experience. Is the homepage clean and easy to navigate, or busy and full of ads?

“The website you find most difficult to use and understand is probably not available,” Greco says. “You can have a 100% compatible website that is still not available,” she says.

2. Don’t wait for a “set it and forget it” solution.

There is no such thing as a one-time solution for making your site accessible. The most economical tool for creating and maintaining an accessible website is a knowledgeable programmer. If business owners prioritize disability from the start, Greco says it will be a much less costly investment. Grove notes that many popular CMS platforms such as WordPress, Drupal, and Shopify can be accessed right out of the box.

Their advice for finding the right web developer: ask about their experience with a disability. “If a person doesn’t know what the W3C guidelines are,” she says, referring to international web standards, “they probably shouldn’t be hired.”

Grove suggests hiring a web developer with an IAAP certification from the International Association of Accessibility Professionals. However, he cautions that the industry standard is “not a guarantee either.” “It’s very, very difficult these days to know if a person knows what they’re doing,” especially for small businesses, he admits. So take your time to hire the right developer.

3. Ask for feedback from the disability community.

One of the most effective ways to make your website accessible is to reach out to the people who know the problem best, which is why entrepreneurs should look to the disability community for help. Most cities have local service organizations dedicated to people with disabilities. Greco recommends that you contact these organizations who can help you find people with a variety of disabilities to test your web content and serve as a focus group.

Even for small businesses, such testing can be very cheap, Greco said, estimating the typical price is around $150 for every 90 minutes. “That’s not such an exorbitant price, given the value of the effort you get from people.”

As with any new technology, entrepreneurs need to be realistic about the possibilities of AI. “People think of AI as some kind of magic, and it’s actually the automation of statistics,” says Grove. “That’s the most reasonable guess.”

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