Accessible websites - why we often fail and how to improve

Over the last 15 years, the accessibility of websites has become a bigger issue as access to the internet becomes a widespread need rather than a luxury.

Website accessibility is an issue that affects millions of people. Despite rapid advances in technology leading to leaps forward in website accessibility, a great many websites still fail in this important provision.

So, what are the main reasons for these failures? And how can we improve things for our users, today and in the future?

Understanding the challenges and benefits of accessibility

Developing for persons who are blind is probably the most challenging issue when it comes to technological innovation. However, it’s also easy to overlook other groups who need support when accessing the internet: those who have visual difficulties, who are hard of hearing, speech or mobility, and those with cognitive disabilities and special needs.

43 million people worldwide are estimated to be blind, and one billion of us are said to be living with some sort of disability. Even more of us are temporarily or situationally challenged, which includes:

In short, any situation which causes someone’s technological skills to be impaired can be said to have extra accessibility needs.

When we use these factors, it’s almost a certainty that 100% of us would benefit from greater accessibility at some point in our lives.

The problem is that while developers create web pages, they tend to be relatively young and healthy, with a high level of education, tech savy and top of the line equipment and services available to them. Because of this, many website designers and developers live in a bubble where accessibility is not front of mind.

Understanding technical inclusion

Those who cannot access the latest technology are also considered to have greater accessibility needs. Accessibility criteria is often overlooked, including older and slower devices and browsers, services that are no longer operational, and slow internet connections.

Rural communities and those with lower incomes are at risk of falling behind more quickly, especially at technology’s rapid pace. That is why it’s important to consider backward compatibility when creating new solutions so that everyone can benefit no matter if they can afford the latest phone or laptop.

Only if we are brave enough to burst the bubble we live in, can we become fully aware and understanding of the special needs of people who don't have the resources or capabilities of those who develop modern solutions.

Accessibility is a hard sell

Accessibility is not “sexy”. It is a difficult topic for some organizations to embrace and get the buy-in of not necessarily their end customers, but of their stakeholders.

It can also be incredibly overwhelming. There are 78 success criteria, according to WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), and every one comes with dozens of pages of interpretations and guidelines. Altogether, this material comprises over one thousand pages of a complex subject.

Accessibility can also feel restrictive when it hasn’t been implemented from the beginning. It’s yet another test to pass: it’s time-consuming, involves additional effort, and costs more money to test and refine.

Web accessibility is not yet widely understood, and not taken seriously: and that’s why it often finds itself at the bottom of our priority list.

Accessibility is too easy to ignore

It’s tempting to take the “easy way out” and ignore accessibility completely. If it is not directly enforced and built-in from day one, we risk accessibility becoming an afterthought.

Even then, it is often reduced to a purely engineering matter. And when that happens, it becomes painfully obvious to those who need it that their needs were not taken seriously.

Without proper planning, we can end up with results such as extra help when it is not needed, unnecessary details, clashing design, or inaccessible features which exclude all users except those with a very specific need. And in that, the actual content of the website is lost.

Just doing something for accessibility is not sufficient, nor is it helpful. It is not a box to tick at the end of a long day. It should be a high priority that focuses on the needs of end users.

Opportunities for improvement

All of this means that organizations, developers, and designers have the opportunities in front of them to do more for users with accessibility needs, right now.

Those opportunities break down into three main areas of focus.

Understand accessibility and inclusion

As a topic, accessibility should be highlighted in a corporate context, ensuring that employees understand the different needs their users may have. This will put staff involved in a project, from sales to project managers, engineers, quality assurance, and content creators, in the right mindset to tackle the challenges and spot opportunities.

Everyone should take responsibility in seeing the accessibility criteria not just as a technical challenge, as some hoops that need to be jumped through, but as a chance to create a meaningful and useful experience for as many users as possible.

The term “inclusive design” means a human-centered ethos that prioritizes both the usability as well as the accessibility of an experience. It is a design methodology that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity, more than meeting a list of standards. Inclusivity is the mindset, accessibility is the outcome.

Progress, not perfection

Accessibility can never be perfected as the range of human diversity on the planet is never-ending. It is not our ultimate goal to make the most accessible website ever: it is more important to shift our mindset and settle into a way of thinking that includes everyone by default.

With so many tools and criteria involved in accessibility technology, it can be complicated to grasp. When things get too complex, it is often easier for us to look the other way and pretend the issue doesn’t exist or doesn’t affect us.

The solution is to simplify the topic.

Aside from the simple mindset shift to “including everyone”, we have many resources available that we are able to use to narrow down and focus on the topics that matter. Designers, developers, content creators, and everyone involved in a project have their own set of resources they can access to make sure they’re doing the job properly. And by breaking the topic of accessibility down and making it each individual’s responsibility, we can ensure that nothing gets overlooked.

Checklists are the perfect tool to get this done. By checking each of the 78 success criteria against the technology you are creating, it will be easy to see that we won’t need each and everyone - and so, for example, a designer may only need to check off 14 or so items that have to adhere to best practices.

Bring in a specialist when needed

There will always be specialists and the need for specialists. However, rather than bringing in an external and following their instructions, we believe that true and meaningful change should always come from within an organization, to be checked against a specialist’s expertise only when the need arises.

Training and education from those in the know will help your team consider accessibility needs an everyday part of their work. In addition, teams should have additional support when needed, and access to services they can consult if they have any questions. External consultancies are an ideal opportunity for auditing and monitoring the accessibility of a project: but as always, bear in mind that perfection is hardly ever an option. But still, it's a good idea to really look into our shortcomings and make improvements where we can.

Cognizant Netcentric: leading the accessibility revolution

All organizations need to be more mindful of accessibility and inclusiveness. It is not an afterthought, but the living reality of billions of people who use our technology every day to further their lives. Our goal should be, at the very least, to not make things more complicated.

Similarly, accessibility should never be about ticking off a set of criteria at the end of a project – but nevertheless, checklists can play an important role in making sure every person involved can integrate accessibility criteria in their area.

Let's stop creating solutions that are not helpful, and forego over-baked accessibility tools which are clunky and unnecessary.

When we create something only for specific groups, no matter who that is, we create a divide and a separation. Inclusivity should be the number one goal, at every step, and each of us has the opportunity to step up and include this in our work.

Do you want to learn more about Cognizant Netcentric?