How to make your website more accessible to people with disabilities

15 Feb 2019

Image: © skarie/

While complying with standards is one thing, making your site truly usable is another.

Every day, many of us take using the internet and accessing websites for granted, but the reality is far more difficult for many people with disabilities.

While there are numerous standards that development teams can comply with to make their digital products as accessible as possible, glaring web accessibility issues continue, hindering a large volume of the world’s population from having equal access to information.

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 15pc of the world’s population live with some form of disability, with about 3pc of this group experiencing significant difficulties in functioning.

Web accessibility is vital

There are many people that view web accessibility standards as a compliance exercise, but Shawn Pike, vice-president of User1st, says that shouldn’t be the end goal for teams. Instead, developers should be aiming for “true usability”.

“In its simplest form, true usability is equal access to all content, transactions and merchandise on a website, regardless of one’s ability. This means using concepts of universal design across the board or offering access to an equivalent accommodation for each and every digital asset within your platform.”

Pike says that some organisation fail to notice the gap between compliance and accessibility. “For example, instead of just simply checking a box of having alternative text in place for images, ensuring that images have rich alternative text that provides the user with the same value as a user who can view the image without accommodation.”

Websites have issues

Even the websites of major celebrities can have some web accessibility problems, despite usually being largely compliant with World Wide Web Consortium standards.

Pike cited Beyoncé’s website as a prime example: “We scanned Beyoncé.com with an automated testing tool and found that the site scored extremely well – around 94pc compliance with the World Wide Web Consortium standards.

“But when we manually scanned the site, we found a number of glaring issues that make the website difficult, if not impossible, to use by someone who is not using a mouse.

“These included images that were not properly captioned with alternative text, and large parts of the site that could not be navigated by keyboard, including an inoperable search function, menus that could not be opened and a lack of drop-down menu options, among other issues.”

A shift in thinking

Pike says a different way of thinking is in order to create a shift in digital accessibility, adding that accessibility features have been proven to increase both revenue and brand loyalty.

To reach full target market, accessibility must be considered at the very beginning of the website design process. “This is key for anyone trying to reach their full target market, because one out of every five Americans has a disability, which makes the community of people with disabilities the largest US minority and a huge market segment with substantial spending power.”

He added that companies should start to recognise the need for both automated and manual testing, as the former can only detect so many accessibility errors. “Manual testing is the only way to find keyboard navigation errors and bridges the gap toward usability by ensuring things like navigation order and captions are presented logically and with accurate context and value.”

Keyboard navigation is not well understood

According to Pike, keyboard navigation is both the least understood accessibility issue and the most common one to mitigate. He added that it is “extremely important” that sites can be navigated using only a keyboard.

“Accessible websites should be structured so that pressing ‘Tab’ logically moves the user from the address bar to menus, across form fields and links, and to any other content areas in a clear and easy-to-follow manner. This lets users who rely on keyboard navigation to move through a page in a logical way even if they can’t view the screen.”

To keep accessibility top of mind and a high priority, developers may want to learn how to use a screen reader the way people with disabilities use them, Pike says. Early and often accessibility testing is also important – treat it like cybersecurity.

Overall, a shift in professional standards is needed. “In the same way that it’s standard practice to be able to build a website that scales in order to be considered a competent developer, building accessible websites needs to be a standard professional benchmark as well.”

Filling knowledge gaps to help developers better understand both the user experience of a person with disabilities and the behaviour of assistive technology, such as screen readers and navigation by keyboards, is vital.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects