Britain, like most developed countries, has an ageing population; Government figures show that, for the first time ever, the average age has surpassed 40. And, with a population that is getting older, comes a rise in the number of people living with disabilities.

While the implications on health and social care services of this societal shift are obvious, it seems there has been little conversation on what this will mean in context of our ever-digitalised world. Will the elderly and people with disabilities be left behind as technological innovation continues to propel the rest of us forward? Hopefully not, but as more and more products and services move online, there is a need for us to be more proactive in promoting and improving web accessibility where possible.

For businesses with an online presence, greater web accessibility makes commercial sense too – why wouldn’t you want to reach the biggest audience and number of customers possible? Which then begs the question – why aren’t all websites accessible by default? We put this largely down to confusion about what web accessibility is, and how websites can be improved.

So, what is accessibility and what misconceptions are currently held about it?

Web accessibility is about ensuring that everyone, regardless of ability or disability, is able both to contribute and benefit from the internet – by removing the obstacles that often impede those with disabilities when browsing online.

Seems straightforward, right? And yet, there are a vast number of misconceptions held about web accessibility that we encounter time and time again. Here are just a few common ones:

How accessible websites look

When we speak to businesses and organisations, we hear the same thing repeatedly – “I thought accessible websites had to look plain/dull/ugly”. This is simply untrue. Good examples of sites that look good and are inclusive include the Arts Council and Apple websites.

The benefits of creating more accessible websites

There’s also a misconception that accessible websites only cater for a small minority – if our ageing population is anything to go by, this is fairly inaccurate. Websites that are accessible cater to all - taking into account the number of people living with progressive, or even temporary, conditions whose needs and abilities will vary and change.

When we work with companies to create more accessible online offerings, we always ‘design for the 5%’ because then the website will be accessible to those people, plus the remaining 95%. Web accessibility and inclusivity is an issue we feel strongly about and one that is brought up year after year at our user experience conference, Camp Digital. How technology and the internet can be used to improve the lives of those living with disabilities, and the elderly, is an issue discussed every year and is only growing in importance for the digital, design and user experience communities.

The cost of making websites more accessible

There is an upfront cost of creating more accessible content – that’s a given. But this cost is modest and should instead be seen an investment. What’s more, with an accessible website, you will be reaching and catering for a wider audience – surely this makes commercial sense?

Practical ways to improve web accessibility

Improving accessibility doesn’t have to be complicated or daunting. Instead, it should be seen as an opportunity to be more inclusive and ensure you’re not discriminating against anyone based on who they are and what impairment they have. While it can seem like a minefield, there are a few simple steps that can be followed to ensure websites are accessible to all users.

For users with a visual impairment, content should be presented in a readable text size and all information should be published on web pages. For web visitors with autism, buttons should be descriptive, the layout should be straightforward and consistent and the site must use simple colours – avoiding bright ones. If a user is hard of hearing, or fully deaf, video and audio content must be subtitled and content/text must be written in plain English. If a user has a physical or motor disability, the site should not bunch interactive elements together and demand precision but should instead use larger, clickable areas.

As more services and products move online, creating a more inclusive website has never been as important. Accessibility should be recognised as a right and websites should be inclusive by nature – we don’t discriminate against those with disabilities in stores and shops, so why is the internet any different? Surely it makes business sense, aside from any social responsibility and equality argument, to ensure you are reaching the greatest number of people possible? Our ageing population means accessibility is important now and will only get even more important. Now is the time to take the accessibility plunge and create a more accessible web offering or risk losing out altogether.

 

By Hilary Stephenson, managing director at Sigma


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