Once regarded as merely a useful add-on to a website, today accessibility is required not only by UK law, but by an increasingly vocal and demanding public. Organisations need to develop an accessibility policy and act now to avoid legal action – and to prove they value all their customers
The last few years have seen increasing legal action on web accessibility. Since the first litigation was initiated around 2000 in the United States against high-profile brands such as Target and Netflix, the threat of private legal action and the imperative to address disability discrimination is relevant to companies of all sizes across all industries.
In the UK, the 2010 Equality Act and its statutory code, in force since April 2011, explicitly states that websites are included within the ambit of the legislation. There are 12 million disabled people in the UK, representing annual spending power of £212 billion. To compound the importance of accessibility, the digital needs of an ageing population should also be taken into consideration. Some 50 per cent of the UK population will be over 50 in 2020 and there are currently more than 2,250,000 people in the UK living with a visual impairment.
As one of the most web-enabled societies in the world with an active disability rights lobby, the UK is experiencing an increase in pressure to comply with the WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) standard published by the World Wide Web Consortium, the main international standards organisation for the internet.
“Business is increasingly digital and access to digital content is recognised as a basic right. Web accessibility has become an important business consideration in light of stronger enforcement of accessibility regulation, ramped up discrimination litigation and the growing
importance of smartphones as the gateway device to access the internet,” says Carin Van Vuuren, chief marketing officer at Usablenet, a leading technology services company which has been focused on usability and web accessibility for the last 16 years, and whose clients include Topshop, Carphone Warehouse, The Ritz Carlton and FedEx.
Legal requirements aside, Ms Van Vuuren argues companies should consider the accessibility of their websites because it can have a positive effect on customer engagement and brand reputation.
“UK companies like Tesco and ASOS have demonstrated their commitment by putting good accessibility policies in place. In the US, retailers like The Container Store and travel companies such as Amtrak, have shown that a commitment to accessibility is not only good for your brand reputation, but can also affect the bottom line in a positive way,” she says. “But accessibility isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. You can’t just stop worrying about it once your site is web accessible. You need to build all sites and apps with accessibility in mind, and you should strive to constantly ensure and improve access and usability for users living with various forms of disability.”
Forward-thinking companies are taking the initiative rather than waiting for regulations to require them to take action, according to Ms Van Vuuren. “Users living with disability should not be left out, and companies have a social, legal and increasingly a business reason to ensure that their sites and apps are built with access in mind. In the end, an investment in accessibility improves the quality of an experience for everyone.”
The good news, says Ms Van Vuuren, is making online services accessible on desktop, tablet and mobile is relatively straightforward if organisations have a strategy that they’re ready to put into place. She says: “Once they have an accessibility policy, companies find they gain competitive advantage and that which might have seemed like a nagging legal requirement can become a key marketing tool and deliver a positive return on investment.”
TAKE ACTION: PUT YOUR ACCESSIBILITY POLICY IN PLACE NOW
Web accessibility is essential, but it doesn’t need to be costly, distracting and time consuming to do. Here are the key steps to take:
1. Establish a company-wide accessibility policy that outlines roles, efforts and timelines for all those involved.
2. An accessibility policy should cover all public-facing digital channels including desktop and mobile sites, plus apps. It should be developed with legal advice so that it complies with appropriate regulation such as the Equality Act and its 2011 statutory code. All contracts with third-party developers should expressly state that you require them to comply with your accessibility policy.
3. Add a page to all your sites showing your disability statement. This should include an e-mail address and free phone number offering support.
4. “Web accessibility is a board-level responsibility,” says Usablenet’s chief marketing officer Carin Van Vuuren. “The directors should discuss it, approve the company policy and establish reporting mechanisms to ensure that it’s being implemented.”
5. Having established the policy, companies need to recruit accessibility team members from all areas of the organisation. An accessibility co-ordinator, who could be a contractor, should conduct a full accessibility audit of all digital channels for WCAG2.0 compliance. Once accessibility revisions and fixes are implemented, it could be appropriate to conduct research and testing with disabled users to validate the usability and accessibility of the channel.
6. Reports on accessibility, including documentation showing problems plus fixes and improvements, should be updated on a regular basis.
7. From its experience of working with companies, Usablenet calculates that establishing and implementing a policy can take between 12 and 24 months. “This will protect most organisations against the threat of legal action and will allow them to demonstrate to customers that they’re taking the issue seriously,” says Ms Van Vuuren. “Accessibility is a constantly evolving process not a one-off project. However, it can provide a business and commercial opportunity rather than simply protection against a legal threat for those who embrace it fully.”
More information on how Usablenet supports organisations to develop and implement an accessibility policy can be found in their blog or at www.usablenet.com