The Importance of Website Accessibility in an Increasingly Digital Society: Why the Official Websites of Legally Recognized Businesses should be Required to Meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines as Maintained by The World Wide Web Consortium
August 13, 2019
As recently as 2018, it was reported that adults in the United States spent a staggering 3 hours and 48 minutes per day on computers, tablets, and smartphones (Fottrell 2018). While this is less than a third of the 11 hours and 6 minutes these same adults spent consuming media of all types per day (including television, radio, and gaming systems) (Fottrell 2018), it still accounts for nearly 13% of the day as a whole – or nearly 20% of the waking hours of a day, accounting for 8 hours of sleep. Even without the statistical data, it takes only a look around any given environment to realize people – from young children to an increasing amount of the elderly – are constantly on devices, interacting with applications and websites.
When realizing that the average adult spends the equivalent of nearly 47 days per year interacting with applications and websites, it becomes surprising how few regulations are in place to ensure a consistent and inviting experience for all users. In the United States, over 12% of people have a classifiable disability. Specifically, more than 5% have a cognitive disability, nearly 6% have a hearing disability, and more than 2% have a visual disability (“2017 Disability Status Report, United States” 2017). These disabilities, and others, have noticeable effects on how these people interact with the world around them, and in most instances physical establishments make accommodations to ensure all people can have a good experience. The law requires it. But as soon as these people step out of the physical world, where accessibility is the law of the land in most cases, and enter the virtual realm, their experiences are often no longer as inviting. While the government regulates how businesses and other physical establishments must accommodate those with disabilities, thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, it says little of how websites must comply, if at all.
The result of this lack of regulation leaves the internet feeling akin to the Wild West. Some websites are accessible, and inviting to users of all abilities, but most are not. While user interfaces have become friendlier for all users over the last couple of decades, in general, most of these changes were due to an industry-wide evolution in the way websites are designed – replacing flashy banners and hard-to-read font, with content sliders, and sans-serif fonts. Those changes were made to make websites more esthetically pleasing; any accessibility concerns that were addressed as part of those changes were secondary at best – more likely, no thought was ever paid to them at all.
Mill for Business estimates more than 500,000 new websites are created every day (“How many websites are there?” 2019), and as society becomes more dependent on virtual interactions in daily life, it becomes increasingly apparent that differently-abled members of society are getting left out in the cold. While it would be wildly unrealistic to impose complex accessibility guidelines on all websites, or even just those created going forward – nearly 200,000,000 each year, setting standards for the official websites of legally recognized businesses is an option that should be explored. This paper serves to argue why business entities which are legally recognized by the IRS, and which hold a classification other than “Sole Proprietorship”, should be required by law to meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), as maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
The State of Business in the United States
As of 2014, the website Tax Foundation estimated that the US is home to some 1.7 million businesses classified as traditional C Corporations (C Corps) and 7.4 million businesses classified as Partnerships or S Corporations (S Corps) (Hodge 2014). From 1993 through 2015 it has also been estimated that an additional 21.6 million businesses were formed and classified as Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) (based on calculations from the works of Crisman, Friedman, and Lee). Though not all of these LLCs are still in existence today, and the number of C Corps, S Corps, and Partnerships is sure to have fluctuated, it is clear to see that the United States has an abundance of legally recognized businesses. Of these businesses, virtually all “large” businesses have an online presence, and a respectable 64% of small businesses maintain a website as well (Lesonsky 2018).
While many small businesses may only maintain a small, static website, the websites of many larger businesses can quickly become very complex. Many of these websites also contain an ecommerce experience – that is, an online store, where goods or services can be purchased. In either account, the importance of website accessibility cannot be understated. While a smaller, static website can easily be converted to comply with web accessibility standards, often for very little money, more complex websites, and especially those which contain an ecommerce feature can quickly see a budget in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Accounting to Mike Cristancho, from Gauge Interactive, an ecommerce agency that has been around for a decade, the average cost to make an ecommerce website accessible – on top of the cost to develop the website in the first place – ranges from $27,000 to $50,000, depending on the size and scope of the project. Cristancho emphasises that while this initial expense is high, it can save businesses the “headache of rushing a compliance project down the road” as well as save them from a “very expensive lawsuit” in the meantime (Cristancho 2017).
Most commonly, businesses are unable to see the necessity of making their websites and applications accessible to all users. Often, businesses see the estimated cost of a compliance project, and decide they either can’t afford it at that time – and usually never get around to it in the future, or that they can afford it, but don’t feel a compliance project is worth tying up resources that could be allocated to developing new projects (which will also, undoubtedly, lack accessibility). Many of these companies who can afford the cost to make their websites and applications accessible simply don’t want to spend money on something they can’t see benefit in, and which is not currently required by law.
While there are an estimated 12 million to 24 million ecommerce websites currently in operation, thanks in large part to companies like Amazon, eBay, and Etsy, allowing sellers to come out of the woodwork, only around 650,000 of them are bringing in revenue of more than $1,000 annually, and would instead be classified as a hobby business, by law. Of those which are legally considered profitable businesses, roughly 17%, or 110,000 have “annual revenue greater than $1 million” and it is estimated that, “on average a new ecommerce company can expect to bring in just under $39,000 of revenue in their first month in business, and generate $6.5 million in total revenue after three years” (Williams 2015). With revenue that high, it seems like company overhead would have to be significant to support the corporate argument that there is not enough money in the budget to prioritize website accessibility. Even so, Cristancho points out that businesses looking to prioritize accessibility compliance projects can receive a tax credit for up to 50% of eligible costs, up to $10,250, knocking even a $50,000 compliance project down by over 20% (Cristancho 2017).
While research suggests that Cristancho’s estimates are reasonable in the current market, costs can be driven down even more significantly if businesses would invest in accessibility from project inception, instead of needing to rework existing projects, where accessibility was overlooked the first time around. For companies who already employ web developers, or who are looking to in the future, simply making sure that a developer is familiar with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) can go far in building accessibility out from the start. Developers who have knowledge of, and experience working with web accessibility are more likely to develop accessible websites instinctively, and with very little additional cost to the business.
Who Suffers when Websites aren’t Accessible?
When businesses don’t prioritize the accessibility of their websites, the consumer suffers. In her 2018 work “Inaccessible Websites are Discriminating Against the Blind”, Elizabeth Sheerin recounts the 2015 story of a legally blind man, who often found that when he went to fill prescriptions at his local pharmacy, the employees seemed annoyed with him when he needed their help. He was happy to learn that this pharmacy had recently released an online prescription refill service, and was excited to try it out. While his able-bodied counterparts were able to use this service with ease, the man found that when he tried to access the application with JAWS – the Jobs Access With Speech application, which is an industry-standard screen-reading application, helping those with visual impairments to navigate websites, the site was not accessible. Since the pharmacy had not developed their application with accessibility in mind, the man now only had to endure the embarrassment he felt when asking for help from reluctant employees, but he also had to announce all of his prescriptions aloud, and lost out on the privacy the prescription refill service would have afforded him (Sheerin 2018).
Notable Legal Proceedings
While businesses may be proud of themselves for saving a small percent of their annual revenue by foregoing accessibility compliance, it may not always be a happy ending. Recently, many companies have found themselves in court over the lack of accessibility their websites offer. While the man in Sheerin’s example likely wouldn’t have the means to sue his local pharmacy, many other individuals, and grounds of people have found the means to do just that.
In 2006, a class of visually impared plaintiffs, sponsored by the National Federation for the Blind, sued the popular retailer Target, alleging that they “could not access Target’s website to purchase products, redeem gift cards, or find Target stores” (Briggs 2016). The court found that Title III of the ADA “applies to the services of a place of public accommodation”, not just services from within that place. In contrast, the same court while ruled in the National Federation for the Blind v. Target case, also found that “claims against web-only companies, such as Facebook, Netflix, and eBay” were not valid because “there was no nexus between the respective website goods and services and an actual physical place of accommodation” (Briggs 2016). Essentially, so long as a business has a physical location, it is likely a court would find out of their favor should an accessibility lawsuit be brought against them, but if they were an online-only place of business, the courts would likely side in their favor, since no place of public accommodation is present.
Even with court cases starting to find in favor of plaintiffs, some companies still don’t seem to mind that their lack of accessibility compliance is putting them at risk. In their 2013 work “Enterprise Web Accessibility Levels Amongst the Forbes 250: Where Art Thou O Virtuous Leader?” Ramiro Gonçalves, and others stated that “given the recent attention to organizational leaders having ethical duties towards their dedicated employees, we propose that ‘social citizenship behavior’ concerns ethical duties of organizational leaders towards society in general and in particular to those who have less means to assert their needs” (Gonçalves 2013). In short, if a business has the mans to take action on something like web accessibility, that would make the lives of others with “less means to assert their needs”, easier, the business should have the responsibility to take that action on behalf of those less fortunate.
The Current State of Website Accessibility
Aside from legal proceedings, which often involve big-name companies, research surrounding website accessibility often focuses on a smaller, though very important type of establishment: libraries. While libraries are arguably not businesses in the traditional sense, and are generally publicly funded, as opposed to being run for profit, they face similar problems to the websites of ordinary businesses. In her 2011 article “Web Accessibility, Libraries, and the Law”, Camilla Fulton explains that “most libraries are not included as entities that must comply with state web accessibility statues” and that “without legal backing for web accessibility issues at all levels, equitable access to information and library services might remain a dream” (Fulton 2011). Often, libraries will cite a lack of funding as the reason why they are unable to make their websites accessible in any meaningful way: “creating an accessible website is time consuming and resource draining. This is obviously an ‘undue burden’ on our facility. We cannot do anything about accessibility until we are given more funding” (Fulton 2011), they’ll say.
Early Opinions on Accessibility
Even as far back as the early 2000s, people had an understanding of the need for website accessibility, to ensure all users were provided with an inclusive experience when browsing the web. In his 2001 article “EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES — Accessibility and Web Design: Why Does it Matter?” Bob Goodwin-Jones answered the question: “what makes web pages inaccessible?” He states:
“That all depends on the nature of the disability. Visually impaired users might need a much larger font, or a sharp contrast between background and foreground color. Color-blind users need to have color-transmitted information translated into distinguishable shades of grey or delineated in some other way. Blind users may be accessing Web pages using a screen reader, which uses speech synthesis to read the pages and may be confused by improperly coded pages. Physically impaired users might have difficulty in typing key combinations. Other users might need to navigate with a non-traditional input device.”Goodwin-Jones, 2001
While some may consider the lack of website accessibility to be a problem with not understanding what disabled users really need out of a website, Goodwin-Jones clearly states that even in the very early years of the “.com boom” that people were, in fact, familiar with the needs of those who were differently-abled than themselves.
What Say the Law?
Currently, only websites relating to federal programs, or those receiving federal funding, are required by law to meet specific accessibility requirements. These requirements are addressed under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 508), which states that Federal agencies “must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information comparable to the access available to others” (“Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973” 1998). Under Section 508, the government cites the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, as set forth by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as being the “globally recognized voluntary consensus standard for web content and [Information and Communication Technology]” (“Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973” 1998).
Aside from websites that fall under Section 508, current laws do not explicitly state that websites must adhere to the same accessibility guidelines as physical locations. Recent litigation has made the argument that websites should, however, fall into the category of “public accommodation”, and therefore be held to the same standards as physical establishments when it comes to laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and subsequently, the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which states that “no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation” (ADA Amendments Act of 2008 §12182(a) 2008). The argument for considering websites to be places of public accommodation has been made because websites are generally public facing (though private websites, such as company intranets should also be subject to website accessibility legislation, since employees are often required to use these sites to fully carry out their duties on the job). Websites that are private (and which do not fall into the category of a private business intranet), would naturally not be subject to such legislation, since, like private establishments not covered by the law, the general public does not have access to these sites, and would not be impared by their lack of accessibility.
In addition to laws requiring accessibility in places of public accommodation, Title III of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 also provides a section on “New construction and alterations in public accommodations and commercial facilities”. When considering the publically accessible websites of business to be covered under §12182(a) of the law, it could also be argued that these websites should adhere to legislation regarding the construction of public accommodations. While a website is not a physical establishment, and is not constructed in the traditional sense, with wooden framing, or a brick facade on the exterior, or walls that are painted one of a carefully curated palette of colors, websites are still constructed. Where a physical establishment would have strong framing, and good bones, a website would have a backend system, perhaps even based on a pre-existing framework; where a physical establishment may have a brick facade to entice the public to come inside, a website would have a well curated homepage, filled with pertinent information, and a unique design; and where a physical establishment would have a carefully curated palette of colors to paint their walls, and doors, and trim, a website would have a color palette as well, to determine the color of text or buttons, or even what sort of overlay an image may be given. Like physical establishments, websites are built by a team of highly skilled professionals, over a number of months or years; as with traditional construction, budgets are often astronomical, and deadlines are often pushed back more than once. Most importantly, websites are just as easily accessed, if not more so than physical establishments, by people of all ability levels, with or without the presence of pants. Taking that into consideration, it should be simple to see that the government needs to hold these websites to the same standards of accessibility that physical establishments are held to.
Improving Upon Current Laws
At some point in the future, businesses are sure to see the day when website accessibility will be required by all, in a very matter-of-fact way. While some businesses will continue to actively do the bare minimum required of them, legally, others will begin to notice that their websites should be inclusive to all visitors, and make the necessary changes to ensure that is the case. For businesses that are looking to become more compliant, the current website accessibility guidelines, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which has long been considered the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web (the Web), has compiled and released an official set of accessibility guidelines to provide a framework for creating accessible web experiences: the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This document is an exhaustive list of various accessibility standards, and how websites are expected to implement them in order to meet one of three different levels of compliance – Level A, Level AA, or Level AAA (“Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1” 2018). While a website need not be compliant to the same level through its entirety, it is recommended that websites try to be compliant to at least the most basic level, Level A, when at all possible.
It is the hope of those who are fighting for website accessibility, that at some point in the not-too-distant future, all websites will strive to meet and maintain a basic level of accessibility when at all possible, ensuring a consistent and inviting experience for all website visitors. Until the point when website accessibility becomes the law of the land, members of the accessibility community – otherwise known as “a11y” will continue to implement best practices wherever possible, and educate others on the struggles of those who are differently-abled, when it comes to viewing and navigating a website not optimized for their patronage.
How to Help?
For readers looking to assist in the passing of comprehensive website accessibility legislation, the best course of action is to reach out to elected officials, requesting that they support any and all legislation regarding the accessibility of websites not currently covered under Section 508. While many lawmakers are slow to adopt a stance on such issues – often not wanting to anger constituents who believe in smaller government, and fewer government regulations on individuals and businesses – hearing that members of their voting districts are adamant that laws surrounding this issue are passed, will help to open their minds to a different way of thinking, and to shed light on the importance of the issue, especially among members of their constituencies that may be themselves differently-abled.
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A Quick Note
To anyone who is interested in learning more about the topic of Website Accessibility, or who is actively researching the topic for an assignment, please feel free to reach out to me with any questions that you might have. I will try my best to get you the answers you’re looking for, or at least point you in the right direction. Please don’t copy this essay to pass off as your own. I am publishing my essay publicly, on my own website, to help spread awareness about website accessibility, and while imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, plagiarism is not, and could get you in serious trouble with your teachers and professors. This website is indexed and any essay put through a system such as TurnItIn will return the text on this page as being plagiarized. You’ve been warned, so please be honest.
- Essay written for a college composition class, Summer 2019, completed August 13, 2019
- Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash