On this day 32 years ago, then-President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law.
Later amended in 2008 to extend the definition of disability, the ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in work, schools, transportation and more. Although it’s been a landmark for civil rights and inclusion, to this day, there’s still plenty missing from everyday life being truly accessible — especially in tech.
According to WebAIM, a nonprofit measuring and offering solutions in web accessibility, 96.8% of home pages were not meeting Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which is what it recommends to make websites truly accessible. This stat was actually slightly better than the 97.8% it found in 2019, but it still means almost every single website out there is not truly accessible. That could mean anything from missing widgets, images without alternative text, videos lacking synchronized captions or no option to turn off or delay timeouts.
Joshua Basile is a DC-based lawyer and founder of the Determined2Heal foundation who became quadriplegic after an injury 18 years ago. The current issue with ADA compliance for many, he said, is that web accessibility wasn’t front of mind when the act was passed; In the time since, it’s been struggling to keep up as the digital world grows.
“[The internet] has boomed bigger than anybody could have ever dreamed it would become because, in the early days of the internet, web accessibility wasn’t a priority,” Basile told Technical.ly.
Steps to true accessibility
Still, there are plenty of ways to make a website accessible — for everyday use, hiring and other functions. For most, the ideal situation would be to build accessibility into a website from the very beginning (new startup founders, we’re looking at you). But when that’s not an option, Basile recommends starting with an audit to see where your website is successful in accessibility, as well as where its pitfalls lie.
From there, founders and company leaders can see what’s missing, figure out what can be fixed with the current resources and make a plan to reach compliance.
“The brilliance of today’s technology is that we have so many incredible options for business owners that want to do better and know what they want,” Basile said.
Alongside meeting legal standards, Basile noted that there are a number of reasons companies should be looking to make their websites and web applications more accessible. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26% of adults in the United States have some type of disability, which equals about 61 million people. That’s not only a huge market, but it also means that if your website isn’t meeting ADA standards, it’s also not meeting the needs of one in four site visitors.
Being compliant has even more advantages. Creating a better overall experience can attract more customers and increase access (not to mention, as Basile said, that given how only about 3% of websites are accessible, those with disabilities demonstrate tremendous brand loyalty once they find one). Adding things like the alternative text below images (which describes the picture to users who are blind or low-vision) can also improve SEO optics. Including more texts for different menus can also tell a more inclusive story of the site and appeals to search engine algorithms, Basile said.
The advantages of accessible websites
Basile adds that accessibility is especially important if a company is looking to be more inclusive in its hiring practices. If someone can’t use a company’s website well, then they also can’t fill out an online job application or learn about the company before deciding whether or not they want to work there.
“Web accessibility runs so much deeper than just even buying products and services,” Basile said. “It’s also making sure that the employees with disabilities have the opportunity to even work at your business.”
Still, as the digital world continues to expand, Basile noted that everything is a journey, and there has been progress over the years. In his own life, Basile has a device that allows him to control his computer and play games. He uses voice dictation software that can takes notes as fast as he can speak, as well as an Alexa device around the house. All in all, he said that what technology can already do to make an impact is incredible — but there’s still room to grow.
“Accessibility is a journey,” Basile said. “If everything was perfect with the flip of a switch, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, but we’re going to keep on investing time and energy in making sure that the community is part of the journey to make better products for everyone.”-30-