WCAG & Web Accessibility: Why Bother?

Jason Smith

Tim Berners-Lee — the inventor of the world wide web — once said that “the power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

But even as we move through 2018, 29 years after the world wide web went public, it’s fair to say that large swathes of the internet are still inaccessible to significant segments of our society. In fact — despite website accessibility being legally obligatory in many cases — disabled web users are having to rely on lawsuits to enjoy accessible customer experiences from some of the world’s largest brands.

We feel this reluctance to offer accessible digital experience stems from a lack of knowledge regarding the benefits of website accessibility.

Is WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) Compliance a Legal Obligation?

In our ten-point website compliance checklist, we discussed the different website accessibility-related legislations that your company may have to comply with, from Section 508 to HIPAA.

In short, depending on the industry you operate in and the nature of your online business in relation to your physical locations (if indeed you have any), you could be legally obligated to provide an accessible customer experience through your websites and apps.

Federal agencies for instance, must comply with Section 508, while all organizations handling healthcare data must comply with HIPAA.

With the other laws that help govern website accessibility in the US, there are some grey areas that brands should be aware of. For example, there is no consensus among US judges regarding how legislations like the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to online businesses. For example, in 2011, Facebook was served with a lawsuit for failure to comply with the ADA, but won the case on the basis that they have no physical location, meaning that disabled “visitors” were never put at a disadvantage. However, Scribd, Inc. — which also has no physical location for customers to visit — was met with a different interpretation of the ADA when they went to court in 2014 and had to settle as a result.

In the case of a business that has a presence both online and offline, Target had to settle their lawsuit when judges found that complaints about their inaccessible website was covered by the ADA because of the link between the company’s website and physical stores.

Taking these varying interpretations of the law into account, brands should take an avid interest in their own website compliance, simply because of the potential legal ramifications. However, even if we put legalities aside, brands have plenty to gain from embarking on a web accessibility campaign.

Website Compliance: The Ethical Thing To Do

First things first, delivering accessible customer experiences is the right thing to do.

According to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey 2 percent, or 4.7 million American adults, said they suffered from a disability or illness that made it difficult or impossible for them to use the internet.

For federal bodies and healthcare organizations, building a compliant website in accordance with Section 508 and HIPAA respectfully, is obligatory. For everyone else, it’s simply the ethical thing to do. As we have discussed, not every company has to have a compliant website, but even if you can escape a lawsuit, you can’t escape the fact that your web properties aren’t inclusive.

From a purely ethical standpoint, almost one-in-five American adults have trouble with hearing and almost one-in-ten adults have trouble with vision. In the UK, 11 million people have a limiting long-term illness, impairment or disability. While those numbers are high, the reality is that the majority of your audience will not be impacted by your campaign to improve the accessibility of your website — but for those who are positively affected by your efforts, your brand will quickly become a beloved resource, service provider or retailer.

Website Compliance: The Profitable Thing To Do

As it turns out, website accessibility regulations aren’t just another set of technical hoops for your developers to jump through — they’re a surefire way to boost engagement and revenue.

The World Wide Web Consortium carried out a study on the UK-based retailer Tesco back in 2001. The aim was to measure the financial impact of Tesco’s digital overhaul, which focused on making their customer experience accessible, in line with W3C guidelines. The study revealed that Tesco’s revenue from site sales increased to $17.9 million the year after they implemented a slew of changes to make their website more accessible.

To bring those relatively dated number some contemporary context, Freeney Williams, a UK-based disability and diversity consultancy, carried out a survey in 2016 which revealed the staggering loss of eCommerce revenue in the UK eCommerce market alone:


  • 71% of disabled customers with access needs will click away from a website that they find difficult to use.
  • Those customers who click away have an estimated spending power of £11.75 billion in the UK alone, which is roughly 10% of the total UK online spend in 2016.
  • 82% of customers with access needs would spend more if websites were more accessible.

Susan Scott-Parker OBE, Founder and CEO of Business Disability International, commented on the report — and we think she spoke a lot of sense:

“I think you will find this report surprising, if, like me, you naively assume that customers matter to the average business. Isn’t it logical to make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to spend their money with you?

Add to the equation the minimal costs associated with good [accessible] website design and surely we come back to the [question of], “why would anyone make it needlessly difficult for so many potential customers to spend their money?

Any senior business leader wishing to deliver excellence at every stage of the customer experience for as many customers as possible now has even more ‘ammunition’ to use when persuading colleagues to up their digital game. And that’s not [just] because the law requires it, but because the business rationale for meeting the needs and expectations of such a large and growing customer base is logical.”

Moreover, we can’t help but think of the potential for marketing teams should their IT leaders decide to deliver truly accessible digital experiences, as being digitally accommodating to everybody — no matter their ability or disability — would be a great way for any brand to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

Jason Smith
Chief User Experience Officer
March 26, 2018

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