Accessibility is an important factor in the success of any website or business, and it's essential to understand how to make your products available to all users, including people with disabilities.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, 75% of Americans with disabilities use the internet on a daily basis. Yet, there are approximately 51.4 accessibility errors on the home pages of the one million top websites.
With websites being one of the most visited online mediums, prioritizing digital accessibility is not only the right thing to do to enhance user experience but also to reduce legal risks.
Tim Springer is the founder and CEO of Level Access and wrote the platform’s first programming language and created the industry’s first commercial tool to test web accessibility. Tim is on a mission to make sure technology meets regulatory standards and supports real-world use by people with disabilities.
Spotlight: Why does digital accessibility matter and why should businesses ensure their websites are fully ADA-compliant?
Tim Springer: Organizations typically focus on digital accessibility for three primary reasons. The first is legal, the second is strategic, and the third is moral.
First, various laws, both at the federal and state or provincial levels, require that organizations’ digital experiences are accessible to all users. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is broadly interpreted by courts as applying to websites. Non-compliance puts your company at risk of a costly lawsuit and potential damage to your organization’s reputation.
Second, implementing accessibility for people with disabilities opens your digital experience up to the broadest possible audience. The steps you take to make a site accessible improve the experience for every user. So, as you improve your user experience for people with disabilities, you’re creating a richer experience for all visitors.
Finally, focusing on accessibility is a fundamentally good thing to do. Most organizations today truly want to provide equitable access to everyone. In a modern, digitally driven business environment, digital accessibility provides a tangible way for organizations to authentically demonstrate that they mean what they say in their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policy.
In your opinion, what are the main roadblocks that stop companies from adopting digital accessibility?
Roadblocks come down to two things: knowledge and cost.
Accessibility is a relatively new space in terms of digital compliance. Most people have a working understanding of information security and privacy and know these topics need to be organizational priorities.
Accessibility falls under the same umbrella of digital compliance, but many people aren’t as familiar with it, so they immediately assume it’s challenging to implement. To be fair, it is a specialized field, so you do have to do some digging and learning in this space to understand it. Once people are past the knowledge gap, they usually recognize that accessibility is a solvable business problem.
That’s when the cost becomes a barrier. There is an additional cost required to establish a digital accessibility program. That cost, however, is more manageable than many organizations initially assume and can be minimized if accessibility is approached in the right way.
The most cost-effective way to incorporate accessibility is to build it into digital development workflows from the start, rather than bolting it onto already established processes or systems, or treating it as a point-in-time check-marking activity for your quality assurance teams. Of course, to accomplish this, teams must have the knowledge, training, and systems in place, which is where a comprehensive third-party vendor like Level Access comes into play.
Level Access provides webinars and eBooks to educate the market on digital accessibility. What’s the strategy behind it and how effective has it been so far?
As noted above, the general lack of knowledge regarding digital accessibility is a major barrier to its adoption. Digital accessibility isn’t as intuitive for many people as other compliance domains, like information security. That’s because while everyone can be impacted by security breaches, even if the actual mechanical details are complicated, not everyone experiences a disability or the same types of disabilities. For example, if you don’t have a visual impairment, it may be difficult to understand how a person with low vision uses the internet, and how to design for that use case.
By providing resources to educate the public about digital accessibility, we help people get comfortable with the idea that it’s fundamentally another dimension of usability—or perhaps the larger category in which usability lives. Digital accessibility requires effort—but it can be addressed in a cost-effective fashion, and it’s extremely important to prioritize. Our resources have been immensely valuable to our customers over the years, as we’ve gone from educating a handful of large early adopters to serving as a trusted source of truth for organizations of all sizes across industries.
For 25 years, Level Access has been part of the digital accessibility space. What makes your solution better than other competitors on the market?
When it comes to digital accessibility providers, broadly speaking, there are products, and there are partners. We’re in the latter category. In our experience, that’s the only category that offers a real solution for lasting, sustainable compliance and accessibility.
Unfortunately, our market is crowded with inexpensive, technology-only approaches, like “overlays.” These tools “overlay” a single line of code across your site to find common accessibility barriers and claim to “fix” them. However, overlays don’t solve the underlying code issues that prevent websites and apps from functioning properly with assistive technologies used by many people with disabilities. So, the “fixes” they provide usually amount to a “separate but equal” web experience for people with disabilities that is not only ineffective but can also be viewed as discriminatory. In fact, courts have usually sided with plaintiffs in digital accessibility cases where the defendant company used an overlay.
Organizations may consider overlays in the early stages of evaluating accessibility options. But teams that have done their due diligence usually seek a meaningful partnership supported by credible experts.
Our clients are empowered to fix their accessibility issues directly, and these native improvements become part of a digital experience for everyone, for good
One analogy I like to provide is the spell checker. Using a spell checker, I can quickly tell you which words are spelled correctly, and which are spelled incorrectly. Spelling is an important part of communication, but at the end of the day, if a piece of writing is fundamentally flawed, a spell checker can’t help. That’s going to take skilled instruction from a mentor you can trust. That’s the kind of training and support we provide when it comes to digital accessibility and accessible user experience design.
Your clients include leading brands such as Adobe, Nike, and Sony. Based on experience, what are some of the most common accessibility issues these businesses face?
When they first start, organizations tend to focus on relatively small, easy-to-fix syntactical issues. For example, “Does this image have alternative text associated with it so that a blind person’s screen reader technology will announce its meaning accurately?” or “Can a person with low vision resize the text on this page?” These discrete issues can be quickly resolved with simple code changes.
As they progress, organizations’ attention tends to move more and more toward the question of “Does this experience actually work for many different types of people, with different accessibility needs and abilities?” As organizations mature in their understanding of accessibility, they begin to grasp how powerful digital accessibility programs can be in improving their user experience, both for people with disabilities and people without disabilities. As an example, an older web user may not identify as having a disability, but they may be using larger fonts on their mobile devices and the zoom-in feature on their desktop apps. Those are accessibility features. This is why it’s so important to involve design teams and agencies in your digital accessibility program. In many ways, accessibility starts with great design/user experience (UX).
The focus on a meaningful UX is truly where market-leading customers like the ones you’ve mentioned want to be. They want to provide a rich, enjoyable experience for everyone, and we want to help them accomplish that.
Website accessibility can be a costly process. What tips would you give for executing accessibility strategies on a tight budget?
First, implied in that question is that you have a budget, right? No matter the size of your company, digital accessibility does require money. My recommendation to any organization getting started is always to seek help. It may be tempting to try to cut costs by upskilling your in-house design and development teams, but it's much wiser to pull in an experienced third party. Teaming up with an expert will prevent you from wasting resources on efforts that aren't useful and allow you to maximize your return on investment.
Of course, there are parts of the digital accessibility toolkit that you can utilize for free. For example, we provide free, automated tools on webaccessibility.com, which can be used to run initial tests on your website and digital properties. Unfortunately, automated testing is free in our market because it can’t identify all the accessibility issues that a user with disabilities might encounter—only 30 to 40 percent, on average. But that makes it a great place to start.
Additionally, our library of free educational resources can be extremely helpful for teams working with limited budgets. Reviewing how-to guides, attending our webinars, and understanding how other successful organizations in your field approach digital accessibility are all free ways to ensure you’re on the right track as you implement a solution.
Earlier this year, Level Access merged with eSSENTIAL Accessibility with the aim of creating an end-to-end digital accessibility solution. What are this partnership's mutual benefits, and how does it contribute to your company’s growth?
At Level Access, our mission is to make the digital world more accessible, and this match makes that mission more possible than ever before. By coming together, we’ve combined the very best of what both our organizations brought to the table to create the most comprehensive and scalable digital accessibility platform ever.
eSSENTIAL Accessibility pioneered the Accessibility-as-a-Service model with their dynamic platform. They also brought an innovative culture that, when combined with our deep bench of technical and regulatory expertise, and decades of experience in the digital accessibility market has created an unparalleled offering for our customers and partners. As a combined company, we’re feeling more confident than ever about our task of defining the future of digital accessibility.
With Level Access leading the digital accessibility industry, what is the future of digital accessibility and how can businesses prepare for it?
Organizations should assume that digital accessibility will be an ongoing business requirement. Accessibility is not a fad, and it’s certainly not going away. The digital environment is only becoming more complex, so the idea that a cheap widget will permanently “solve” organizations’ accessibility issues is not a good bet.
Accessibility requirements are also becoming more codified in the legal landscape, and the public is increasingly understanding the fundamental importance of accessibility to diversity, equity, and inclusion. All these factors point toward the need for organizations to adopt a thorough, robust digital accessibility program.
To do that, the best practice is to build digital accessibility into your processes: you embed it in your employee training; you resource a team or group of staff to oversee it; and, optimally, you seek external expertise to support and guide that team. You acquire tools for it, and then you build monitoring and management on top of them. Essentially, you treat it like any other digital compliance obligation, such as information security or privacy.
Additionally, it’s important for businesses to think about the role of design teams and agencies in digital accessibility. Many digital accessibility issues can be tackled in the design phase of the web and software development lifecycle, and that’s when it’s most cost-effective to catch them. Designers are often the people with your end user closest at heart. If your organization’s designers, or design agencies, are empowered and expected to deliver accessible experiences, you’re taking the right steps to prepare for the future of digital accessibility.
Thank you for your time, Tim Springer. Best of luck to you and Level Access!