Get seen by more people: why accessibility is key


Websites are now a major part of our lives. We’ve become used to doing shopping online, socialising with our friends online, planning events, booking holidays, and doing business. We can do all of these things from the comfort of our own home, or when we’re out and about using mobile devices. This makes websites extremely accessible.

What does ‘accessible’ mean?

Quite simply, accessible websites can be easily seen by everyone. Each one of us can grab hold of a laptop and type in a website address to get to one of the many millions of websites worldwide.

But to make your website fully accessible, it also has to cater for users with disabilities. And there are many different types of disability that you need to be aware of.

Don’t ignore your disabled visitors

About 15-20% of every country’s population has a disability, so that’s at least 650 million people worldwide. If your website is an online shop and your website isn’t built in a way that caters for disabled people, you could be turning away an average of 1 in 20 customers.

  • In the UK there are 10 million disabled people, with a combined spending power of £80 billion.
  • In America there are 54 million disabled people, with a combined spending power of $220 billion.

So not catering for disabled people on your website is not only unethical. It’s bad for business too.

Types of disability web developers should be aware of

There are many conditions that may affect people’s ability to use your website. These are most likely to be:

  • Visual impairment – Visitors might not be able to read small text, or could be colour blind and unable to distinguish between different colours. Users could be totally blind and therefore need the content on your website read out to them by a screen reader.
  • Mobility and physical impairment – This can be a problem if your site involves clicking very small buttons, or having to click on moving items.
  • Hearing disability – If your site uses sound clips or videos, not all visitors would be able to hear them. In these cases a text alternative should be supplied.
  • Cognitive and learning disabilities – Visitors might have a problem reading and understanding the language used on your website. If your website uses a lot of text, long sentences and complex wording you will be making it difficult for some visitors to understand (we’d argue in fact, difficult for all visitors). Other types of cognitive disabilities might affect your visitors’ attention span, meaning they’re immediately distracted by any movement on the website, making it very difficult for them to read content.

Test different browsers

Making your website accessible also means that it has to work in all web browsers. This allows your visitors to have a choice of which browser they use, rather than just the default browser that came with their computer.

And forget mobile devices at your peril

As more people use their mobile phones to access websites, it’s becoming increasingly important for your website to work on different types of mobile device. It can be tricky to make your website work exactly the same on these devices which often have very small screens and limited functionality. Another difference is that a user will most likely be pressing items using their finger on their device’s touchscreen rather than using a mouse, meaning any hover-over effects you might have used won’t work.

So how do you make your website accessible?

If this all sounds alarming, don’t worry.

It is possible for your website to cater for each of these disabilities, as long as the website is built in the right way. The best way to build an accessible website is by following Web Standards. By using semantic markup you can separate your HTML code from your styles, which allows blind users to understand the content of your site, without your design getting in the way.

Separating your content and styles also allows you to apply different styles to the site. For example if a visitor is using a mobile device with a small screen, you’ll want to use a different stylesheet than for someone who’s viewing it on a computer.

This stylesheet will display the same content in a different way, better formatted for a smaller screen. The same functionality can be used to show a different version of the site to users who have visual impairments and need a version with much larger and more readable text.

If you’re interested in website accessibility you might want to read these articles:

Some web technologies aren’t accessible to everyone

This is quite obvious when you think about it. A game embedded into your website using Flash can’t be played by a blind person, and a complicated navigation system where the user has to catch a balloon with their mouse to get to the next page won’t be much use to an elderly person with mobility issues. Using these technologies is fine if your primary audience can use them, but you should always provide an alternative for people who can’t.

You’ll probably know that Adobe Flash isn’t accessible to everyone either. Any interactive feature or banner created using Flash on a website will display blank on an iPhone or iPad. With the increasing popularity of both of these devices, it’s best to provide an alternative.

Another benefit of accessibility – better SEO

Happily, if you build your website using web standards, you’re also much more likely to be ranked higher in Google’s search results. This is because you’re separating all your formatting from your content, and putting it into a separate file. This allows Google’s search algorithm to get a better look at your content without unnecessary clutter.

Sites that are created using valid HTML are proven to do better in Google’s search results.

So remember: the reason for making your site accessible is to open it up to a wider audience, whether that audience is people with disabilities, or people using your website on different browsers or mobile devices. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the smart thing to do.

But what do you think? How easy do you find it to make your websites accessible? Have you come across examples of websites that are well built and really accessible? Let us know in the comments below.

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