I live in Ontario, Canada - the first jurisdiction in the world that legally mandated web accessibility: not just for government, but for business as well. Norway recently leapfrogged us, establishing similar legislation but with higher standards for the private sector.

Web accessibility is a concept that’s making headlines. Norway’s record-setting legislation for private sector online accessibility kicked in this year. Earlier this year, in the USA, Harvard University and MIT found themselves facing lawsuits for a lack of online captioning. And the U.S. Department of Justice’s increasingly aggressive pursuit of its enforcement agenda makes it clear that it views online accessibility as importantly as it does the built environment.

I live in Ontario, Canada - the first jurisdiction in the world that legally mandated web accessibility: not just for government, but for business as well. Norway recently leapfrogged us, establishing similar legislation but with higher standards for the private sector. Similar legislation is marching forward in Australia, the EU, and elsewhere. This is a great win for social justice, not to mention the many other powerful arguments for making your sites and documents inclusive (doing the right thing, leaving no one behind, broadening reach, attracting the best personnel, fulfilling corporate social responsibility goals, ...).

There is one visitor you can’t ignore

But even if you are able to skirt the law and choose ignore all the visitors to your site that may be negatively impacted by a lack of accessibility standards, there is one visitor you can’t ignore: Google.

Google is the most common visitor to your website. As most marketers know, Google makes frequent visits to sites, judging how well-organized and optimized a site’s content is and what search terms best associate with it. Other search engines operate similarly.

What many may not know is that the Google search spider is blind. And deaf. And has severe cognitive challenges. This means that the most common visitor to your website has disabilities that deserve addressing. In a world where most online shopping begins on a search engine - whether it is Yahoo, Bing or a mobile, voice-activated search through Siri, Google Now or Windows Cortana - accessibility is a discipline that web-based businesses should not ignore.

Make your website friendly to search engines

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) - the process of making your website friendly to search engines - grew out of the standards that Google (and other search engines) sets for ranking websites. It is no coincidence that these standards often overlap with standards of accessibility for persons living with disabilities. Google has taken into account the limitations of its search technology and compelled business owners to comply. In short, structuring a site’s content in a way that makes it perceivable and understandable to people with substantial disabilities will also result in Google finding your content and ranking it higher.

For example, the same alternative text we add to images so that a screen reader can describe the content to someone who cannot see is also used by search engines to index that same content. The rigour we apply to heading levels (for example, <h1> tags) and ARIA landmarks to structure a web page accessibly also suggests to a search engine the priority and context of our content. The accessibility guidelines that force us to word headings and labels in plain and consistent language help search engines know what our pages are about.

SEO is accessibility

But the overlaps don’t end there. Trusted SEO techniques and optimizations pop up time and again in WCAG 2.0 - the world’s de facto standard for web accessibility. Most legislation worldwide uses WCAG 2.0 as their measuring stick, including Norway’s groundbreaking Anti-Discrimination and Accessibility Act’s Section 14.

So accessibility has business benefits beyond making your website more friendly to all visitors. But that is far from the end of the story.

While great SEO often makes for a more accessible web experience, meeting WCAG standards goes beyond just textual optimization. Site elements like carousels and lightboxes must be re-engineered on both desktop and mobile devices, rich navigation must be accessible to screen readers and other assistive technologies. In short, SEO is just the beginning.

Design is about making things work

One common objection we hear often is the fear that adhering to accessibility standards will negatively impact design. This doesn’t have to be.

When we work with our clients, we always urge them to achieve accessibility and great SEO without any tradeoffs for the mainstream user experience. In fact, when we design for the extremes with the best techniques, everyone experiences an improvement. Design is not just about decoration: it’s about compliance without tradeoffs, better business results, and reaching beyond accommodation. Here are some examples where the intersection of optimization, design and accessibility resulted in a better web experience for all.  

  • For private sector multinationals in the US, Canada and beyond, brands we’ve worked with in consumer electronics and agribusiness sectors have been able to build accessible modules that can become a library that makes building accessibility into other online properties more affordable and sustainable.
  • For municipal websites, such as the City of Ottawa and the City of Toronto, we were able to teach how to increase citizen-centred engagement with forms and mapping applications that complied with WCAG 2.0 Level AA.
  • For federal clients, such as the tax department or the census, we were able to implement accessibility in a way that drove down the cost of telephone and manual intervention, saving millions of dollars.
  • For not-for-profit organizations, such as the Ontario Soil & Crop Improvement Association, we’ve been able to modify their online applications to embrace accessibility while engaging over 80% of the family farms in our province.

  • For the open source software firm, Blindside Networks, and their meeting application Big Blue Button - popular on many campuses - we were able to work with their team to keep the functionality identical while injecting Level A and Section 508 compliance into the backend.

  • For post-secondary institutions such as Carleton University - arguably the most accessible campus in North America--we were able to help educate the entire community on accessible publishing: students, instructors, and administrators alike.

Design is about making things work, often in an intriguing and delightful way. An accessible design is about making things work for everybody.

So while the accessibility standards speak of how to accommodate all users, far better strategically is to delight all users ... and marketers. So go ahead: delight Google. When we design for the extremes, everybody benefits.

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Profilbilde av David Berman
David Berman
David Berman, RGD, FGDC, is a special advisor to the United Nations on how to use accessible design to fulfill the Millennium Development Goals, and an Invited Expert to W3C, the publishers of WCAG 2.0. He was recently named Inclusive Design Champion for the Government of Ireland. His book Do Good Design is available in English, Chinese, Indonesian, Korean, Malay, Russian, Spanish, and braille.

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