Everyone should be able to interact with your website—that’s a given, from a marketing perspective. If someone can’t see what you specialize in or send you an inquiry via your contact form, they likely aren’t going to become your client. However, it is entirely possible that your website isn’t available to everyone unless you’ve made a concerted effort to make your website accessible.
What is Accessibility?
“Accessibility,” in this context, means that your website is designed to ensure that anyone—including people with disabilities—can easily use your website. There are a number of types of disabilities that limit someone’s ability to use a website. People who are unable to see or have low vision may use screen readers to provide audio output or screen magnification tools to zoom in on a portion of a website. Those individuals that are deaf or hard-of-hearing need captions for video content or a transcription of audio content. Older adults and people with certain types of physical disabilities may have trouble with the fine motor movements required to use a mouse and may need to use only a keyboard.
Website accessibility may not be something you’ve ever thought about, particularly because most lawsuits over it have centered on large online services and retailers like AOL, Southwest Airlines, and Target. In each of those cases, blind individuals sued the corporations, alleging that they were unable to fully use the websites as intended. For example, in the Target case, it wasn’t possible for users to complete a purchase without using a mouse.
Do You Really Have to Be Accessible?
There is no government requirement that non-governmental websites be accessible. Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t mention websites as a place of public accommodation that must be available to all.1 (Government websites, at the federal, state, and local level, must be accessible pursuant to Title II of the ADA.)
So, you are not a giant retailer, and people likely aren’t buying anything from your website, so why should you worry about it?
First, though they are still mostly focused on retailers, lawsuits are increasing rapidly, and, frankly, suing companies over their inaccessible websites is a growth industry. More importantly, you should be committed, from an ethical standpoint, to making sure your firm’s services are accessible to all. Finally, from a marketing perspective, more accessibility equals more people interacting with your website, which equals, hopefully, more clients.
How to Become Accessible
There are standardized, though non-governmental, initiatives designed to ensure greater Internet accessibility. These initiatives typically call for uniform standards of both back-end code and front-end design decisions.
That said, making your website moderately more accessible is less complicated than you probably think it is. Before you do anything else, run your website through an accessibility web checker. It will quickly tell you the things on your website that are not accessible (and there are probably more things than you think). Alternatively, you can check your site piece by piece on your own using the guidelines here.
The tools will likely show you that you’ve got some weirdness with your HTML that might seem daunting to fix. Don’t fret. There are some very basic steps you can take that don’t require a web designer or any particularly specialized knowledge.2
First, you can make sure your page title is actually something that makes sense, like our URL above, instead of www.yourwebsitegoeshere.com/12349s7xxxx. Why? Because people using a screen reader are having that reader speak the title of your website to them. If your URL is a garbled mess or doesn’t indicate what part of your site people are on, they can’t effectively interact with the site.
Next, make sure your headers are really headers, not just bolded or underlined bits of text. Again, screen readers need to pick up on the basic structure of your page to function well. The larger text you see in this post and many other Lawyerist posts are headers, not just text we’ve enlarged or bolded. That means the screen reader knows how to figure out how to move around your page.
Look at the pictures you’ve used on your site and see if you have alt-text on each of them. Alt-text just means that you’ve labeled non-text content with a text description of the image. You can easily do this in WordPress—whenever you add a photo, just make sure to put a description of the picture in the Alt-text box:
If you’ve got any video content on your website, get it captioned. There are free tools to help you do this for shorter videos; for longer videos consider using a captioning service. If you podcast, put a transcript of the podcast on your website. Having a service transcribe it for you will run around $1/minute, and is well worth it to make sure everyone can learn from your podcast.
Make sure that people can navigate your site entirely with a keyboard. This is critical for things like forms. If you want people to get your newsletter or fill out your contact form, they have to be able to make it all the way through without a mouse, so make sure people can tab all the way through your form.
You should also ensure that your PDF content is accessible. Fortunately, you can do this through Adobe Acrobat. The basics: Do not use scanned content unless you OCR it first, because scanned content is really just a picture, and screen readers can’t read it. Use Adobe to properly tag the PDF. Ensure the metadata of the PDF reflects what is in the PDF.
When you’ve decided you’re ready to do more, or if you have intricate content not addressed here, the Web Accessibility Initiative has many tutorials to help you dig deeper. If you have someone else handle your web design and maintenance, make sure they’re aware of the necessity of accessibility.
Making sure your website is accessible should be a priority, no matter how large or small your firm. Resources exist to help you handle it DIY. If you outsource your web design, any designer worth their salt should already be familiar with the basics of accessibility and should be able to follow the parameters laid out in the Web Accessibility Initiative standards. Being accessible isn’t just a smart marketing move—it’s the right thing to do.
Courts, however, have come to different conclusions on this, with some recent decisions interpreting Title III to require all websites be accessible thanks to the general policy mandate of the ADA, which is that services to the public are intended, broadly, to be available to everyone regardless of ability. ↩
This does presume you are already familiar with the basics of looking at the back end of your website and can do things like adding headings to posts. ↩