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Marketing Website Accessibility in the Age of Assumptions

Here's what you need to know before adding website accessibility services to your digital marketing or web design company's offerings.

Marketing Website Accessibility in the Age of Assumptions
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Offering website accessibility services has attracted enthusiastic interest from digital marketing and web design companies seeking new revenue streams.

Ground zero is overcoming accessibility assumptions, myths, biases, and even misguided marketing about what accessibility is and who it is for.

Which Leg Is First?

When you put on your shoes, which foot do you choose first? Is it your left foot, or right foot? Do you sit or stand on one leg and then switch legs? Do you wear shoes? Do you wear socks with sandals? (Had to ask.) Do you own shoes?

What happens for people who do not have feet?

How often do web designers, developers, and marketers think about what we do, and how we do it? Why do we do it? When do we do it?

What happens when we can’t do it?

The assumption is that everyone can use our websites. They’ll figure it out.

There Is Gold in ADA Lawsuits

There once was a time in America where people lived, hunted and went to war over buffalo and boundaries, or a show of machoism between tribes.

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When the country was “discovered”, a new group of people arrived and grabbed the land on the authority of a “chief” from somewhere across the big ocean who had never been there but assumed Native Americans wouldn’t mind a few changes.

Did they know who the people were who inhabited the mountains?

Was anyone brainstorming at a meeting with a gigantic whiteboard exploring all the ways to invade, create, persuade, trade with, sell to, convert, and otherwise dump a new system of life on people who could not use any of it?

No silly. Whiteboards didn’t exist back then.

The insult was the assumption by the British that the land was for sale at all.

How do you sell something you do not understand?

How do we build websites for people we do not understand?

Why do we build websites to sell products and services that target only the people we assume will be able to use the website?

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According to the World Health Organization, at least 15% of the world’s population suffer from a disability.

The 2019 Midyear Update on ADA Website and Mobile App Accessibility by UsableNet found that:

  • ADA web-related lawsuits reached a rate of one lawsuit every working hour; over 2,000 a year.
  • 31% of retail companies listed in suits since July 2017 have been sued multiple times
  • Industries receiving the most focus in web accessibility litigation include Retail, Food Service Industry, Travel/Hospitality, Banking/Financial, Entertainment & Leisure and Self-Service

When you stop to consider how much of the company budget goes towards digital marketing strategies and hiring SEO professionals to wrestle with search engines that change their business models every month, wouldn’t it make sense to provide an accessible website that will convert more visitors when they arrive?

Offering website accessibility services sparked some marketers to explore if they could automate accessibility testing or provide accessibility insurance policies to prevent an ADA lawsuit.

It would be a real gold rush if making websites accessible was so easy. How about a software application that codes it for you? Remember Frontpage for web design?

Understanding Accessibility & Removing Assumptions

Selling accessibility services is complicated. It’s not just about the costs. The difficult part is overcoming assumptions about why accessibility is important to web businesses.

From my personal experiences, educating prospective clients on website accessibility takes time.

Inclusive web design has never been a favorite area for stakeholders.

Usability and conversions are. Mobile design is. Performance is hot.

But website accessibility is like entering a new country and ignoring how things are done there.

At first glance, it sure looks easy enough to set up accessibility testing or design services or provide products like accessible plug-ins, WordPress themes, and automated testing apps.

One example is to simply write up a marketing campaign about the surge of website accessibility ADA lawsuits and how business websites are easy prey.

Convince prospective clients that you can save them enormous legal fees by performing accessibility tests to find all the accessibility errors that fail WCAG2.1 Guidelines.

Run some automated tests, produce a report with findings and walk away with a check.

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The most common mistake is marketing accessibility design and testing as a once and done process.

Small businesses say no to accessibility testing because they have limited financial resources. They may be less likely to have a designer who knows how to design for accessibility.

Perhaps they purchased an inexpensive ready-made website, love it to pieces, and truly have no idea whether certain people are unable to use it.

This target market is terrified of the stories about ADA lawsuits. More than once I am told that a lawsuit will put a small company out of business.

Making accessibility services affordable makes sense. It also requires tremendous patience and a willingness to help these smaller businesses with education and ongoing support at fees they can tolerate.

Larger companies with bigger budgets are more inclined to invest in accessibility testing to satisfy their curiosity or take the offensive approach to any potential ADA lawsuit.

They require staff trained to fix issues that appear in accessibility reviews or a willingness to outsource accessibility specialists.

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At the corporate level, interest in setting up an accessibility department increased, creating permanent jobs and a desire to “bake in” accessibility from the start, into the development process itself.

A positive outcome of providing accessibility testing or design services depends on the expertise of the people doing the work. This includes project managers, salespeople, web designers, web developers, and accessibility specialists.

In situations where a company has been served with a letter of complaint, the next steps may require legal assistance and possibly the services of an expert witness, certified accessibility specialist or accessibility agency specializing in advanced accessibility services.

But first things first.

How well do you know how people use websites?

Do any of your assumptions or biases prevent inclusive web design?

Assumptions, Biases & More Fairy Dust

Way back in the early days of search engines Mike Grehan, CMO & Managing Director of Acronym, researched and wrote an in-depth, 350 pages book called “Search Engine Marketing, the Essential Best Practice Guide.” The book shattered myths about the profession and provided sound practices and guidelines.

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Finally, someone had the courage to stand up and say that ranking in search engines required more than magical fairy dust.

There were concerns that search engines would wreck the art of true information seeking.

“Web Dragons: Inside the Myths of Search Engine Technology” by Ian H. Witten, Marco Gori, and Teresa Numerico, explored ideas about how the web would change communication forever and search engines might someday control information and how we see the world.

It was praised by major influencers employed by Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

While search engines looked for people to inform, educate, amuse and advertise to, web designers were experimenting with new ways to create pretty things to admire on the internet.

Web developers were inventing new programs to help build them.

Remember MIVA? ColdFusion? Hotdog? Frontpage?

Steve Krug saw the flaws in the work being produced. His book, “Don’t Make Me Think”, was written because websites were mazes for users just trying to get from point A to point B.

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Peter Morville, author of “Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond,” arrived at early conclusions about how web information is organized and made information architecture a vital piece of knowledge every web designer and SEO needed to learn. Suddenly we were classifying, prioritizing, and designing rules for how to find stuff.

Next came all the behavior studies and mountains of data gathered about how we make decisions, search, purchase and develop loyalty to brands.

With each area of exploration came software developed to automate the process. This included eye tracking, keywords, links, competitor analysis, webmaster tools, and Google Analytics.

But something has been missing.

Did we assume the web included everyone?

Do web site owners bring their own personal biases to their websites?

Even with Section 508 and WCAG and accessibility laws for public-facing businesses in each country, online businesses are not designed for everyone to use them.

Automating website accessibility may grant a peek at 25% of errors.

Touchy-Feely Matters to People

A business owner once said to me, “I don’t care about that touchy-feely stuff you do.”

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He wanted to sell his products online but had no interest in meeting the needs of customers who could use his website.

People who use websites reward companies that build websites they can use.

This is just how it is.

And yet, there are countless websites that people struggle with.

The rise in website accessibility lawsuits occurred because some people were turned away when they needed assistance to do something on a business website that matters to them.

Some examples include wanting to download a coupon from a store website, order pizza, purchase products, book reservations, and access online art galleries.

Whether we are seeking information, looking for social engagement, researching, educating ourselves, looking for entertainment, or browsing for something new, everyone wants to be included as a valued user.

The bigger surprise is how we neglected to design websites that valued online business customers with the same consideration that is often legally required for places of business offline.

Our web design practices lack empathy for disabled persons or anyone with a permanent or temporary impairment.

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Removing Assumptions From Web Design

“Let them call us if they can’t read it,” I was told by a company that refused to make their documents accessible.

Forcing a blind person to call for help to get a document because the web version does not work on their screen reader is discrimination. Not providing accessible content is against WCAG2.1 or Section 508 recommendations.

So, back to the gold rush of opportunity for companies wanting to add accessibility services. Do you know how to make documents accessible?

Before you jump in, it is vital to understand accessibility so that you can accurately explain why it is important for today’s business websites.

The most prevalent assumption is that accessibility is for blind people. This is probably due to the bulk of ADA lawsuits coming from blind persons using screen readers. They are taking advantage of the rapid advances in assistive computer devices that aid persons with disabilities.

Assistive computer devices, software applications for reading, and mobile device accessibility settings help all people with sight impairments.

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If you know someone who is colorblind, they are not seeing the same colors as you are.

If you know someone who uses corrective eyewear, they may rely on screen magnification or audible reading tools. They also struggle with contrasts and lighting, whether indoors or outside.

Should you add an accessibility plugin that allows people to adjust webpages so that they can use them?

Or do you build in accessibility and provide code in the background that responds to browser or mobile device commands to change font sizes, magnify or switch to dark mode?

Providing accessibility services requires vast knowledge about how to design for inclusion, test for inclusion and educate for inclusion. There are no shortcuts.

It is part of your role as an accessibility advocate or specialist to educate your clients on how to provide a website property that can be used regardless of a physical, mental, or emotional impairment that may be permanent or temporary.

If you wish to provide accessibility testing as a service, you will need to know the different types of disabilities that are covered and what design practices are recommended.

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By law in most countries, businesses must be accessible to customers. Even though a business may not have a physical building, for ethical and moral reasons, the same consideration applies.

Yes, the ADA Title III wording in the USA does not include “websites”. This has not prevented ADA lawsuits from website users trying to conduct tasks on business websites.

Automated accessibility testing tools do not find all the issues, but they are a nice exploratory lift. Accessibility testing is a combination of manual and automated methodologies. User testing with persons with disabilities helps developers understand what is not working or where improvements are needed.

Screen reader testing is done manually. The process is long because screen readers are unique to browsers, operating systems, computer devices – not to mention user habits.

Remember when I asked what foot you choose to put your shoe on first? This is something unique to you.

People who use screen readers also use them differently. For example, they may sort content by heading tags to find what they want faster or to help understand the content topic of the page.

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Challenges & Protections

Adding an accessibility statement to a website is a service that some companies offer. These are policies intended to protect the website owner by being forthcoming with information about the accessibility compliance of the website.

If they did not test a form, or do not plan on making their PDFs accessible, this is information that should be included in the accessibility statement.

The statement describes:

  • What was done.
  • What level of compliance is met.
  • How to contact the company in the event they are unable to use the website.

Some companies provide an accessibility statement for a fee as part of their accessibility services. The theory is that it helps prevent any legal action when there is proof the company is making an effort towards accessibility compliance.

The challenge here is that the moment anything new is added to the website, such as an image, new form, design layout change, or blog post, if it is not coded to be accessible, the accessibility statement is voided.

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The same is true for software applications and forms on websites, WordPress theme updates and third-party plugins. Regression testing is required to verify that changes meet the accessibility standards claimed in the accessibility statement.

Another area of growing concern is protecting designers, developers and companies hired to build or maintain websites built to pass accessibility standards.

What protects you from clients who refuse to maintain the finished product?

What if you provide advice on a practice necessary to meet WCAG or Section 508 requirements and it is not implemented by the client, and they receive an ADA website accessibility lawsuit?

Another example might be choosing an accessible theme for WordPress and modifying the accessibility out of it either by accident or on purpose. The theme designer is not responsible for any changes to their compliant code.

Some companies must outsource third-party software that is not accessible, even though the rest of their website is.

There are circumstances where the developers of the third-party software are unable to update their software to meet accessibility compliance.

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More and more contracts and accessibility statements are addressing these situations, but a vast majority of business websites are unaware and therefore potentially vulnerable.

The Accessibility Rabbit Hole

If you should decide to expand your knowledge about website accessibility, the good news is that most of the information is free to learn.

The bad news is that it may take years to educate yourself.

I am not afraid to admit that even though I have been conducting usability and conversions testing for nearly 20 years and included basic accessibility practices all along, when I went to apply for accessibility employment at the corporate level and was met with disdain by interviewers, it was a real shock.

In fact, I needed time to want to be part of the accessibility industry after meeting some of their leadership.

In trying to understand what was happening, I learned how deep the accessibility rabbit hole really is. It is not something to jump into lightly.

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For digital marketers with a passion for conversions, the opportunities presented by website accessibility practices are wide open for you and your clients just by removing biases and assumptions about how people use websites.

There are people who have been building accessible websites and software for a long time. Search for accessibility podcasts to meet some of them.

LinkedIn, Twitter and Medium are additional outlets for accessibility advocates and leaders open to educating and guiding anyone interested in where to start.

Resources Referenced or Used in Research for This Article

Books on Amazon

  • Web Dragons: Inside the myths of search engine technology by Ian H. Witten, Marco Gori, and Teresa Numerico
  • Don’t Make Me Think, by Steve Krug
  • Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond, by Peter Morville
  • Inclusive Design Patterns, Coding Accessibility into Web Design, by Heydon Pickering
  • I Love You, Now Read This Book (It’s About Human Decision Making and Behavioral Economics) by Guthrie Weinschenk, J.D.

Research Papers

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More Resources:

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Kim Krause Berg

Kim Krause Berg owns Creative Vision Web Consulting, LLC. She is a web design standards and compliance specialist and educator ... [Read full bio]

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