Many websites, particularly older ones, are inaccessible to people with disabilities because they are not able to be interpreted by the technology that they use to browse the internet, such as text-to-speech software. The lack of accessible websites may be attributable to the added financial cost of creating an accessible website, lack of awareness, or the misconception that being accessible will compromise design or functionality.
According to the "Introduction to Web Accessibility" by industry body W3C®, web accessibility means that "people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web. Web accessibility also benefits others, including older people with changing abilities due to aging". The process of making a website accessible considers people with five different categories of disability:
A basic example of following accessibility guidelines is the use of semantically meaningful HTML code with relevant alternative text for images and links. This makes a web page readable and able to be navigated when a blind user uses text-to-speech software to browse the internet.
Most countries have laws that forbid discrimination against people with disabilities in a general sense, and an increasing number are introducing guidelines which address the need for websites to be accessible to people with disabilities.
Canada, Sweden and the United Kingdom have guidelines that dictate the standards of accessibility required by government and/or public sector websites. In the United Kingdom, "The Code of Practice: Rights of Access - Goods, Facilities, Services and Premises" document published by the government's Equality and Human Rights Commission to accompany the Equality Act 2010 does refer explicitly to websites as one of the "services to the public" which should be considered covered. This could be understood to mean that all websites visited by people with disabilities in the UK are legally obliged to follow accessibility guidelines.
In addition, there is an increasing risk of litigation against non-accessible websites, which the Sydney Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (SOCOG) found to their cost. In 2000, an Australian blind man won a court case against them when they failed to make their official website adequately accessible to blind users.
Fully accessible websites are rare and it is possible that businesses that are the first in their field to adopt such features could benefit greatly, particularly if such a move is widely publicized. With 15-20% of the population in the United States having reading difficulties according to the National Institutes of Health, can you really afford to ignore up to a fifth of your website's potential audience?
While it is hard to imagine a small business being the target of litigation owing to their lack of an accessible website at the moment, we consider it likely that anti-discrimination laws covering websites will become more widespread as the internet becomes more and more of a ubiquitous part of everyone's life. It is therefore advisable to now consider adding accessibility to your long-term plans for your website.