The State of Web Accessibility: Q&A with Mike Mallahan, Consulting Director

Two young program developers in casual clothes sitting in armchairs by desk in front of computer monitors and working over new program

We recently had a chance to sit down with our Consulting Director Mike Mallahan to discuss web accessibility and why it is becoming increasingly important for companies around the world to build accessible digital experiences for consumers.

Q: What does accessibility mean in the context of the web?

To describe accessibility in the context of the web, I like to make comparisons to the physical world. Wheelchair ramps, braille signage, assistive hearing products, and environmental awareness for cognitive disabilities allows access to a company’s physical store for people of all abilities. In today’s digital world, many companies choose to make web or mobile their primary storefront. In the context of reaching people with disabilities in the digital world, accessibility means providing the same access required in a physical environment for a digital presence.

Q: What exactly does an accessible website provide?

A successful accessibility initiative would provide access to people with a diverse range of auditory, sight, movement, and cognitive abilities. For example, a website should provide text alternatives for non-text content and media, serve up content in a way that is easy to see and hear for people with vision or auditory impairment, and ensure all functionality can be accessed through a keyboard. An accessible website should also be compatible with assistive technology tools, like screen readers, that help interpret web and mobile products. Of course, each company must organize their digital assets in a way that is logical for these tools to communicate the content effectively.

Q: Why are web accessibility initiatives growing in popularity as of late?

In the United States, the Department of Justice (DOJ) is responsible for enforcing compliance with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). While the DOJ has made it clear that accessibility and the ADA extends to the internet, it has provided limited guidance on compliance requirements. In lieu of clear guidelines, advocacy groups have resorted to lawsuits to force companies to address the issues. Recent high-profile accessibility cases have driven many corporations to start initiatives to bring their web presence into compliance.

Q: Beyond avoiding law suits, does investing in web accessibility make business-sense?

The 2012, the United States Census Bureau issued a press release that there are 56.7 million people with disabilities in the United States, or roughly 19% of the US population (1 in 5). 8.1 million people have difficulty seeing. 2 million people are legally blind. 7.6 million people have difficulty hearing. By not thinking about inclusive accessibility as part of the larger digital strategy, companies are potentially preventing access to products and services to a significant portion of the US population.

Another reason a company should address accessibility preemptively is because it is costly to remediate. Once a company has been issued a statement of non-compliance, a threat of lawsuit from an advocacy group, or direct contact from a state attorney general, they will be under a forced timeline to address their accessibility to meet an immediate demand of compliance. Many times, these remediation efforts require extensive development on non-accessible websites and mobile products. Worse, these efforts must take place in a rushed manner. Building accessibility into the development culture and business mindset of a company is a far less expensive endeavor and allows a company to implement continuous improvement and be more agile in addressing customer feedback.

Q: Do companies realize short-term benefits with web accessibility? Or is this more of a long-term solution?

Addressing accessibility has numerous immediate benefits such as extending products and services to new markets and customer segments. Additionally, it helps build a culture of inclusion within a company. The long-term benefits of accessibility are immeasurable, but likewise significant. It is likely that in the future accessibility will not only serve people with physical disabilities but also provide access to people of different ages, cultures, and languages. Accessibility will drive how we market to all customer segments. We may even see the title Chief Accessibility Officer in the ranks of the biggest corporations and technology companies.

Q: Which companies or types of businesses are most impacted by web accessibility?

Any company offering goods or services needs to address accessibility—especially digital services. Organizations which hold customer data such as banks, retailers, universities, government institutions, and so on have a duty to make sure all their customers can access their own data.

Q: How do you know whether a web experience is meeting needs for accessibility? Are there standards or tools for auditing performance?

There are many software tools on the market today which help audit websites, mobiles sites, and mobile applications. These tools are a great starting point but most only paint a limited picture of compliance. Software developers, quality assurance engineers, and consultants with web accessibility experience who are familiar with WCAG 2.0 standards can sufficiently determine a site’s compatibility and develop the correct plan to achieve compliance.

Q: What are some common mistakes companies make when trying to tackle web accessibility?

The most common mistake made by teams responsible for a company’s website is to address accessibility complaints individually in hopes that one day they will address all the issues. Accessibility needs to be rooted in the culture of a company. It must exist within the governance structure and systemized as an established gate in releasing code to development. This is the only way to ensure compliance will always be addressed.

Q: What expertise does AIM Consulting have in web accessibility?

AIM has resources across all our consulting practices (application development, cloud and operations, data and analytics, delivery leadership, and digital experience) who are experienced in web accessibility. We believe that accessibility is an important tool in optimizing value within a company’s digital presence and must be built into all levels of decision making. Similar to implementing large organizational change—such as Agile Transformation or DevOps—choosing to address how people of all abilities access your products and services must be a focused and intentional effort. AIM has the experience and resources available to integrate web accessibility into your culture and mature your people, processes and tools to assure your products are serving people of all abilities.