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What Is Web Accessibility?

And Does It Apply to Me?

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Chapter Introduction


According to the CDC, at least 61 million adults in the US live with a disability of some kind. When a business fails to include such a significant portion of the population, it can experience a major loss in revenue and leave itself vulnerable to expensive lawsuits.

Litigation surrounding web accessibility frequently references the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Passed in 1990, this legislation prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, including any place open to the general public.

Web accessibility refers to the processes businesses use to develop or update digital environments and properties such as websites and mobile apps. Web accessibility allows people with disabilities—visual, auditory, motor, and cognitive—to access and use a company’s digital assets.

Although many organizations understand the importance of ensuring their websites and other digital properties are accessible, the number of lawsuits related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) continues to rise each year, reaching more than 4,000 cases in 2021—a 15 percent increase from 2020. In some cases, the organizations involved weren’t even aware that their digital properties were inaccessible until receiving an ADA demand letter or lawsuit.

Almost 20 percent of the top 500 e-commerce websites received a lawsuit in 2022. Over the last four years, over 80 percent of the top 500 e-commerce websites have been sued. Retailers are often at the center of these legal filings, making up more than 77 percent of all digital accessibility lawsuits.

California’s Unruh Act is another piece of legislation surrounding web accessibility, prohibiting discrimination based on a person’s:

  • Gender

  • Race

  • Religion

  • Age

  • Ancestry

  • National origin

  • Disability

  • Medical condition

  • Marital status

  • Sexual orientation

  • Citizenship

  • Primary language

  • Immigration status

How can your business avoid ADA-related lawsuits? In this guide, you'll learn:

  • How to determine if web accessibility applies to your organization.

  • Common criteria for determining if a digital property is accessible.

  • How to achieve website accessibility using a three-phased approach that includes addressing high-risk issues, remediating those issues, and planning for the future.

Although the Department of Justice (DOJ) hasn’t provided definitive web accessibility standards, maintaining accessibility is still considered a legal requirement for private and public organizations. However, many businesses are unsure how to make their sites and other digital properties compliant. Unlike the physical requirements for ADA standards—such as the required height of light switches or the incline of building entrance ramps—the digital requirements are not codified in ADA legislation.

Chapter 1

Plan and Communicate

Set the foundation: What are the criteria for web accessibility?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are common standards for creating accessible experiences for users with auditory, visual, cognitive, and motor l impairments. The four values of WCAG each cover a different aspect of usability:

  • Perceivable: The user interface components must be presented in easy-to-understand ways that users can perceive.
  • Operable: User interface (UI) components and navigation must be operable by users and cannot require actions that some users cannot carry out.
  • Understandable: Users must be able to understand both the information presented and the operation of the user interface.
  • Robust: Content must be robust enough to be understood by various user agents, including assistive technologies, even as these technologies evolve.

What roles and resources are involved in the journey toward accessibility?

Web accessibility should be viewed as a continuous journey, not a one-time effort. Modern websites are continuously updated with new pages, products, and content. Each new blog post, photo, webpage, or app update presents an opportunity for you to recommit to accessibility.

As you plan your journey toward accessibility, be sure to inform and consult with the following members of your team:

  1. Executives: Change starts from the top and works its way down. An organization’s leaders must stress and enforce the importance of accessibility to the company and its customers.
  2. Product owners and project managers: By owning processes and lines of business, these roles are in a unique position to ensure accessibility is factored into the scope and requirements of each project or maintenance initiative.
  3. UI/UX designers: If the individuals in these roles don’t implement accessibility standards when designing, it can lead to more time spent remediating accessibility issues.
  4. Marketing and content teams: Marketers are considered the gatekeepers of your business and its content. That’s why they must understand the organization’s web accessibility needs as they develop content for your website, app, emails, social media posts, and more.
  5. Developers: An accessible design sets your developers up for success, which is why they should be familiar with WCAG standards and codes.
  6. Customer support: Your organization’s customer service team members must have the tools and knowledge to assist current and prospective customers who are living with disabilities.
  7. Quality assurance: As part of their larger quality validation process, quality assurance should incorporate a clear process for assessing web accessibility, along with clearly defined goals and objectives.

Get community feedback. 

Working with people from the disability community to test your website and digital properties can identify issues that automated testing can miss. 

Why? People who already use assistive technology know how to navigate a website or app, so they can quickly identify any issues.

When working with people from the disability community for user testing, ask them to document any roadblocks and barriers they encounter. With your testers, it's best to focus on task completion and navigation. Don’t ask people who use assistive technology to complete a manual review based on WCAG specifications. Remember that they're user experts—not digital accessibility experts.

How do you write a web accessibility statement?

An accessibility statement is a document that describes your company’s digital accessibility initiative. It should be placed in an easy-to-find location (like the footer of your website) and communicate to website visitors and customers that you’re prioritizing accessibility and social responsibility. It should include a phone number, email address, or contact form so your customers who have issues can get in touch with you. Before publishing your web accessibility statement, it’s beneficial to have a legal professional review it.

What should your web accessibility statement include?

1. Your efforts toward web accessibility.

There’s no need to describe every step you’re taking to achieve digital accessibility. However, your company’s statement can detail your accessibility testing methods and the standards (WCAG or W3C) you’re working toward.

2. The publishing date of your accessibility statement.

Some companies will add a date to their accessibility statement and reevaluate it each year. If you do include a date, it’s important to remember that accessibility is an ongoing process, not a one-time project with a completion date.

3. A disclaimer that addresses any third-party plug-ins or social sites.

Your statement can include clarification that any content accessible from your site using external links is the responsibility of those third-party sites.

Phase 1 Checklist:

  • Determine the website accessibility criteria you plan to follow. 
  • Identify the people who need to be involved in your company’s accessibility journey. 
  • Write an accessibility policy and statement. 

Chapter 2

Test and Audit

Establish a starting point: What issues need to be prioritized?

Many organizations begin their accessibility journey with no previous knowledge of web accessibility. Alternatively, accessibility may once have been an organizational priority, but adherence to WCAG may have lapsed after the initial issue remediation.

In the testing and auditing phase, take steps to improve accessibility, build experience across your team, and determine the tools and technology needed for long-term success.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Begin by identifying any high-risk issues that need immediate remediation. Consider using screen readers, keyboard testing, and free automated accessibility testing to get the information you need.
  • Get a more detailed assessment by compiling and reviewing a representative sample of your properties. Once you have this information, assume that your findings are indicative of your entire digital presence. For example, you may want to examine the homepage, headers, footers, top user task(s), templates, and navigation. 
  • Fix the immediate issues found in using tools and the manual audit.
  • Document the digital properties that require review, including your website, app, videos, files, or PDFs. You may also want to identify specific issues that need to be fixed, updated, or organized. 
  • Prepare an executive summary of where the site and apps currently stand for resource allocation and budgeting, as decision makers may care more about overall severity rather than individual issues.
  • Begin drafting your accessibility statement. 
  • Determine which model of handling accessibility makes the most sense in your situation. Can you handle accessibility in-house, or should you partner with an accessibility specialist like UsableNet?

Phase 2 Checklist:

  • Identify any high-risk issues that need to be addressed. 
  • Get a more detailed assessment by compiling and reviewing a representative sample of your properties.
  • Fix this high-risk set of issues found in using tools and the manual audit.

Chapter 3

Fix and Verify

Start taking action: Do you need expert help?


Once you’ve completed your initial documentation and repaired any immediate issues, it’s time to fix and verify. This is when many organizations turn to an expert because the process is typically more involved. 

Why? Simply put, automated and manual testing procedures can’t identify all the issues that people living with disabilities may encounter. Employee training on WCAG awareness (for technical roles) and accessibility awareness (for other employees involved in your digital experiences) can also be helpful during this phase.

Here’s what to focus on during this phase:

  • Get a comprehensive assessment of the accessibility of your site by conducting manual reviews on a broader set of pages.
  • Start remediating the rest of your site based on severity for users and complexity to fix.  
  • Document areas in which you may still need expert guidance. Schedule regular touchpoints to access experts if you need help or are unsure about new content. 
  • Emphasize the importance of accessibility to those working within your organization. 
  • Conduct user testing with members of the disability community to ensure your site is not only accessible, but also usable. Document your efforts and improvements. 
  • Document any issues with third-party content or tools that require third-party assistance in remediating.
  • Develop a quick, effective approach to remediation for future issues, and create teams responsible for identifying and rectifying such issues. 
  • Document areas in which you could hire or train employees so you can address accessibility as effectively as possible.

Phase 3 Checklist:

  • Get a more comprehensive assessment of your website’s accessibility by conducting manual reviews on a broader set of pages.
  • Document issues with third-party content or tools that require third-party assistance in remediating.
  • Identify any areas in which you require professional help.

Chapter 4

Maintain, Train and Document

Maintain accessibility: How will you ensure continuous monitoring?

Because organizations and businesses are continuously updating their sites and adding new content, ongoing monitoring for web accessibility is an absolute necessity. 

Conducting regular website audits not only helps you understand the current state of your web accessibility, but can also highlight your organization’s commitment to accessibility if any legal issues arise. 

Multiple layers of tangible proof show your commitment to web accessibility, making it hard for lawyers to prove any negligence on your part in the event of an ADA lawsuit.

As part of your maintaining, training, and documenting processes, your organization should adhere to the following steps:

  • Conduct automated WCAG testing on your website, app, and all digital properties each week.
  • Set up regular user testing at least once per month or during any large-scale updates of your digital properties.
  • Create a centralized dashboard that can help your business quickly and seamlessly analyze the overall health of your site. 
  • Develop ongoing accessibility training and awareness programs for employees. Include this curriculum when onboarding new team members. This can ensure that conformance stays high. 
  • Develop and build UX personas and development standards.
  • Provide a simple way for users to report any accessibility issues they encounter.
  • Create internal web accessibility policies and processes to handle criteria concerning accessibility, customer-reported issues, internal UI/UX standards, and development guidelines.
  • Make accessibility a part of your contract requirements with all web and app vendors.
  • Treat accessibility with the same importance as stakeholder privacy, business continuity, or digital security. Document any web accessibility issues accordingly and distribute regular reports to stakeholders that closely monitor and track progress or issues over time.
  • Conduct a larger annual audit (deep code assessment, user testing) to provide concrete proof that demonstrates your ongoing commitment toward user accessibility. Conduct regular user testing with the disability community to ensure 360-degree accessibility.

Phase 4 Checklist:

  • Conduct automated WCAG testing on your website, app, and all digital properties each week.
  • Provide a simple way for users to report accessibility issues they encounter.
  • Develop a process for conducting an annual audit of all your company’s digital properties.

Chapter 5


UsableNet and Your Web Accessibility Journey

UsableNet provides everything your team needs to meet web accessibility and WCAG guidelines, including audits, training, user testing, support, tools, and continuous monitoring. Click here to download a PDF of our Web Accessibility Guide now. 

Ready to get started? Contact us for a free consultation!

About the Author

Jason C. Taylor is the Chief Innovation Strategist and Advisor to the UsableNet CEO with nearly 20 years of experience in usability and accessibility. He is a global technology thought leader for multichannel customer engagement, actively advising leading companies on how to extend their brands across multiple channels for all users. He has been an active member of the accessibility and usability communities since 2001 which started with leading partnerships between UsableNet, Macromedia (now Adobe) and The Nielsen Norman Group.

About UsableNet

UsableNet is a pioneer in digital usability and accessibility, and has been helping global enterprises achieve and maintain digital inclusion for over 17 years.

For more, visit our website at www.usablenet.com

Download Your Roadmap to Digital Inclusion by filling out this form, or keep scrolling to read about web accessibility.