Understanding Web Accessibility for Ecommerce Merchants

an open laptop with iridescent colors against a purple background: web accessibility

The internet is for everybody—or it should be. It isn’t just for folks with perfect vision and hearing or those who have full control of their fingers to type. In the early days of the web, many web pages had accessibility barriers. People with visual and hearing impairments or limited fine motor control found few fully accessible websites.

Now, the landscape has changed. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the World Wide Web Consortium have issued web content accessibility guidelines that have helped open the web to those with physical or cognitive limitations. Meanwhile, assistive technologies have entered the marketplace, enabling web developers to upgrade a site’s accessibility to all visitors. 

Here’s an overview of today’s web accessibility standards and accessibility solutions you can apply to your ecommerce website.

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What is web accessibility?

Web accessibility is the practice of designing and developing a website or web application to be usable for as many people as possible, regardless of their physical condition or cognitive ability. Web developers embrace this concept to provide equal access to information online, especially as the internet has become an essential part of everyday life.

A fully accessible website provides a satisfying user experience to everyone, including those with compromised vision, hearing, speech, fine motor skills, or cognition. Programmers anticipate possible accessibility problems during the web development process and design applications to make their sites and apps as widely accessible as possible.

What are best practices for web accessibility standards?

Web developers use the acronym POUR to describe a sufficiently accessible website. POUR stands for:

  • Perceivability. One or more senses can interpret perceivable web content. Most users perceive web content with their eyes, but some rely on sound (via a screen reader) or touch (via a refreshable braille display).
  • Operability. Operable web content lets users interact in a way that suits them best. Depending on your device, you might interact with web interfaces and navigation elements by typing, tapping, clicking, swiping, and scrolling. People with limited fine motor skills may use eye trackers or head wands.
  • Understandability. Understandable web content is comprehensible to users regardless of physical or cognitive limitations. Designs are consistent, and text and images are clear, simple, and logically placed (e.g., a text caption is next to the image it describes).
  • Robustness. Robust web content loads and operates on various devices, some of which may be running accessibility tools (like text-to-voice software) that help people interpret multimedia content.

What are the guidelines for accessible websites?

Multiple organizations and governments have issued web accessibility guidelines to promote equity among internet users. Here are some of the responsible bodies and their accessibility standards:

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) serve as a comprehensive framework that embodies global international web standards. They’re published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) under the Web Accessibility Initiative–Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA).

The W3C’s authoring tool accessibility guidelines describe accessibility solutions for desktop web browsers, apps on mobile devices, and other internet-connected apps like screen readers. The accessibility principles include:

  • Text alternatives for non-text content. If your site features non-text material, like videos, graphics, and audio files, you can supplement them with text descriptions that summarize them. This is sometimes called alt text.
  • Captions and other alternatives for multimedia. Captions, transcripts, and sign language interpreters on video offer alternatives for interpreting audio content. 
  • Content that can be presented in different ways. The WCAG encourages content that users can customize for maximum comprehension, including letting them enlarge text or play back a text block as audio. You can also make text more accessible by offering audio recordings, which can be read by a human or software tool.
  • Content that’s easier to see and hear. The WCAG’s web accessibility statement encourages resizable text and images and discourages using color as the only way to distinguish differences, such as in a map or chart. Web pages should not start playing music upon loading. Or, if your web page needs background audio, it should play at a low volume to minimize distractions.
  • Clear, legible text. Web users sometimes view legally binding documents online, such as contracts and user agreements. These must be printed in a readable font and should be downloadable.

United States federal government Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed by Congress in 1990 to address discrimination based on ability. The act applies to government agencies and private companies with 15 or more employees. The ADA’s official web guidance requires entities to offer accessible sites for services like registering to vote or applying for an absentee ballot, filing tax documents, filing for state benefits, filing a police report, or paying tickets or fees. 

The ADA does not name specific requirements for websites run by private companies. However, it notes the following requirement of all businesses: “Businesses open to the public must take steps to provide appropriate communication aids and services (often called ‘auxiliary aids and services’) where necessary to make sure they effectively communicate with individuals with disabilities.” The US Department of Justice takes the position that “a website with inaccessible features can limit the ability of people with disabilities to access a public accommodation’s goods, services, and privileges available through that website.” Without naming specific requirements, the Justice Department urges business owners to make their websites as accessible as possible, and refers web developers to the WCAG standards.

EU web accessibility directive

The European Union’s website accessibility directive outlines desktop and mobile accessibility requirements for web content in EU member states. The guidelines of this web accessibility initiative include:

  • Accessibility statements. Each website and mobile app must include an accessibility statement acknowledging non-accessible elements and providing alternatives.
  • Feedback options. Websites and apps must offer a feedback mechanism that allows users to flag accessibility problems or request explanations of non-accessible content.
  • Monitoring of public websites and apps. Websites and apps that inform the public or conduct government business must be routinely monitored, with reports issued to the European Commission every three years.

How to make your website accessible

There are business benefits to upgrading your website for maximum accessibility. You can enjoy increased audience participation by making your content accessible in multiple formats. Here are some ways to make your websites accessible to the maximum number of visitors:

  • Alt text for images. Image and video alt text describes visual media content. This helps two types of site visitors: people with vision impairment, as screen reading software can read the image description; and people with low-speed internet access, because the text can load in their browsers even if video and high-resolution images cannot.
  • Captions on videos. Closed captioning on video helps those with compromised hearing or who must use their devices without audio. You can manually add captions to your videos or use special software that transcribes your audio track into printed text.
  • Appropriate use of color. Choose a high-contrast color palette so that charts, graphs, and maps appear clearly and are easily read. Approximately 8% of men and 0.5% of women have color vision deficiency (CVD). You can make content more accessible to them by using blue/orange, blue/red, or blue/brown contrasting color patterns. Don’t use color alone to distinguish graphic sections; incorporate other elements like lines and spacing.
  • Flashing content. Some internet users can be distracted or startled by flashing and blinking content. In worst-case scenarios, it can trigger seizures. Avoid flashing content.
  • Video playback. Avoid autoplay videos and audio, which can confuse and distract internet users, and can interfere with screen readers. When including video and audio, allow repeat plays and pausing so users can interpret it at their own pace.

Execute these accessibility strategies using your website builder’s authoring tools. You can also hire an outside vendor who specializes in accessible communications technologies. This specialist can improve your site’s accessibility or help you build an accessible site from scratch.

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How to test your website’s accessibility

Various evaluation tools can help you determine if your website is sufficiently accessible. Here are three to consider:

  • SortSite. SortSite is an automated tool that scans your website for device compatibility and accessibility. Bonus: It also checks for search engine optimization (SEO), broken links, and secure connections.
  • WAVE. The WAVE web accessibility evaluation tool prompts you to enter your site’s URL, then uses digital user agents (which simulate a user’s web browser) to scan your site for functionality compliance with WCAG guidelines.
  • A11Y Color Contrast Accessibility Validator. The A11Y Color Contrast Accessibility Validator audits your website for color contrast issues and makes suggestions to improve accessibility for those who are colorblind or unable to perceive subtle color distinctions.

Using such tools on your website allows you to enjoy reduced maintenance costs, as the tools automatically adapt to uploaded content.

Web accessibility FAQ

How often should you review and update your website's accessibility?

You should review your website’s accessibility whenever you upload new content. You’ll also want to update your site when groups like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) issue new standards and success criteria for accessibility.

Are you legally required to make your website accessible?

According to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), your website must not discriminate against a site visitor with a physical or mental disability. However, Title III also states that private businesses, such as ecommerce vendors, may not have to fully comply with the ADA if it places an “undue burden” on the business owner.

What are the consequences of having an inaccessible website?

An inaccessible website limits the number of customers who can engage with your business. To expose your company to the broadest array of potential customers, build a website or ecommerce store that accommodates all visitors, including those with sensory issues or fine motor skill impairment.

What makes a website not ADA compliant?

According to the ADA, inaccessible web content denies equal access to people with disabilities. To comply, your website must support screen readers, captioning for videos and audio, and alternative interaction methods. You don’t need to provide physical accessibility tools (such as an eye reader for those who cannot use a mouse), but your site should accommodate these tools.