Imagine approaching a restaurant only to find it has no door. You know people are inside but you can’t join them. For individuals with disabilities, this is how interacting with websites and mobile apps can feel when companies don’t prioritize accessibility.

Companies have been resistant to prioritizing accessibility on their web sites and mobile apps. They often consider accessibility an “edge case” that is costly and cumbersome, with low ROI. But the belief that accessibility only benefits a small slice of potential users is not only negligent, it’s wrong, and ignores major opportunities for users and businesses. Nearly one in three Americans have a disability. That translates to more than 85 million people living with a disability in the US alone — and $490 billion in disposable income for working-age people with disabilities.

Consider users who are deaf/hard-of-hearing, blind/visually-impaired, color blind, dyslexic, and individuals who are physically or cognitively impaired⁠ — among other differing abilities — who want to interact with your brand digitally but can’t, because you’ve shut them out. Shutting them out could be a result of building overly complex pages that aren’t navigable by voice or assistive technologies; it could be result of a page timing out before a disabled user has finished using it; or it could be due to some other design shortcoming — I’ll cover a few more examples in a moment.

The WebAIM Million study found that 97.8% of homepages for the top 1 million websites had detectable accessibility issues. This means millions of users with disabilities are unable to fully use most digital experiences.

Beyond the audience potential, businesses should also consider the legal and financial implications of noncompliance. Last year, 2,285 federal lawsuits were filed related to ADA web accessibility.

Target was an early example of how noncompliance can cost a business millions. In 2008, they paid $6 million (in addition to legal fees and site updates) to settle a class action lawsuit filed by the National Federation of the Blind after blind users found that products were not labeled in a human-understandable way, that it wasn’t possible to tell where the user’s mouse was pointing to on a page, and that it wasn’t possible to independently make purchases at, among other issues.

And just last month, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal case involving Domino’s Pizza and web accessibility, meaning a previous decision in January from the Ninth Circuit federal appeals court stands: companies may be liable for not complying with web accessibility standards as an extension of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The courts have spoken: websites and mobile apps are an extension of physical businesses, and the same accessibility rules apply.

Moving toward accessibility

When designing for accessibility, it’s essential to understand the types of assistive technologies disabled users might be using when trying to interact with your brand — screen readers, braille readers, screen magnification, and color modes, as well as input devices such as voice input, sip and puff controllers, motion or eye tracking, single switch inputs, and many more that help users more easily interact with a site or app.

Making your site accessible involves many considerations, including:

  • Ensuring content is well-structured, semantic, and simple, so assistive technologies and keyboards can navigate it easily
  • Using legible typography and colors with sufficient color contrast
  • Using animation responsibly to avoid triggering balance disorders or seizures
  • Providing text alternatives for various media, such as transcripts, captioning, and image descriptions.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 has a thorough overview of industry standards on this front and can serve as a guide to compliance.

So where should a business begin its accessibility journey? The best place to start is by targeting the three most common accessibility failures (according to The WebAIM Million study). Luckily, these are also some of the simplest issues to correct:

Fix low color contrast: Low color contrast is the most common accessibility failure, affecting 85.3% of homepages found on the top 1 million websites. When the text color and background color don’t have enough differentiation, it can be difficult for users to read. There are a variety of free color contrast checkers (my favorite is Colorable) that show the contrast ratio for any color combination and allow colors to be tweaked to have sufficient contrast.

Add alternative text for images: Images are a critical component of modern websites and mobile apps. They add important context to written content and make products more engaging. For many digital experiences, images are the primary content. But for users with low or no vision, images without any supporting description are not accessible, as is the case for 68% of homepages on the top 1 million websites.

Provide descriptive text for links, buttons, and form inputs: Web and mobile apps often opt for icons in lieu of text — especially for links and buttons. Minimalist design trends also promote the use of form fields without dedicated text labels. This lack of text prevents many users from understanding where links lead, what buttons do, or what information to provide in a form field. Even links and buttons that include text are often ambiguous, making their function hard to predict. Sites that don’t want to add text alongside these buttons can include hidden text that is accessible to assistive technologies that read content aloud to visually-impaired users.

Making accessibility design an inherent part of your process

Nearly every innovative company is continuously evaluating and updating its digital presence. While it can be a large and costly undertaking to retrofit accessibility into a legacy build (one lawsuit estimated $37,000 for web accessibility updates), inclusive design should have the same priority as other product improvements.

Major website/app updates are opportune moments to integrate accessibility into your products. A Forrester Research Economic Impact Study found that — when integrated into existing/ongoing development cycles — accessibility can contribute to cost savings, including for maintenance and service.

The fact is that digital design and development can be made accessible or inaccessible through a series of decisions that product teams are already considering. And US companies that are working to retroactively update their digital properties can use a one-time tax credit to help cover up to 50% of eligible costs for ADA compliance.

Whether retrofitting or incorporating accessibility into new digital products, your team can start by integrating the easiest enhancements and then continue your education to iteratively improve products with more involved efforts that will eventually become second nature.

The future of digital experiences is accessibility

Everyone involved in developing digital experiences can advance accessibility. While it may take more effort to improve an existing product, integrating accessibility can become a natural, affordable, and agile portion of the digital product development process. It’s also simply the right thing to do.

Making accessible digital products and services is an important opportunity for every business and ensures everyone can participate equally in our increasingly digital world.

What kind of world will you choose to create?

[VentureBeat regularly publishes guest posts from experts who can provide unique and useful perspectives to our readers on news, trends, emerging technologies, and other areas of interest related to tech innovation.]

David Luhr is a UX Development Manager at DockYard, a digital product agency offering custom software, mobile, and web application development consulting.

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