Accessible website design for users with disabilities lags far behind demand

Too few of the billions of sites online are usable for disabled people, says AudioEye's CEO.

The internet is supposed to be the greatest tool for connection and commerce in the world, bringing the sum of human knowledge and experience to almost anyone, almost anywhere. But for the 15-20 percent of people in the world who have a disibility that makes viewinf digital content difficult or impossible, the internet is yet another reminder that the world isn’t built for them. Of the 8 billion sites currently online, less than a quarter are fully accessible.

"The internet is, in essence, broken," said Todd Bankofier, the CEO of accessibility software company AudioEye. Last week the company announced a partnership with web design firm Dealer Inspire, which makes customer-facing sites for auto retailers, to implement AudioEye’s Ally Toolbar across their entire portfolio. The move "expands our reach immediately, making it much more efficient to continue our mission to make the most expansive infrastructure in the world accessible to everyone," Bankofier added.

Even the most well-meaning brand leaders and site designers have too narrow a view of what constitutes disability, he said. It’s not just people who are blind, deaf, or use wheelchairs: people with autism, PTSD, visual impairment, epilepsy, dyslexia or colorblindness all have different needs for digital access. AudioEye’s Ally Toolbar takes all these users into account and allows a person to select precisely the site they need to see.

A dyslexic person gets one with a font weighted at the bottom of each letter, whereas the epilepsy site is nothing but black text on a white background, stripping out the potential for flashing or fast-moving site features that can trigger a seizure. "It’s not difficult to code with these things in mind," said Bankofier. "It’s just that universities and other training programs aren’t including accessibility design in their curriculums."

The exclusion of disability design from curriculae also worries Josh Loebner, director of strategy at Designsensory and an accessible design advocate. He said he’s also not surprised, because people with disabilities are often ignored in discussions about diversity and inclusion. "People with disabilities are rarely featured in advertising or considered in website functionality, and are also not part of the workforce on the advertising side," he said. "It’s good that we have consultants who are optimizing sites to be more inclusive, but it’s bad that we have to have consultants in the first place."

In separate conversations, both he and Bankofier expressed dismay that brands like Dealer Inspire, who seek out accessibility remediation, are relatively uncommon, with some of the biggest changes in accessibility happening only after disabled people have sought legal recourse against companies whose design excludes them. "Major brands should recognize that disability inclusion on online platforms is a way to make progress, and it’s disheartening that we have to move into the legal system," he said.

Bankofier explained that he tries to help clients shift their perspective away from considering accessibility to be a compliance issue and toward considering it a moral, or at the very least business, one. "Strong, compassionate leaders who are concerned about their ROI are interested in getting everybody the best experience possible when they visit a site," he said, and not just customers, either. "Your employees use intra-company sites to work, to learn, to succeed, and they need accessible sites, too."

His company’s partnership with Dealer Inspire is a small step toward making the internet a more accessible place, and he said that other brands would do well to follow suit—or, even better, build sites that are accessible from inception. "Every design decision you make about your site has the possibility to include someone or exclude someone, and they should be making the choice to include."

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