Starting today, all federal websites must be accessible to those with disabilities; the business community should take note

By Gregory J. Donnelly

Mass Live webisteToo many websites are failing at accessibility and it is a cause for concern not only for the consumers with disabilities who depend on the web but also for the businesses that stand to realize a profit from serving them.

The Internet plays a major role in everyone’s day-to-day lives. From using web-based applications on our phones, to accessing online educational programs, to booking travel plans, or simply getting driving directions, the Internet has become integral to our lives. For this reason, it requires universal accessibility.

There are an estimated 10 million people in the United States that have some form of visual impairment and this number is growing rapidly with our aging population, and they – just like those who have no such impairment – are daily consumers of information, materials and products.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law, which stands as one of the most monumental and influential civil rights laws. The ADA prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities in all areas of “public life.” The Internet is a public space in much the same way as a library, school or restaurant. Yet websites are not, in essence, public when those with visual impairments and other disabilities cannot use them.

A key national accessibility-related deadline is just around the corner. On Jan. 18, 2018, the U.S. Access Board will begin requiring all federal agencies to have websites that are compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The business community should take notice, as disability and access reforms often begin in the public sector before becoming requirements for the private sector.

Even without such a regulatory requirement, many past cases involving businesses provide case studies for what to do and what not to do when it comes to web accessibility, and how to get ahead of the curve and accommodate all customers.

ADA web accessibility compliance lawsuits were first brought by customers with disabilities and their advocates over a decade ago against such large companies as Bank of America, Target, Safeway and Charles Schwab. ADA lawsuits today have become increasingly common and over the past five years such actions – including those relating to communications and web accessibility – are up over 20 percent. Since 2015, there have been more than 240 ADA lawsuits against private companies, all having to do with web accessibility. Among the defendants are some of the nation’s top brands: Foot Locker, Toys “R” Us, Brooks Brothers and the NBA.

The challenges experienced by these well-known brands could likely have been avoided altogether with a relatively modest investment of time and technology.

Not all companies are failing at accessibility. Apple has been a leader in this area from the start. Microsoft is now gaining ground quickly as well. The technology behemoth recently launched a video to announce its commitment to inclusive learning and technology standards. In 2017, the company released new assistive programs and features for Windows 10 that support people with visual impairments and other disabilities.

Companies that have easy-to-use websites for those who are disabled can increase their market share by millions of people each year.

As we all know, retail has evolved from something once done only in brick-and-mortar establishments to something done increasingly online. The “e-commerce” trend has taken off and continues to grow significantly, with projected growth this year of 8 to 12 percent. Retailers that don’t make their websites accessible to the full consumer market are missing a major opportunity while alienating a potentially loyal bloc of customers.

According to 2011 data from the Pew Internet Project, 54 percent of individuals with disabilities in the U.S. use the Internet. People with disabilities are active consumers and should be included in the Internet just as they should be included in every other facet of life. Instead, they are often left to feel unwelcome, in just the same way that a person using a wheelchair feels left out when a restaurant has an entrance with steps and no adequate ramp. Brick-and-mortar businesses have largely gotten this point; online business have proven slower at inclusion.

We are fortunate to live in a world with rapid technological advances. We have the innovations that can provide people with disabilities a rich and fulfilling life despite their challenges – there is simply no excuse to not do so.

Ushering in accessible websites helps businesses ensure regulatory compliance. Just as important, it is good for the bottom line. And it also feels good from the bottom of the heart.


Gregory J. Donnelly is president & CEO of the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton.


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