Making the Web Accessible to All

April 7, 2016

You’re not legally required to ensure disabled people can use your website, but there are plenty of reasons why you should

By Martha Spizziri

Maybe you’ve heard someone mention that business websites should be “508-compliant.” But what does that mean? Does it matter to your business?

The term refers to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The amendment mandates that any electronic or information technology the federal government uses be accessible to people with disabilities. That’s according to the U.S. Access Board, a federal agency that sets accessibility standards.

Though compliance is required only for government sites, it’s also good business sense.

“The 508 compliance potentially can open up your business to … a larger range of [customers],” points out Daniel Hagman, VP of user interface production for the Boston web-service firm Verndale Corp.

The return on investment might not be immediate—though if your target audience is, say, retirees, who are more likely to have vision or hearing problems, that could change.

“You’re going to want to make the site be more compliant, obviously, and that would show an immediate turnaround,” Hagman says.

Many of the factors that go into 508 compliance also make a website more user-friendly for everyone. An example would be the ability to hit the Enter key to submit an online form.

“A lot of websites and companies just implement that thinking it’s good practice,” Hagman notes.

Compliance helps ensure a site will be viewable on mobile devices. It can also make the site more visible to search engines, says Hagman.

Compliance is a collaborative effort between business and site designer, he says. The vendor takes care of the code; the client makes decisions about how to present content. Usually, a marketing person is involved—“someone in marketing who has the high-level understanding of the desires of the business,” says Hagman.

Compliance needn’t add a huge time or cost burden if done early in the site’s development, Hagman says. But even if it’s not done early on, there are elements you can add later; accessibility isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. If you approach a vendor with a list of items you want to implement, that vendor should be able to estimate the cost and time for each item and advise you on which are most important.

“[A business] can pick and choose exactly how far they want the vendor to go,” Hagman says.