Website Accessibility: Change Your Mindset

Betsy Stewart

Did you know that there are seven different types of color blindness? Nine-percent of males are affected by variations of this visual deficiency and 0.5% of females. In quick commerce terms, nearly 5 percent of shoppers cannot see color completely or accurately. How might this particular consumer perspective impact brand decisions? Would website palette or marketing be reconsidered? And what about other differing capabilities? There are over 7 billion people in the world with an unending spectrum of physical and mental variations. Is it possible to design for everyone?

An updated definition by the World Health Organization indicates, “Disability is not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.” This perspective underscores an important context, represented this way in Microsoft’s inclusive design principles: Everyone has abilities, and limits to those abilities; All humans grow and adapt to the world around them. “As many people as possible should be able to access information and experiences,” says Rose Liu, Senior Creative Technologist at Wunderman Thompson Commerce & Technology. It’s kind and it’s simple.


In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) established legal guidelines for equal access and accommodation in the physical and social realm. Modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it guarantees that people with disabilities, “have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life -- to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services.” You cannot be passed over for a job because of your disability. You should expect a wheelchair ramp if you need one, and braille or audio options must be provided for those who cannot see. The ADA is an "equal opportunity" law for people with disabilities.

What does this look like in the real world? As a blind man, should Guillermo Robles be able to order a pizza? Yes, of course - he can call the store. Well, unfortunately they are only taking online orders at this time. Okay, with the help of screen-reading software, he can use the website or app. Drat, the website and app are not compatible with his screen-reader. Seems Mr. Robles cannot order a pizza. This is a summary of the scenario that led to an expanded interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2019. In the related lawsuit, a Dominos defense argued that the ADA shouldn't apply to online spaces. The Supreme Court disagreed: websites are considered, “places of public accommodation.” 

What does it mean to make a website accessible? In the United States, the Website Accessibility Initiative (WAI) defines this. Their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) outline how ‘websites, tools, and technologies’ should be designed and developed so that people with disabilities can (1) perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and (2) contribute to the Web. Describing website goals, they use adjectives like ‘polished’ and ‘robust.’ While there is still a lot of gray area on implementation, fulfilling the WCAG 2.0 criteria to the AA level is the industry standard and deemed sufficient by legal precedent. Satisfactorily meeting the recommendations (for example, providing alt text, audio options, captions, appropriate use of color and contrast) is the baseline. Additionally, brand and social image benefit from an inclusive online presence.

Ultimately the aim is to “create interfaces that are more pleasant and easy to use for all users, not just for those with disabilities.” This makes sense. To fathom the scope and variety of disability, it’s helpful to consider these classifications: permanent, temporary, and situational. For hearing, a person could be permanently deaf, temporarily recovering from ear surgery, or situationally in a loud place. For arm usage, a person could be missing a limb, in a cast, or holding a baby. We all age and many of us will experience injury and illness; our senses and mobility change. According to Microsoft Design, “Physical, cognitive, and social exclusion is the result of mismatched interactions.” There is no normal, no average. 

Over 26% of US adults identify as having a disability and 70% of those disabilities are unseen. “The mindset needs to shift,” according to Lauren Rose Colianni, Senior UX Designer, Wunderman Thompson Commerce & Technology. “We’re not designing for disabilities; we’re thinking about universal design.” Just as you would expect anyone to be able to enter a building, anyone should be able to use the internet. Accessibility is ingrained, not added. How do we do this? Good design recognizes bias, incorporates a range of perspectives, sees diversity as a resource, and ultimately evolves the conversation from inclusivity as an attribute to inclusivity as a method (Microsoft). 

Broader inclusion is good for business. Beyond website design, brands, marketers, and retailers can take advantage of developing more usable and lucrative processes, services, and products. Inclusive innovation has resulted in inventions like speech-to-text, touchscreens, and audiobooks. Wunderman Thompson is embracing universal design, putting ‘accessibility into action,’ and partnering with brands to evolve product development and advertising. From fashion to technology, adaptive design should be the norm. A common industry perspective: accessibility is usability. Designing for the people with permanent disabilities actually results in designs that benefit people universally. 

60 million Americans live with a visual, motor, auditory, or cognitive impairment. In the realm of ecommerce, this is clearly a huge opportunity. Rose Liu continues, ”The most important thing to remember is that when we’re talking about people with disabilities, we’re talking about people. Talk to them.” Like any target market, do research, get curious, and be open. Understand the best way to convey information and design user interactions for elevated shopping, streamlined context, and easy payments. “In the end, we’re talking about equality of access and equality of opportunity.” As individuals, teams, and companies we can embed, support, and promote a mindset of universal design — it’s important, it’s fair, and it benefits all of us.

Listen to our most recent episode of Commerce Confidential, "Creating Inclusive Experiences: A11Y for All", wherever you get your podcasts.