Digital Accessibility: An introductory guide for small businesses and startups
Don’t Panic—words on the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
This guide gives practical advice for small business owners and people in startup companies on the most important first steps for addressing accessibility for their customers. Step-by-Step guidance includes how to make your web presence accessible, making your social media outreach accessible, and addressing accessibility issues with your customer support staff. For growing companies, advice is given regarding employees and other wider issues. For those responding to complaints or legal actions, supplemental guidance is also provided.
This guide was developed as part of
The Accessibility Switchboard Project
National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute
January 2017, Version 1.0.
Creative Commons License: CC BY-SA 4.0
Introduction and background
Why start with an accessibility plan?
If you’re at a startup company, accessibility may be just one of a long line of things that you might consider, but it may seem hard to attend to when there are so many other competing priorities. If you’re an owner of an established small business, accessibility may seem like something that would be ‘nice to do’, but you anticipate that the time and money needed would be prohibitive. In this guide, we show how making a start with accessibility doesn’t cost much, and doesn’t take much time. It’s much easier and cheaper to work accessibility in from the beginning than it is to retrofit later on as your customer base and your business grows.
If you’re new to the concept of accessibility it may seem daunting. There are thousands of websites out there. There are hundreds of consultants out there. There are academic and non-profit organizations that have been working in this field for decades. There are many potential paths to choose from. To make it easier, we have done the work of polling the experts, and we have created this guide to help in making initial decisions.
Being more accessible is a strategy you can adopt. The first steps involve making your customer facing Information and Communications Technology (ICT), marketing, and customer support mechanisms accessible. Subsequent steps can broaden your approach to accessibility throughout your organization, in terms of the products you build and/or the services you deliver. We have also included supplemental guidance on what to do if one of your customers approaches you with a concern or complaint. This guide is intended as an aid to help you make a plan for getting started.
The market segment
As a small business or a startup, you know that the number one priority is customers. Without customers, there is no business. It may surprise you to learn that around 20% of the population has a disability or a functional limitation that affects their daily lives in terms of the things they have difficulty doing, or cannot do. Does that mean that if you attend to accessibility issues you will have 20% more customers? Well, no. Does it mean that 20% more people will be able to reach you and use your services? That’s a more appropriate question. Think about it this way: Is there a sizeable portion of the general population sitting around just waiting for you to make your product so that they can rush out and buy it? Of course not. You have to market to them, connect with them, answer their questions, and appeal to them in a way that makes them choose your product. The same is true regarding disability. The 20% of the population with a disability are not there on the starting blocks just itching for the day when your product is announced. But, if you make your announcement in a way that deaf people cannot hear, and that blind people cannot view, then you might as well say goodbye to those potential market segments.
Including Your Missing 20% by Embedding Web and Mobile Accessibility by Jonathan Hassel is a book that, if you want to connect with the 20%, describes a process for organizational change to make that a possibility.
In the past, when talking about disability some people in industry would say (informally), “this is not our demographic”. Changing outdated beliefs and attitudes is one of those non-technical hurdles that has to be tackled. Accessibility isn’t about ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Accessibility is about all of us: we all have the potential to become temporarily or permanently disabled; and age reduces all of our functional abilities. The latest thinking is that addressing the technical aspects of access to ICT is quite a straightforward task. There is readily available guidance and instruction and expertise available to help people in industry make their mainstream ICT products and services accessible. The hardest part of achieving this technical goal seems to be dealing with all of the various non-technical aspects, such as management and creating an inclusive organizational culture. The result is that the ‘20%’ are often overlooked by mainstream technology companies. For this reason, people have been working on…
The legal landscape
Because accessibility wasn’t widely adopted by mainstream industry—even after mainstream ICT accessibility solutions were developed throughout the 1990s and 2000s—the response from the disability and legislative sectors has been to push for laws and regulations that establish requirements for industry. Regulations are then used to bring follow up actions to those who decline to incorporate accessibility of their own accord. For example, regulations resulting from the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 required Automated Teller Machines to be usable to people are unable to see. It wasn’t until the end of the 1990s that lawsuits brought against banks forced the industry to develop talking ATMs. Now, almost every ATM in the country has a headphone jack allowing use by blind customers. Similarly, laws and regulations are now being updated at present to require businesses to make their websites and customer support mechanisms accessible, and other laws and regulations in the US cover various aspects of ICT accessibility. (For more detail on the legal landscape, see the ‘Go in Depth’ section at the end of this guide.)
In an ideal world, the legal system shouldn’t have to be what’s driving the adoption of accessibility. However, the marketplace arguments and the widespread availability of accessibility solutions have not been sufficient on their own to cause change. The real driving factor should, we believe, be that it’s (a) quite easy to do, because the technological solutions are readily available; and (b) incorporating accessibility into your day to day work is often a low or no cost process, especially when talking about customer facing ICT and customer support mechanisms. It’s not altruism to make your technology accessible; it’s just making your products and services equitable for a wider audience. And that’s potentially expanding your customer base. In other words, good business.
Step-by-Step: Accessibility planning for small businesses and startups
Step 1. Make your customer facing ICT accessible
The first point of contact with you for many of your customers is your desktop or mobile website. Websites are not inherently accessible, so tweaks to the code and the content have to be purposefully made in order that people with disabilities can use them. For example, people who are blind use screen reading technologies that speak the contents of web pages on their computer or their phone. When screen readers encounter pictures, there must be piece of electronic text describing the picture, otherwise the blind reader will not know what the image is: “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? I have no idea, because it isn’t described in text.”
Adding text to an image takes only a moment for a developer, but it has a huge impact on the accessibility of the site. There are lists of tweaks to code and content that help people with low or no vision, low or no hearing, and people with physical and cognitive limitations. These lists have been put into standardized requirements, and people have then developed test processes and test tools to assess whether technologies are conformant with the requirements, or non-conformant (i.e., requiring remediation to become accessible).
What does this mean to you? The answer depends on who is building your website, and how:
- A vendor is building your web presence for you. For this situation, vendors who build websites fall into two categories: those who assert that they can make accessible websites, and those who have no idea what web accessibility is. If you talk to a vendor and they fall into the latter category, thank them for their time and move on. There are plenty of developers in the former category. Your main questions should be (1) “Can you build my web presence to conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0)?”; (2) “How will you demonstrate to me that it conforms?”; (3) “Can you show my team what they need to do to ensure that future content updates we upload meet accessibility needs?”; and (4) “Can we have all that in writing in our agreed-upon contracts?”. That’s it. You’re not making the website; they are. Get them to prove and assert that it is accessible according to the universally recognized standard (WCAG 2.0). Would you have your dream house built by a contractor who couldn’t assure you it was built to code? If they give assurances that they will deliver an accessible site, and subsequently it is brought to your attention that there are accessibility problems, having the agreement in writing should help with resolving those problems without any additional expense on your part.
- You’re using an online ‘build your own’ website tool. These are the tools that get advertised on TV: “… you’ll be up and running with a professional looking site in minutes…” is the claim. Before you buy a package, take a few extra minutes first to do a little research. Does their tool generate a website that is accessible? If they don’t say it will be accessible in their marketing or their fine print, then the answer is probably no. You can also contact their customer support to ask whether their tool generates WCAG 2.0 conformant code, and does it allow you to add content to your site later in a way that is accessible? If they say no or they don’t know, it may be fun to ask them “why not?”. If you can’t find a build your own website tool that generates accessible websites, then you may want to consider using a vendor to build your site.
- You’re building your own web presence from scratch. If you happen to be a tech startup and you have the staff and skills to build your own website from scratch, then the first thing you need to do is ensure that your staff has the right training and understanding that the site needs to be WCAG 2.0 conformant. If they give you a blank stare when you mention accessibility, point them to our Q&A articles, which include How do I ensure my products work for people with disabilities? There will be a period when they have to get up to speed and learn to use various tools to build and test for accessibility, but remember that it’s much easier and cheaper to invest the time and resources to build accessibility in from the beginning than it is to retrofit accessibility to an existing design later on.
- Your site has already been built using one of the above approaches, and it wasn’t designed to be accessible. If you didn’t consciously address accessibility in the design, and if accessibility wasn’t in any contracts or fine print, then in all likelihood your site has accessibility flaws. (You can run a quick check using an available tool that loads your site and looks for common accessibility errors. If you see red marks, you have accessibility issues.) If this is the case, the only option is to make a choice of remediation, or starting over. If it wasn’t in the contract or in the fine print, the burden will be on your company to take the lead in fixing the problem.
In the above discussion we’ve concentrated on web and mobile accessibility. There are also solutions available for making stand-alone software applications and mobile apps accessible. There are solutions available for public use information kiosks, ticket and vending machines. For any customer facing ICT, someone has worked on accessibility solutions and is willing to help you implement those solutions. The same basic choices and options apply as listed above. The hardest option for most small businesses and startups will be to try to do it themselves. The easiest option is generally going to be doing the research to find a vendor who can assure you that they ‘meet the code’ so to speak.
Note: Between option #2 (‘build your own’) and option #3 (‘build from scratch’) there are development-community-driven open source ‘content management systems’ for building websites. The community has developed a number of free tools that can be used by non-developers who are somewhat tech-savvy to build their own site. Such tools are typically not as straightforward to use as the ‘build your own’ tools, which is why this category resides between option #2 and #3. Two of the most popular open-source tools have pre-made accessible templates and programming resources to help with website development (see Drupal Accessibility and WordPress Accessibility).
Step 2. Make your social media and marketing accessible
It isn’t just your web presence anymore. Now you have to be out there on social media, creating a buzz, getting people talking, drawing them to your (accessible) website. But is the social media platform you’re using accessible? And is the content you’re posting accessible?
- The platform. This refers to the basic software that the social media site uses. It’s out of your hands as to whether it is accessible or not, but you can check to see what they have done or are currently doing. You can check for accessibility statements linked from their ‘about us’ or ‘policy’ pages. You can also search for news articles and forum discussions that address the accessibility of the platform. You can contact their customer support. Your choice of whether to use a particular social media platform is influenced by many factors, such as costs, market penetration, ease of use, and reputation. Accessibility can be one additional factor to consider, and it only takes a little extra research to find out how the platform owners are doing for their users who have disabilities.
- Your content. This is what you can control. This is the articles, the images, the videos and any other files you post to social media. If the platform allows you to add picture descriptions (‘alternate text’), are your staff members adding it? If you’re posting a video to a platform that doesn’t have the ability to add captions, are you having open captions added to your video before you post it? If you’re adding video to a site that offers ‘auto captioning’ (speech recognition software adds its best guess as to what is being said), does the result make sense, or does it come out garbled? Can someone who can’t see make sense of your video, or do you need to add audio descriptions? (On the topic of making social media posts more accessible, numerous resources can be found online.)
Again, if you’re not consciously making an effort to ensure that your content is accessible, and/or it is posted on a platform that isn’t accessible, then the likelihood is that your marketing messages won’t be accessible.
Note: The same applies to marketing materials that you print, and print materials that you also post electronically on your site or on social media. There are resources for making print and electronic document resources accessible (see the ‘Go in Depth’ section at the end of this guide).
Step 3. Make your customer support accessible
Whatever your mechanisms for providing customer support, there are things that you can do to make them accessible.
For ICT-related customer support:
- If your website has an online fillable form for requesting support, and/or if you have an online chat function, then the issues for web accessibility in Step 1, above, apply.
- If you have a telephone system that has a touch-tone interactive voice response (IVR) system (“for billing, press 1, for technical difficulties, press 2”) then two key issues to address are the clarity of the speech output, and allowing people enough time to make a response. If your IVR system requires that people speak (“tell me what you want… for example, you can say ‘billing’, ‘technical difficulties’…”) then a very important consideration is that some people cannot speak, some people have great difficulty speaking, and most of us get colds on occasions, making our speech temporarily harder for computers to understand. The better option is to have a system that allows people to choose their mode of interaction (“for billing, press 1 or say ‘billing’, for technical difficulties, press 2 or say ‘technical difficulties’…”).
- There are devices called TTYs (Teletypewriters, or Text Telephones) that used to be common. However, these devices are rarely used for small businesses now, because of the availability of relay services for use by people who are deaf, and the ubiquity of text messaging and online chat, which essentially carries the equivalent functionality that TTYs had. (In short, you probably don’t need a TTY.)
For your human operators who speak to customers, there are accessibility considerations you should be aware of:
- People who are deaf or who have difficulty speaking can use ‘relay’ services in which the customer talks to your staff via a third party who is interpreting. Note that it can be difficult for some people using relay services to simultaneously use IVR systems, so it is always a good idea to provide a direct line to speak to a person straight away. For a small business or a startup, this kind of direct customer contact option will be important.
- For any of your staff who are going to be talking with people with disabilities, if you don’t provide them with training on interacting with people with disabilities, and common etiquette, then the likelihood of awkward or even rude sounding interactions can occur. For example, some customers will require extra time to be understood, and other customers may be unable to see the technologies they are interacting with, so terms like “you see that red box in the lower right of the screen” may not go down well. There are plenty of online training resources that discuss and help with etiquette for interacting with people with disabilities.
Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design by Shawn Henry has a chapter (available for free, online) on interacting with people with disabilities.
Note: If you have a physical location that customers can come into, such as a restaurant or shop, the same training materials for interacting with people with disabilities are useful. An additional requirement for physical locations will be to train your staff on policies regarding service animals.
Step 4. As you grow
(If you are a startup with ambitions of having many employees and many locations, then this step applies. If you have a single proprietor or partnership small business, and you intend to stay that small, this step does not apply.)
As with tackling the technical aspects of website and customer support accessibility, organizational accessibility is much easier when it is addressed early on rather than a few years down the road as a retrofit.
Everyone has abilities, and those abilities range from very high to very low. An Olympic speed walker can go long distances in a short amount of time. A person who relies on a wheelchair to get around cannot walk at all. And there’s everything in between, with most people being able to walk to the shops and back before they need a rest. The same is true for every human ability: seeing, hearing, carrying, manipulating, reasoning, remembering, and so on. The key thing to keep in mind is that some of your existing or potential customers will not be able to do, or will have difficulty doing, some function that other people can do. The same goes for existing or potential employees. In this way, accessibility issues can permeate every aspect of business day to day operations. As you grow, you may consider the need to provide training and adjustments to operational processes in terms of:
- Your organizational culture. Are people with disabilities regarded as equals? Do your staff feel a shared sense of responsibility to handle accessibility issues? Do training programs—for new hires and those hired as consultants—reinforce these aspects of your culture?
- The accessibility of the ICT your employees use. Have you got an internal phone system that is usable without vision? Can staff enter their time and attendance information on your intranet without using a mouse? Knowing the answers requires measurement and auditing of your ICT systems.
- Hiring, retention & promotion. Do your staff know about the accessible ICT that you have invested in? If they don’t know, what will go through their mind when a blind job applicant is sitting across from them? If you don’t provide training to current staff, the likelihood of creating an inclusive organization decreases.
- Building accessibility into development processes. Are the things you are building—physical products, software products, and/or service offerings—accessible to people with disabilities? If accessibility isn’t considered throughout the development process then what are the odds that customers with disabilities will have problems using your products? Imagine having a fully accessible website, fully accessible customer support, great social media accessibility, and then your product can’t be switched on by someone with a prosthetic hand because it requires the electric/haptic touch of a person’s finger.
- Having an accessibility QA team. Is there a group responsible for ensuring that accessibility issues are being addressed by development teams, customer support teams, human resource teams and by the procurement team? If you have a quality assurance team for, say, ICT security, then the same sorts of benefits you get from having that type of team can also be realized by having sign-off participation from a accessibility quality assurance team.
The most common advice from experts in the accessibility field is that organization-wide accessibility should start with gaining executive support for your plans. Executives assign responsibility and accountability, and without having that in place, experience shows that making accessibility a part of day to day operations is an exercise in frustration at best, an exercise in futility at worst. We have developed other guidance for large ICT vendors on ‘roadmaps’ for integrating accessibility in the organization. We have provided other resources on the accessibility switchboard site and resources for going In-Depth on these issues (see below).
Supplemental Guidance: What to do when approached with a complaint or legal action
“Don’t Panic”. This is the sage guidance emblazoned on the cover of Douglas Adams’ fictional ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. There is no need to blow it out of proportion because there is a solution to this problem. You may not know what the solution is yet, but chances are someone has dealt with this issue before and come up with a good solution. The steps below are intended to help you work towards finding and implementing that solution.
Step 1: Immediate steps
The first step you take will be dependent on the type of contact you receive:
- If it is a customer complaint, don’t assume that the customer is out to get anything more than resolution to their problem. There’s no need to panic. Most complaints will concern equitable access, in that people with disabilities just want to be able to do the same things that nondisabled people can do, even if it requires a different method of access. Given that there are (a) established accessibility solutions for technical issues relating to ICT, and (b) established accessibility solutions for nontechnical issues, the process will usually be one of finding out why solutions aren’t in place now, and what solutions can be implemented in a reasonable timeframe and budget (see next steps).
- If it is a legal action / legal demand, the hope would be that this has come after a complaint has been dealt with but was unresolved. (A legal action could come out of the blue, but most reasonable lawyers would advise their clients to try to resolve an issue using customer support first. Having said that, if the legal action does come out of the blue, do assume that the parties are aiming to get something beyond a resolution to their problem, such as the legal fees of the lawyers involved.) The first thing to do if you receive such a communication is to talk with your legal counsel. They can best help you understand the nature of the complaint, and the possible consequences of various types of response. The next steps will be to assign responsibilities to your staff to understand the problem and what to do (see next steps).
ADA Demand Letters & Settlements – Lessons Learned is a Webinar by Tim Springer, CEO of SSB Bart Group. The webinar provides advice on the response steps that can and should be taken.
Note: We have produced guidance for consumers on how to document their problems and bring their issues to the attention of vendors. The guidance focuses on seeking resolution via the standard mechanisms of customer support first. Understanding the process and options from the customer with a disability’s standpoint might be useful in analyzing any complaint or legal action.
Step 2: Understand the problem
“Let's solve the problem, but let's not make it any worse by guessing.”
—Gene Kranz, flight director of Apollo 13.
Understanding an accessibility problem is just like understanding any other problem, but with a few additional key points to carefully consider:
- There is not one definition and symptom of any given ‘disability’. For example, the term ‘blind’ can refer to someone who has no vision at all, or it can refer to someone who has the ability to partially see (a visual impairment). The term ‘legally blind’ has a definite meaning, but still has various ranges of visual capability within a specified range. Therefore, it is necessary to avoid making assumptions about the customer’s capabilities, and to get a definite understanding of what they can and cannot do in terms of their sensory, physical or cognitive abilities.
- The aim is equitable access and to be treated fairly and respectfully; not to have the exact same experience, or a better experience than anyone else. At present, someone who is blind cannot go to a car dealer and demand a driverless car, because they aren’t available. But one day they will, and the dealer will be expected to offer a test drive to blind customers. (Dealers will also have to make all that crazy car buying paperwork accessible, but we digress…). At present, someone who is blind can go to a technology vendor and ask that they make their website accessible because website accessibility has been widely demonstrated. Since many businesses already employ accessible design, then if the customer is being discriminated against as a result of poor design the customer likely has a case that deserves to be heard.
Beyond these issues, understanding the problem is really just about understanding the gap between where you are now, and where you want to be in the future. Replicating the problem based on your understanding of the consumer’s abilities, and any assistive technology that they use, will help you define the gap.
The steps given above for making a plan for accessibility may also be useful to revisit. For example, if the complaint is about the accessibility of your website, did you have a written agreement with your website vendor to incorporate accessibility features? If the problem is more involved, and you cannot find ready answers from an internet search, or will require skills to understand the problems that are outside of your realms of expertise, you may want to consult subject matter experts (see Related Sections, below).
Before moving on, ensure that you define who is responsible for addressing and fixing the problem, and what the timeframe should be to respond to the complaint.
Step 3: Make a plan for remediation
Resourcefulness should trump resources. As we have said above, most technology fixes can be achieved using readily available knowledge, tools and techniques. Most non-technical problems can be resolved with training, adjustments to policies and procedures. These should not involve astronomical costs. You shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel in order to fix most accessibility problems.
If this is related to a legal action, then your remediation plan will also be influenced and directed by some sort of structured negotiation with the various parties concerned. Experience shows that it is highly likely that fixing the problem will be cheaper and less time consuming than fighting a lawsuit, or having a complaint escalate to a lawsuit.
Create Accessible Electronic Documents is a website provided by the GSA’s Section 508 Accessibility Program. The site lists guidance and other resources on making various types of print and electronic document accessible.
Digital Accessibility Laws Around the Globe is a website provided by Lainey Feingold. The site provides lists of laws, and laws under development in various countries including the US.
About this article
This article is published as part of The Accessibility Switchboard Project, an initiative of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute with support from the members of the Accessibility Switchboard Project Community Of Practice, and from the Maryland Department of Disabilities.
The Accessibility Switchboard Project. Digital Accessibility: An introductory guide for small businesses and startups. February 2018, Version 1.0.1 National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. Available: http://www.accessibilityswitchboard.org/
Note: An earlier version of this guide (v1.0, dated January 2017) was updated to v1.0.1 by adding the words 'Digital Accessibility' to the title. No other changes were made between the versions.
Feedback, additions and updates
The authors welcome feedback on this and other articles in the Accessibility Switchboard. Use the feedback form to provide updates, new case studies, and links to new and emerging resources in this area. The feedback form can also be used to join the mailing list for notification of new content and updates from the Accessibility Switchboard.
Copyright, use and reproduction
Accessibility Switchboard articles are published under the Creative Commons License Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International. You are free to share (copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format), and to adapt (remix, transform, and build upon the material) for any purpose, even commercially. This is under the following terms: (1) Attribution — You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use; (2) ShareAlike — If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original. For more detail on the license, see CC BY-SA 4.0 on the Creative Commons website.
‘Startup bookshelf’ by Chris M. Law & The Accessibility Switchboard Project. CC BY-SA 4.0.