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A guide to website accessibility and inclusive communications

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This article was originally published by Umi.

From public sector directives to consumer interactions, communication underpins everything we do as a society. Yet, research by the Click-Away Pound Survey (2019) estimated that businesses lose £17 billion every year by ignoring accessibility.

Isn’t it right that everyone has a fair chance of understanding the messages which are presented to them? Particularly given that Gartner recently predicted ‘the most profitable and successful businesses over the next 10 years will explicitly place profit second in their mission statements and business and operating models’.

Lucy Beldon, head of planning and performance here at CDS, explains why – and how – accessibility and inclusion should form a core component of any forward-thinking organisation’s engagement strategy.

The United Nations describes inclusivity as ‘the practice and policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalised.’ Therefore, no matter the size, context, method, or frequency of communication with others, companies must be aware that every decision taken has the potential to include or exclude users – and that’s a lot of responsibility.

In essence, everything should begin with understanding.

While many academics would agree that age, ethnicity, social class, educational status, and disability are the main ways that people are marginalised in society, by truly understanding the challenges such demographics may face, we start to comprehend what the typical communication barriers may be – and who they are most likely to impact.

But don’t just take my word for it. According to a 2020 FCA report, 50% of the population has one or more characteristics of vulnerability at any one time, while The Guardian found that nine million adults in the UK are functionally illiterate.

The latest data from the ONS tells us that 81% of disabled adults and 86% of adults aged 65–74 are now internet users – and a total of 11 million people in the UK are digitally excluded, according to the Good Things Foundation.

What’s more, the Click-Away Pound Survey (2019) found that 70% of customers with access needs will exit an inaccessible site – evidencing that we need to ensure that digital experiences are accessible and available to all.

But why does it matter?

There were more than 3,550 digital accessibility cases filed in the USA last year, taking action against companies thought to be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act – and this is a trend we’re starting to see in the UK, too.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) exist to provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organisations, and governments internationally. And, while WCAG is not enforceable by law in the UK, failure to ensure the accessibility of platforms could see firms in breach of the Equality Act 2010.

In February 2021, WebAim conducted an accessibility audit of the homepages of the top one million websites globally and discovered that 97.4% had detectable WCAG 2 failures.

With figures like this, it’s vital for organisations, of all sizes, to start prioritising the accessibility of their digital estate – including websites, mobile apps, and digital documents. It is simply unacceptable for accessibility to be an afterthought – and too many organisations are letting people down.

So, how do I improve my digital communications?

As more and more people embrace the virtual world, we need to create a landscape and experience that works for all users – regardless of their digital skills or needs.

While many organisations are trying to modernise, speed up processes, and cut costs by moving things online. It’s important to sense-check that such good intentions don’t accidentally hurt or negatively affect those already marginalised. This is why you need to truly understand your audience.

1. Conduct a site audit

A great place to begin is with a simple site audit – which can help to identify any potential problems with your existing digital estate. There are plenty of tools – such as WAVE®– available for self-testing, and while the results may not be exhaustive, they do provide a strong overview of areas for improvement. Once you know what could be better, it’s then possible to make a plan to fix the problems and achieve compliance.

2. Publish an accessibility statement

This details how accessible your website is – and to what extent it is compliant. Accessibility is a continuously evolving state, so show commitment to it by constantly revisiting – and updating – your statement, as well as embedding such a mindset in your processes.

3. Think carefully about every upload

It might seem obvious, but any new content or development projects should be created with accessibility in mind – and built to comply with WCAG regulations. Of course, Rome wasn’t built in a day, so this should be about continuous, incremental improvement, rather than trying to do everything at once.

No website is 100% compliant, but the key is transparency. Allowing errors to be reported by users – and committing to fixing them – will help to improve the overall experience. And, while there is no official guidance on how often an audit should be conducted, every 12-18 months is a good timeframe to aim for, depending on the speed of change within your digital estate.

Why we mustn’t forget offline communications

While it may feel as though we are living in an online-first world, digital exclusion is a real issue in the UK. 4.2m people over the age of 65 have never used the internet, 9m cannot access it without help, and 7m have no connection at home.

Therefore, to be truly inclusive and accessible, consideration must be given to how to include and engage those on both sides of the tech divide. Communications should aim to cover every single customer touchpoint, ensuring each stage is fit for purpose – that’s why focusing on offline and printed material should also be a major consideration and complement any digital activity.