Digital Accessibility: Ensuring Inclusivity in an Online World

With the accelerated shift to a digital lifestyle, ensuring digital accessibility is crucial. Follow these guidelines to make your web content and online services accessible for individuals with disabilities.

Nathan Eddy

June 29, 2024

7 Min Read
Digital accessibility to-do list

Banking, shopping, healthcare, the hunt for a house or an apartment — in the digital age, life has shifted online, while the wide-ranging (and still unfurling) effects from the COVID-19 pandemic have further accelerated the digitalization of the workplace.

All these trends have underscored the often-overlooked necessity of digital accessibility, by which users with disabilities can access and operate digital content.

Accessibility as a broadly understood topic mainly covers requirements for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, blind people or people who have low vision, people with motion impairments, and people who are neurodivergent.

As accessibility means disability inclusion, it is also supported by many anti-discrimination laws and in many cases is requested as a compliance factor during procurement cycles.

Arin Bhowmick, executive vice president and chief design officer for SAP, said a very common accessibility barrier is that videos are published without captions or audio description, making them imperceivable to blind or deaf people.

Also an issue is missing keyboard support, "as screen readers on desktops work on the keyboard focus and commands," he added. "Information shared as PDFs is not screen reader-accessible without putting special efforts into it."

Related:All I Want For Christmas Is an Accessibility Expert

Another issue is missing alt text, especially in emails and on websites, as descriptions of images are valuable in conveying content to the visually impaired.

"Images cannot be detected by screen readers, so you always must add a text alternative to images and icons to make them accessible for screen readers," he said.

Low contrast for text, or text placed on patterns and pictures, is also problematic. Bhowmick noted that this makes it particularly difficult to read, especially for those with accessibility issues.

"All those issues can be easily addressed and avoided," he said.


The lack of digital accessibility is one of the "single biggest exclusions" to have occurred over the past 30 years, according to Brent Stewart, Gartner senior director analyst on the software design and development team.

"It's really a black mark on the IT industry and something that is finally starting to turn around," he said. "It needs to be something that the CTO or the CIO makes a top priority in their IT organization."

WCAG as an Accessibility Guide

Stewart referenced the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a set of internationally recognized guidelines to ensure web content is accessible for people with disabilities.

Related:5 Ways to Improve IT Help Desk Accessibility and Inclusivity

Following these guidelines ensures that the design and development processes include the necessary mindset and guardrails.

"What's also driving compliance is the fact that major technology contracts now include digital accessibility, and meeting that WCAG 2.2 standard is a standard contractual requirement," he said. "If you want to do business with major tech companies like Adobe, Apple, Microsoft, or Google, your product must be truly accessible and meet that standard."

Stewart cited a recent example where a major tech company considered partnering with another firm to manage its 401(k) plans but found that the firm's services didn't comply with WCAG standards.

"They gave the firm time to resolve the issue, warning that they would seek other partners if it wasn't addressed," Stewart said. "This demonstrates that lacking accessible products can lead to losing significant contracts."

Contractual requirements are driving the push for accessibility, as startups and digital product companies realize that compliance is essential to securing big deals with established players, he said.

"While ethical considerations are discussed, it's primarily legislation and contractual obligations that compel companies to prioritize accessibility," he explained.

Accessibility is essential for organizations wanting to create high-quality digital products that are inclusive and usable by everyone, according to Shawn Lawton Henry, W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) program lead.

"Accessibility is a civil right and required by law in many cases," she said. "It's also good business."

Henry pointed to several resources the WAI makes freely available, including an introduction to web accessibility, the business case for digital accessibility, and videos that demonstrate why web accessibility is essential.

Digital Accessibility from the Start

Accessibility is most effective (and least expensive) when incorporated from project inception and integrated through project plans and project roles, Henry said.

"It starts by understanding how people with disabilities use your online platform," she said.

While the accessibility issues faced by people who are blind receive considerable attention, it's crucial to address the full spectrum of disabilities that affect technology use, including auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual disabilities, Henry added.

For example, "the accessibility needs of people with low vision are very different from people who are blind, even though they are often grouped together as 'visual impairments,'" she said. "Additionally, there are many more people with low vision than are blind."


The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there are 246 million people worldwide who have low vision and 39 million people who are blind — meaning 86% of the people with visual impairments have low vision.

Bhowmick agreed that accessibility practices should be integral to the initial design and development lifecycle considerations.

"If you follow usability and accessibility guidance from the start, the experience is truly intuitive and inclusive, instead of mitigation for accessibility after the fact," he said.

For videos, Bhowmick suggested the following guidelines:

  • Consider the image frequency to prevent triggering seizures.

  • Avoid loud background music that can make it difficult to hear the spoken voice.

  • Refrain from using fast cuts.

  • Provide captions and an audio description if there are no voice lines in the video.

"Use user-centered design and research practices, run feedback rounds on your content with people with disabilities or those who are neurodivergent, and carefully incorporate their feedback," he said.

Often, color perception issues are ignored, and sometimes content isn't even discernible by those who are color blind.

"During the design phase, you can use color blindness simulation tools to make your design more appealing for different color vision impairments," Bhowmick said.

Tools, Tests to Ensure Compatibility

The key is to review accessibility during content creation with a diverse group of people and address their feedback in iterations early and often.

Bhowmick added that accessibility testing should always be run according to a structured testing script and mature testing methodologies to ensure reliable, reproducible, and sustainable test results.

It is important to run accessibility testing during every stage of the software lifecycle: during design, before handing over the design to development, during development, and after development.

A professional and thorough testing should take place before releasing the product to customers, Bhowmick said, and the test results should be made available in an accessibility conformance report (ACR) following the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) format.

Accessibility testing should include at least two key components: automated testing and thorough manual testing, both with and without the use of assistive technologies such as screen readers.

"To continuously improve the usability of a product, such that it can be universally used by all, it is essential to apply user research practices and run usability studies with users with disabilities," Bhowmick said.

Effective accessibility evaluation involves a combination of expert reviews, evaluation tools, and testing with individuals with disabilities.

While Henry agreed that there are evaluation tools that can help with evaluation, she cautioned that no tool alone can determine whether a product meets accessibility standards.

"Knowledgeable human evaluation is required to determine if a product or content is accessible," she said.

Benefits of AI Technology

There are a lot of opportunities for AI to aid accessibility, according to Bhowmick. For one, it can help guide designers and developers throughout the content creation process.

"While often an issue with screen readers, complex user interfaces with lots of data and graphs can be consolidated by AI and enhance the understanding for the blind or vision impaired," he said.

Bhowmick noted that generative AI can assist individuals with dyslexia or cognitive and learning disabilities in content creation.

Advancements in speech recognition technology are significantly helping individuals with disabilities, such as those with motion impairments, and people with paralysis or speech impairments resulting from a stroke.

"With the advent of promising AI technologies, it is now possible to translate visual environments into speech for blind people," he said.

However, It is important to be mindful of the fact that AI bears the risk of bias, according to Bhowmick.

"It is key to share transparency and always provide control for all users — especially and including those with disabilities — on AI-generated content," he said.

Stewart noted that AI coding assistants can generate HTML, CSS, and JavaScript with semantic structures compatible with screen readers and keyboard navigation.

"Unlike human developers, AI-generated code avoids practices that compromise accessibility to accommodate design requirements, resulting in more accessible front-end code," he explained.

Stewart added that advancements in GenAI, when paired digital concierge applications like Apple's Siri, could significantly benefit individuals with disabilities, such as enabling them to set up a bank account automatically.

"It has enormous potential to become the standard way that people with disabilities engage with the web," Stewart said. "I can't even begin to explain the significance its effect would have on the life of a person with disabilities."

About the Author(s)

Nathan Eddy

Nathan Eddy is a freelance writer for ITProToday and covers various IT trends and topics across wide variety of industries. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, he is also a documentary filmmaker specializing in architecture and urban planning. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany.

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