How to Ensure Accessibility for Every Online Audience

As of 2012, there were roughly 7.6 million web users with a hearing impairment who were active online, according to Interactive Accessibility. 8.1 million users had visual impairments, and 15.2 million had a cognitive, mental, or emotional impairment. With this range of abilities and unique needs, are you adequately catering to your website’s entire audience?

Why Does Accessibility Matter?

You might think that because your website features written text, video clips, and clear menu options, you’re in the clear when it comes to maintaining accessibility for all users. However, over 57 million Americans have a disability that impacts their ability to navigate online. Plus, this is only one country in a global market.

To accommodate this “minority” as you design, publish, and tweak your website, it’s important to look at all angles of ability. With an attitude of greater diversity and an open mind, your business’s first attempt at customer outreach starts before they even make a purchase.

Your audience is already diverse, and those users all have different experiences with your site. People who are deaf interact differently with media than people who are hearing. People with colorblindness will react to images and text differently than someone who sees each shade distinctly. Populations that suffer from traumatic brain injury may experience triggering emotions from imagery or video content.

Between narrowing down your intended audience, creating marketing materials to suit your company’s brand messages, and launching a website that acknowledges cultural needs of your market, you’ve likely overlooked the segment of visitors who are living with a disability.

Accessibility matters both for your bottom line and your relationship with your clients. Offering an accommodating website that takes others’ needs into consideration positions your company as one that is aware of diversity. There is no better way to show clients you care about their needs than to design a website that serves those needs.

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What Does Accessibility Mean?

The definition of accessibility covers the ability to reach or enter, the ability to obtain or use easily, and the ability to understand or appreciate. In terms of reaching audiences with disabilities, making your website easy to navigate is the first step.

For someone who has a visual impairment, too much text will only earn frustration. For a website visitor that is colorblind, reading text that deviates from standard black on white will only earn you higher bounce rates.

So, how can you accommodate much of this unique minority? We’ll cover the steps you can take to build your website based on your customers’ needs, including people who are hard of hearing, people with visual impairments, people with autism, and people who have cognitive disabilities or disorders like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Website Design with Deafness in Mind

In response to well-meaning web designers making blanket recommendations for websites that serve deaf visitors, Lisa Herrod at A List Apart argues that deafness is more than the “opposite” of blindness.

While “deaf or blind” might seem an essential contrast, Herrod explains that being deaf is a much more complex experience than many hearing people understand. First, there is a difference between a person who is deaf and the Deaf community.

Essentially, the word deaf (with a lowercase “d”) includes any person who is hard of hearing. However, the word Deaf (with an uppercase “D”) encompasses the entire community and culture of deafness that many Deaf people identify with.

Rather than a subset of the “disability” category, deafness stands on its own as a separate culture from that of hearing people. While the spoken language may translate into ASL (American Sign Language), ASL is an entirely different language than spoken English.

Photo by Anna Vander Stel on Unsplash

Strategies for Welcoming Deaf Users

What does the cultural distinction of deafness mean for website designers and business owners? It means that simply transcribing audio content is not enough to fully reach deaf audiences. With captions and subtitles, the underlying message of the media may become distorted.

While captions and subtitles are a positive first step toward accessibility, ensuring that your content translates into ASL is also important. Transcribing may cover the basics, but translation helps deliver your message more accurately.

Herrod suggests that to embrace the Deaf community, website owners focus on Deafness as a culture rather than a disability. Cater to this unique culture the same way that you would a culture that uses another spoken language that you do not speak fluently.

Following Herrod’s advice on both media and web writing, the following strategies will help make your website more accessible to the Deaf community:


  • Attempt to use sign language interpreters for video media
  • Use transcription and subtitles as backup or as primary means if sign language interpreters are not available
  • Include transcription of sound effects as appropriate

Written Content

  • Avoid synonyms, slang, and wordplay that may confuse people whose first language is not written English
  • Use headings and subheadings
  • Make your point first, then explain it
  • Use short line lengths
  • Include bulleted lists
  • Employ an active voice
  • Give definitions in simple terms

Website Design for Visitors with Visual Impairments

As technology evolves and expands, assistive technology grows just as fast. Modern software helps people with visual impairments to navigate websites, shop online, and even read and compose text messages.

You or your graphic design team have likely spent a huge amount of time honing your website graphics and layout. Your color scheme, font usage, and incorporation of images all contribute to the viability of your website and therefore your online business.

But have you considered what visitors “see” when they are unable to see? For many website users who have visual impairments, a website without the appropriate accommodations is useless. Here’s how to modify your website to embrace rather than reject visitors with visual impairments.

Photo by DodgertonSkillhause Licensed under Morguefile

Strategies for Welcoming Visually Impaired Visitors

The American Foundation for the Blind suggests taking a variety of steps to cater to audiences who cannot view standard web pages. For an inclusive experience, here are their suggested strategies for making your site accessible.

Label All Images

Ideally, you’ll be using alt= tags whether you’re aiming to accommodate visually impaired audiences or not. However, if you haven’t yet embraced this habit, using image descriptions in the alternative text field on every image helps optimize your page for search engines, too.

Once you’ve added alt= tags for each image, view your website without images and see if your descriptions make sense. The goal is to create descriptions that are helpful to people using assistive technology to “read” web pages.

Label Page Structure

If website visitors are using assistive technology, there are still limitations to these means. Labeling the structure of your page lets visitors know where they are on your page, and what they’re about to click on.

Facilitate this process by using not only visual cues for people who can see them, but also incorporate labeling via HTML for simpler navigation. Any section of your website that is visually distinct for emphasis should receive a label emphasis for auditory-only visitors.

Use Clear Links

Many visitors to your website will only read link text, looking for something specific. Give visitors who with visual impairments the ability to find the links on your website without any guesswork.

Limit Non-HTML Design Elements

Using creative visual embellishments doesn’t serve all audiences well, and can muddle up an online experience for visitors who cannot see them. Consider the non-HTML elements on your website and whether they are truly necessary. Also consider that many users who are not visually impaired may appreciate a cleaner page, too.

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash

Website Design for People with Cognitive Disabilities

Cognitive disabilities include a variety of conditions like Down Syndrome, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Dementia, Dyslexia, and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) involves long-term cognitive effects brought on by psychological trauma.

The National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE) notes that 14.3 million Americans 15 and over have a mental disability. At the same time, mainstream audiences demand accessible and responsive online experiences, and accessibility fulfills both goals.

Strategies for Welcoming Visitors with Cognitive Disabilities

NCDAE’s three primary suggestions include focusing on how users interact with a website and how responsive the site is to visitors’ needs. In general, your website should not demand too much work from the public. Rather, you should aim for efficiency and effectiveness in each component.

Use an Open Design

As NCDAE notes, people with learning disabilities may have trouble processing text and numbers and navigating in a spatial sense. Therefore, using a clear and uncluttered design that highlights important navigational features (menus and links) helps reduce the number of stimuli in the online environment.

Address Readability and Usability

Also, when it comes to readability, the copy on your website should address general audiences. In most cases, this means a reading level of around eighth grade. Therefore, while readability is a consideration when adjusting your website for people with low literacy, you should already be writing toward a low comprehension level from the start.

Other methods of creating digestible content, such as using headings and bullet points, elaborating on one idea per paragraph, and limiting line length, all serve audiences with cognitive disabilities as well as they serve general audiences.

Avoid Abrasive Audio and Video

Finally, one unique consideration for people who may suffer from anxiety or PTSD disorders is the use of video and audio on pages, particularly if there is no way for site users to pause or exit those features. If possible, avoid introductory music or videos that auto-play and could catch users off-guard.

Website Design for Users with Autism

Autism conditions do fall under the category of cognitive disabilities, but autism alone earns its own category due to the variation present in the overall condition. Because autism ranges from relatively mild to severe, specific needs may vary for different users.

However, The National Autistic Society recommends a few basic steps to accommodate users who may have sensory and communication challenges, both of which are common with all variations of autism. Many of these steps benefit typical audiences, as well as audiences with other disabilities.

Accommodate Sensory Needs

Many people with autism tend to experience sensory challenges when faced with “busy” environments. Keeping your website simple aids in navigation, while avoiding moving graphics or other elements avoids overstimulation.

Make the Website Consistent

Consistency and routine often help people with autism to maintain their daily habits without stress. Therefore, a website with a distinctive design on each page may be aesthetically pleasing to you, but it will likely be stressful to your visitor with autism.

Use Straightforward Language

Like writing for people who are deaf, writing content for people with autism also requires avoiding metaphorical language and wordplay. Try not to use language that is ambiguous, including words with multiple meanings or synonyms whose meaning is unclear.

Request User Testing

If possible, involve people with autism in your testing process as you design your website. Ensure that you offer accommodations for people who travel to your location to feel comfortable in their environment. This might include advance preparation or visits to the location before you begin testing so that your participants can become accustomed to the space.

Photo by LiaLeslie Licensed under Morguefile

Benefits of Increasing Website Accessibility

The task may seem daunting if your website is already live, but taking steps toward greater accessibility will benefit your company over time. Today’s technology enables more people than ever to embrace and utilize the web.

Overall, ensuring that your website is accessible to a variety of audiences benefits more than those users who have disabilities. People with limited technology experience, people who have devices with atypical formatting or screen sizes, and the public who desire fast, simple, and actionable website experiences will all benefit from an accessibility boost (keeping in mind that your site’s speed is also dependent on having a decent web hosting provider – we’ve done web hosting reviews for Canada, web hosting comparison for Australia, and even the UK).

Because your target market likely includes people of all abilities, there’s no reason to overlook those specific groups when designing and implementing your website. A little extra work now means higher return later, when people who can easily use your product or service share with the rest of the online community.