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Web accessibility tips: is your business website accessible?

For all business websites it is important to make sure that it is accessible and as useable as possible for people with disabilities.

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There is now an Equality Act that not only covers responsibilities to your employees, but also to any members of the public who use your products – and that can include your website.

The Equality Act provides that where a service "relates to the provision of information" it is reasonable for the provider to "include steps for ensuring that the information is provided in an accessible format". It also includes provisions that mean you mustn’t instruct the person or company building your website to build an inaccessible site.   

Follow our top tips to improve the accessibility of your website

Your website should meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international organisation which sets standards for the web. The guidelines include things like making sure that any non-text content on your site (including images, graphs, Flash animation and video) include text descriptions or transcripts. These are the words that you can see when you hover over any non-text content on a web page and they are used by screen readers to describe what is on a page to the visually impaired.    

Don't despair if this appears a bit complicated. Any good web developer should be familiar with these concepts, you simply need to tell them to what standard you want your website building to. If you're unsure, just ask!      

Improve your linking

Whether you're linking to another page on your website or to another useful site, the WCAG encourages the use of descriptive text used in links so that it makes sense when read out of context, perhaps by a screen reader. So, for example, it is more descriptive to say "Find out more about Small Business Rate Relief"  than it is to say "Click here to find out more." 

Place important interactive elements higher up the web page

People who use screen readers navigate through your website using the tab key on their keyboard. They can't easily scan the web page, they need to work their way from the top to the bottom of the page using the tab key. Therefore it is good practice to make sure that any important links, navigations or controls are placed high up the page.       

Get external help to carry out an accessibility audit or testing

There are many experts out there who can help you to carry out an accessibility audit. This will generally involve them going through your website, using the type of assistive technologies used by disabled people, i.e. screen readers, keyboard shortcuts, etc. They will then give you their feedback on what you need to do to improve accessibility.

Accessibility testing, on the other hand, usually involves people with disabilities trying to navigate your website and reporting any problems they find.

Alternatively, you can pay to use accessibility testing tools, which while not being as sophisticated as auditing and human-testing, can provide a cost-effective way of identifying basic accessibility problems – especially if you have a small site.        

Do it yourself

It is possible to conduct your own audit in-house, if you – or whoever is responsible for your website - have the time and a basic knowledge websites and accessibility issues. You can familiarise yourself with these by reading the accessibility guidelines or attend a training course on the issue. You can then try navigating your website using assistive technologies, such as screen readers (many of which can be downloaded for free) and by using free tools such as the Accessibility Toolbar available as an add-on to the Firefox browser.         

Listen to feedback

One of the best indications of the accessibility and usability of your site is the feedback you get from users. If they're having problems using your website then others may be too. If users complain about accessibility issues it is important to take them seriously and address the problem quickly.     

Few legal actions were brought under the previous legislation regarding web accessibility (the Disability Discrimination Act) – none of which resulted in judgements – so only time will tell if the Equality Act will carry more bite.     

Though one interesting provision of the new Act could potentially give it enough weight to convince website hosting providers to take sites off line if they thought they could be at threat of legal action for knowingly hosting a potentially inaccessible website. 

However, regardless of avoiding the legal implications, improving your website's accessibility can have other benefits for your business, including better usability for all, a better website for a higher proportion of your visitors and, ultimately, happier customers.    

If you work with a website designer or development company, they should be able to advise you on your responsibilities and how to meet them. Advanced members of the Forum can access a guide to choosing a web designer - log in to MyFPB and click on 'Marketing guides'.

Article updated 31st May 2016