A father who is blind might not be able to use a skateboard, but why stop him from buying one for his son? This is the sort of question a large proportion of companies should be asking themselves.

While companies’ annual reports are full of words on social responsibility, many of those same companies are presenting a closed digital door to a section of their customers, clients and stakeholders.

A recent analysis* in the UK of the FTSE 100 companies’ websites revealed that most (75 per cent) did not even achieve the most basic level of web accessibility, as set out by the internationally recognised Web Content Accessibility Guidelines from the Web Accessibility Initiative.

Accessibility measures how easily a website can be accessed by a diverse range of people, regardless of ability or access technology. This makes understanding the accessibility of a website the first step in understanding how to raise the number of visitors to a site, increase potential revenue, improve customer loyalty and maintain brand image. The business case is overwhelming.

Yet today’s reality is that a digital divide is growing that discriminates against users who experience difficulties in accessing websites. For example, the increase in interactive and dynamic website content has not been balanced by the care to make this content available to people who are visually impaired or blind.

In the UK, for example, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) estimates that about 10m people are covered by the Disability Discrimination Act, and by ignoring accessibility and usability, companies are missing out on more than £80bn in untapped revenue by shutting the door on this market.

There are also millions of people around the world with conditions that affect the way they access the internet but do not feature on any register – people with learning difficulties, cognitive impairments, people with glasses or those with Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). According to the UK-based Dyslexia Institute, about 4 per cent of the population is severely dyslexic.

No commercial organisation would deliberately make it difficult for some of its employees, customers and shareholders to interact with it via its website. So why is it happening?

Certainly it has taken time to raise awareness of the commercial advantages of accessible websites. However, lack of knowledge has also played its part, with otherwise experienced development teams still lacking the skillsets required to create accessible websites.

Companies also need to heed the legal implications of failing to take accessibility seriously. Those with inaccessible websites are leaving themselves exposed to legal action for ignoring disability legislation. Test cases have been successful in Australia and the US, resulting in negative publicity. In the UK the DRC is warning businesses that it is prepared to take legal action.

Taking steps towards what we can call Online Social Responsibility should not be seen as an add-on or a financial drain for an organisation. The commercial benefits of web accessibility are considerable.

For example, an accessible website is more search-engine friendly, ensuring it appears higher up the page rankings than inaccessible competitors. They are also much more cost-effective to run and maintain. Standards-compliant web page code is more future-proof and easier to adapt, which brings operational cost savings. For example, an accessible web page is, on average, 50 per cent smaller than its inaccessible counterpart. This leads to faster download times and reduced bandwidth costs.

One FTSE 100 company which has undertaken accessibility work reports a £200,000 saving on annual maintenance costs, a 30 per cent increase in search engine traffic, a 75 per cent reduction in the time each page takes to download and far fewer complaints.

If the online experience is seen as representing a business’s customer service, then such a reduction in complaints about a website becomes a measure of success.

So an accessible website makes sense for business. And a corporate responsibility programme should incorporate a strategy of assessment and review of accessibility, based on genuine feedback and industry best practice.

*Nomensa FTSE Report (2006), www.nomensa.com. For a copy of the report, contact charlotte.hanson@Immediatefuture.co.uk.

Simon Norris is managing director of Nomensa, a web development agency that specialises in making websites more usable; www.nomensa.com.

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