What is the difference between building apps for accessibility vs. compliance?

Jill Power, 4 minutes read

When starting an implementation project, some team members may come to the table saying, “We need to be accessible!” Others may say, “We need to be compliant!”

Regardless of what you'd like to prioritize, we are glad you are having these conversations. Considering both accessibility and compliance at the beginning of your project is the right thing to do and will have an impact on many of your decisions throughout your process.

By law, many countries now require companies to create inclusive digital environments. But beyond merely meeting a list of requirements, inclusivity and accessibility can also help business growth. And, of course, it’s just the right thing to do.

But you may be wondering about the differences between compliance and accessibility.

Compliance vs. accessibility

Compliance typically refers to legal or regulatory requirements, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Canadian Human Rights Act, or the European Accessibility Act. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) provides a comprehensive list of regulations by country (Web Accessibility Laws & Policies). Many organizations seek compliance to avoid a lawsuit. And non-compliance lawsuits are on the rise: in the U.S. alone, compliance-related lawsuits increased by 400% from 2013 to 2019.

On the other hand, accessibility refers to a broader, more equitable approach to creating an inclusive environment for users. Companies that prioritize accessibility recognize the broad spectrum of users that are, or could be, their best customers. They design and build applications with all users in mind, including those with disabilities. Solutions for users with permanent disabilities, such as blindness, also help users with other, perhaps temporary impairments, such as those who have had eye surgery, or an injury related to an accident. However, at the end of the day, most organizations and governmental bodies look to the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) for guidance on meeting either goal.

It can be challenging for UX teams because the WCAG are not black-and-white guidelines and leave much up for interpretation. The main goal is for users in your application to be provided with an equivalent experience, regardless of any disabilities they may have. But what does that really mean for application developers?

First, you must acknowledge there is no silver bullet or quick solution to get to accessibility or compliance. You can’t drop a one-time “accessibility widget” on your site and believe you’re all set. You need to have a plan and understand that meeting the needs of users with disabilities is a long-term strategic commitment. Whenever you release new code and features, it has an impact on the accessibility and compliance of your application, and how your users interact with it.

The biggest difference between compliance and accessibility is your mindset.

Ask yourself

Do I want to welcome as many users as possible to my application?

  • In the U.S. alone, 61 million people have a disability that impacts major life activities, according to the CDC.
  • Globally, over 1 billion people are estimated to live with some form of disability, according to the World Health Organization.​​​​

Do I want to experience revenue growth and/or have highly satisfied users?

  • The total disposable income for U.S. adults with disabilities is about $490 billion, according to a 2018 report from the American Institutes for Research.
  • On average, 5.6% of all working Americans will experience temporary disabilities due to illness or injury each year, according to the Bureau of Internet Accessibility

Do I want to differentiate my application from the competition?

  •  As of 2019, 69% of people with access needs will ‘click away’ from a site with barriers, a U.K. study by Click-Away Pound found.
  • 80% of people who use captions (on videos) aren’t deaf or hard of hearing, according to a study by Verizon Media and Publicis Media.

If the answer is yes to all these questions, then design for accessibility. Embrace creativity. Empathize with your users. You will not only become compliant, but you will also open the door to a market you may never have realized existed.

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About the Author

Jill Power manages the Accessibility Experience program at Pegasystems.