Web Content Accessibility and Why it Matters

June 15, 2021

Earlier this year, Instagram introduced its new auto-captioning feature that made it simpler for users to add captioning to their posted Stories. For many people, this might have seemed like just another fun tool that made it easier to watch and understand videos with the sound off. But for people with disabilities, this was a long overdue step for online content accessibility. 

According to the World Bank, one billion people — 15% of the world’s population — experience some form of disability. The United States passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), prohibiting discrimination based on disability, but that legislation was passed in 1990 — thirty years ago. That was during the very early stages of computer adoption, and well before the internet became a standard part of daily life.  

Fast forward to 2021, and it’s undeniable that our society has become heavily reliant on the internet for basic, day-to-day needs and interactions, from work to entertainment, from shopping to medical care. That feels especially true following the seismic cultural shifts brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. And it means that thinking about the internet, including both websites and mobile apps, in terms of accessibility and inclusion is more crucial than ever.  

At Deem, we believe that designing for accessibility doesn’t just benefit users with a disability, it benefits everyone.

Let’s start with an example: Imagine you’re back in an airport. You’re pulling your luggage, carrying a backpack on a shoulder, and trying not to spill your coffee. You’re running late, so you need to find your gate fast. Your first choice for information is, of course, the app on your phone.  

Can you reach all the buttons you need in your app with one hand? (The one not holding the coffee.) Does it have enough contrast to see over the glare of airport lighting? Is the text large enough to read while you’re juggling everything else? Or, even better, can your phone read the screen to you? These are all accessibility issues, and as you can see, they can be helpful for all users, not only people who may need additional accommodations.

For businesses, accessibility is a financial imperative: In 2008, Target paid $6 million in damages after the National Federation of the Blind brought a class-action lawsuit against the retailer over its website, which was not compatible with screen readers used by the blind to navigate pages.  

In 2012, Netflix settled a lawsuit brought by the National Association for the Deaf (NAD), which argued that the streaming service was out of compliance with the ADA in not providing captions to all its video offerings. In addition to paying NAD’s legal fees, Netflix also committed to 100% compliance by 2014.  

(We’ll discuss more about current U.S. law below. Similar lawsuits are on the rise, with more than 2,500 filed in federal courts last year alone.)

Now, you may not be selling in a store or delivering video content to your business travelers, but you do need to be aware of the accessibility capabilities of your corporate travel technology. And the threat of a lawsuit isn’t the most compelling factor — or, at least, it shouldn’t be.  

Striving for inclusion is a necessary acknowledgment that every individual deserves equal access to services. Making that a reality allows businesses to impact as many people as possible. It’s a win-win proposition. 

Web content accessibility guidelines

Achieving web accessibility means creating an online presence that people can navigate and use whether they have a disability or not. 

Technologies already exist that allow people with visual impairments or hearing loss, for example, to use online services and understand content. Screen reader technology can convert text, buttons, images, and other elements on a page into speech that a blind user can listen to or translate to Braille. And closed-captioning systems allow for deaf viewers to understand video content.  

These technologies are already built into the devices and platforms we use every day and are widely adopted by the communities who need them. For instance, iPhones come equipped with VoiceOver, Apple’s own screen reader. YouTube and Facebook have closed captioning built in so that creators can upload and sync their captions alongside their video. 

There are many ways to make web content more accessible, and perhaps the most authoritative instructional source is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) accessibility initiative library. Founded in 1994, the W3C is the leading source of web standards, and a champion of online accessibility. 

So, now, it’s up to businesses and content creators to design with these capabilities in mind. Here are a few ways that web content can be made more accessible:

Alternative Text (alt text)

Alternative text is a snippet of code or copy that can be applied to an image online, describing that visual feature. This allows a screen reader to interpret the alt text for someone not able to see the screen themselves. Plus, users without visual impairments but who choose to turn off images in, say, the e-mail newsletters they receive, will be served alt text instead.

So much of our modern online content is designed to be heavily reliant on imagery that displays complex text or narratives. This includes social media platforms, which are currently introducing accessibility features. Without alt text, pages containing these kinds of images are frustrating to navigate at best, and often rendered completely useless to those who can’t see and interpret those images. 

Keyboard accessibility

Not everyone can use a mouse to navigate on a computer, which means that any element that can be controlled with your mouse also needs to be accessible via keyboard, whether through keys like the arrows, tab, or shift, or special shortcuts. 

For people with especially challenging physical disabilities, custom switches allow navigating a website or app with only a nod of their head, or blowing through a straw, for example.

Headers and lists

It’s tempting to simply bold a headline and bump up the font size, or to asterisk or dash a list of items. But there exists proper HTML coding for headers and lists that designers and content creators should use when creating for the web. These features are built into many of the text editors used to update web content.  

Using the proper tools means that screen readers can appropriately interpret the narrative hierarchy of a page, making the content more relevant and understandable to the user. Good to know the next time you’re writing a web page or document for your travelers.  

The debate over the ADA and the internet

We just shared that W3C is a leader in the movement for online accessibility and have already noted the thousands of lawsuits brought in U.S. federal courts regarding website accessibility. So where does the Americans with Disabilities Act fit into this landscape? The answer to that question is hotly debated.

As mentioned earlier, in the United States, the ADA law prohibits discrimination based on disability, requiring equal access in the realms of employment and services offered by public entities, such as public transportation. It also has a provision specific to telecommunications, the communications king when the ADA was enacted in 1990 that led to the rise of several assistive technologies currently used today.

And then there’s Title III of the ADA, regarding public accommodations. This portion of the ADA specifies that businesses serving the public must ensure that people with disabilities have full and equal access to the services they provide. Thirty years ago, this was largely meant for brick-and-mortar establishments. Common examples of ADA compliance in this realm are the installation of wheelchair ramps or allowing people to be accompanied by their service animals. 

Because the ADA doesn’t explicitly mention a company's online presence, there’s room for legal interpretation. And that’s why this next case is so important to understanding web content accessibility.

In 2016, Guillermo Robles, a blind California resident, sued the Domino’s pizza chain, citing a violation of his rights under the ADA. In his lawsuit, Robles pointed out that the Domino’s website and its mobile app were not accessible to screen readers, making it impossible for him to order online.

Domino’s tried to have the case dismissed, arguing that its physical stores are ADA compliant, that Robles could call to place an order, and that the ADA did not extend to its online presence. After a series of appeals by both Robles and Domino’s, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.  

Its refusal ensured the last ruling given stayed in effect. And that decision, from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, says that the “ADA applies to the services of a public accommodation, not services in a place of public accommodation.”  

This means that digital properties — websites and mobile apps — are subject to the ADA law.

The author of the ADA agrees. Following the Supreme Court’s decision (or non-decision), Retired Rep. Tony Coehlo told leading technology source Ars Technica, “In my view, without reservation, the ADA was not meant to be something that was in place at the time alone. It basically sets the standard for going forward.” He continued, “The internet is part of our national infrastructure, and it's asked to comply with the law of the land. I have no reservations on that.”

The debate continues with new lawsuits and differing opinions from different appeals court. But it’s clear that the question of the ADA and internet content accessibility cannot be ignored. 

And, whether it’s technically legal or not to discriminate against people with disabilities online shouldn’t be the question. We know the right way forward, and it’s inclusion.

Travel technology and accessibility

Where does travel technology fit into this landscape? That’s a question we think about quite a lot at Deem, where our goal is to provide a traveler-centered solution. And that includes all travelers, of all abilities. 

The ADA offers no guidance on how to accomplish online and mobile accessibility, but the W3C’s web content accessibility guidelines is an amazing resource that we’ve eagerly taken advantage of in our quest for inclusion in travel technology. 

In fact, our Etta for iOS mobile app meets AA-level compliance within the guidelines set by W3C. What does that mean? We created Etta to be easier for all travelers in the following ways:

Vision impairments

Etta follows guidelines for contrast in its color palette, while also ensuring that chosen colors are not problematic for those with color blindness. We also make sure our interfaces can scale and zoom for users who need to display larger text on their screens. Our interface is also designed to be interpreted by screen readers. 

Hearing impairments or deafness

We make it easy for users to get help from Deem’s support team without ever needing to pick up the phone, ensuring that contact emails are accessible in our mobile app and on our website. 

Motor impairments

Users can navigate our platforms using only a keyboard, specialized switch, or other input device. Keyboard focus is always clearly indicated, and the path is logical and predictable.

Cognitive impairments

When designing our platforms, we keep in mind users with dyslexia or epilepsy and create uncluttered, clean, and calm interfaces. Our apps also respect system-level settings to reduce animation. We have also minimized the number of decisions a user needs to make at any given moment, streamlining the process so our platform is simple to navigate, and providing clear warnings for time-based issues, such as a held booking that is expiring soon. 

All these affordances already apply to Etta for iOS and will also apply to Etta for Android when it’s released in Summer 2021. As for the Deem website, we’re currently working on making it fully accessible, building upon our existing functionality and making great progress toward our goal that our entire presence — web and mobile — reaches the same high standard of accessibility by the end of 2022.

Following web content accessibility guidelines opens more of the world for those of us who face challenges most others may not encounter in their daily lives. They also help people without those specific concerns but who may, for instance, need a little bit larger text sizes or who appreciate a calm interface when trying to read, or work, or book their next business trip, online.

With Etta, we’re working to make it easier to travel anywhere. For everyone.


Get more information about accessibility features in the app here. Etta for iOS is available now at the Apple App Store.


Harper Lieblich
VP, Product

Harper is a product and design leader with more than 15 years of experience in helping established brands and start-ups reimagine their products. Most recently the senior director of product experience at Deem, he was instrumental in launching Travel SafetyCheck and accessibility features in the Etta platform. As vice president, Harper will evolve the company’s strategic product vision, and align and execute that across the organization. He has previously worked with companies including Bloomberg R&D, Mission Motorcycles, and Clear Channel Media.

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