A quick intro to web accessibility

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There’s a lot of talk about web accessibility in the design and development world. If all of that is making you overwhelmed and confused, and you don’t know where to start with, here’s a quick intro about what web accessibility is, why it matters and how it benefits your website visitors.

I’ve also explained some of the jargon and key regulations to help you learn enough to get your bearings into the world of accessibility.

So what is Web Accessibility?

Whether it’s for personal or business, your website is used to share your passions and information with the world. What good is it if the information on your website cannot be accessed by everyone? Enter Web Accessibility.

Web accessibility is the practice of making sure that everyone can access the contents and interact with all the functionalities on your website. It is also referred to as ‘digital accessibility’, ‘inclusive design’, and ‘accessible design’.

Why Accessibility Matters?

  1. Discriminating against people with disabilities is illegal in most countries. On Oct 7, 2019, US Supreme Court turned down the petition of Domino’s Pizza on whether their website is accessible to blind people. In 2017, more than 800 US federal lawsuits were filed against inaccessible websites. That number rose to at least 2,258 in 2018. In January 2019, Beyonce’s company was sued over allegations that her website was not accessible to visually-impaired people. In 2017 Kylie Jenner’s cosmetic website was sued by a woman for failing to adhere to industry standards for legally blind customers.
  2. There are over 56 million people in the US and over 1 billion people worldwide who have a disability, and that number is growing. Its only human to give people with disabilities equal rights and equal access to your website and its contents.
  3. Accessible websites benefit everyone NOT only people with permanent disabilities. They can be helpful for people with situational disabilities. Eg: When you are in a noisy cafe, having captions for your videos is super helpful for your website visitor. When you have a glare on your laptop’s screen, having enough contrast between the text and the background will make the experience of using your site more appealing for your visitor.
  4. Accessible websites can also help your website visitors with temporary disabilities. Eg: When my son had a fracture in his right hand while playing basketball, he could still keep up with his homework and study material online.
  5. Having a disability whether it’s permanent, temporary or situational, can be frustrating but giving them equal access to the information online gives them a higher level of independence.
  6. Accessible websites boost your site’s SEO and also result in delightful user experience for everyone.

What is A11y?

A11y(A-eleven-Y) is the alphanumeric acronym for accessibility. The letters between the first(A) and last(Y) have been replaced by a number representing the number of missing letters(11). This is especially useful when you have to limit your character count on social media or avoid using long hashtags.

What kind of disabilities do we cover with Web Accessibility?

There are 5 major categories of disabilities that we need to focus on when making our sites web-accessible:

  1. Visual- Eg: full blindness, low-vision, color blindness
  2. Hearing- Eg: deafness, limited hearing
  3. Motor- Eg: not able to use or limited movement of hands/legs, paralysis
  4. Speech- Eg: not able to speak or have a speech disability
  5. Cognitive- Eg: dyslexia, autism, ADHD

Even though we focus on these major categories for web accessibility, the benefits of having an accessible interface can extend well beyond these scenarios/users.

For eg: A website accessible for the blind will also help someone who is looking at your site when there may be a glare on their screen. A website accessible for the deaf will also help someone who is trying to use the content in a noisy cafe. A website accessible for someone with limited hand mobility will also help a person who has a temporarily cast in his right arm.

What is Assistive Technology?

People with disabilities often use different types of assistive technology (AT) to navigate websites and web apps. When we develop websites, a lot of accessibility work is making sure the interface and content can be navigated by these kinds of assistive technology. Some examples of AT are screen readers, screen magnification programs, etc.

What is WCAG?

WCAG, a.k.a. the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, are the technical guidelines created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for creating accessible web-based content. These guidelines serve as the basis for the accessibility regulations across the globe.

In 2008 these guidelines were updated and referred to as WCAG 2.0. And on June 5, 2018, the next minor version of WCAG was formally published to include recommendations for newer technology like mobile phones and tablets.

WCAG Success Criteria are broken down into different “levels of conformance”:
-A (basic conformance),
-AA (intermediate conformance), and
-AAA (advanced).

When your website content complies with WCAG 2.1 and AA success criteria, it generally serves as the default definition of “accessible”.

The four key principles of WCAG

THE WCAG guidelines are organized by four key principles, which state that content must be POUR: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust.
Perceivable: Available through sight, hearing, or touch
Operable: Compatible with/without a keyboard or mouse
Understandable: Easy to read and comprehend, user-friendly
Robust: Works across browsers, assistive technologies, mobile devices, old devices/browsers, etc.

Accessibility and the law

So while the WCAG is a set of guidelines, each country will probably have laws governing web accessibility based on these guidelines. Eg: EN 301 549 in the EU, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in the US, Federal Ordinance on Barrier-Free Information Technology in Germany, the Accessibility Regulations 2018 in the UK, Accessibilità in Italy, the Disability Discrimination Act in Australia, etc.

The W3C keeps a list of Web Accessibility Laws & Policies by country.

What is ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act(ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.
The ADA was enacted 30 years ago and in 2010, it was adjusted to consider how websites should work to accommodate people with disabilities.

Just like in our physical surroundings businesses abide by the ADA guidelines, like creating accessible parking spaces, it is required that the websites are ADA compliant for digital accessibility. As your website and content keep growing, make sure your site ADA compliance is part of your website’s ongoing maintenance.

What’s the difference between ADA and Section 508?

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in the US doesn’t require compliance for non-government sites unless they receive federal funds or are under contract with a federal agency. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies more broadly and covers any person, business, or organization.