White desk with monitor that has accessibility icons

6 Things You Should Know About Web Accessibility

Over the last few years, web accessibility has become a key focus for the digital industry. Yet even as it takes center stage, many people remain intimidated or confused by it. That’s understandable, there are legal and technical implications to consider, but it’s important for everyone to know the basics. To help, here are six fundamentals you should know about web accessibility.

1. What is it?

Web accessibility is the practice of making the web more inclusive by providing equal access and opportunity to all users, regardless of whether or not they have a disability. When sites are designed, built, and written with web accessibility in mind, they remove barriers to information and functionality. This isn’t just a talking point. It’s so important that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities considers access to information and communication technology (including the web) a basic human right.

Web accessibility is sometimes abbreviated as the numeronym “a11y” which sandwiches the number 11 (the amount of letters that have been omitted) in-between the first and last letters of the word. One reason this numeronym has been adopted is because the term “accessibility” can be used in more than just this context. This numeronym helps people specify that they are talking about web accessibility, which reduces the number of irrelevant results in online searches and also allows users to access resources in multiple languages. Another reason that this numeronym grew in popularity was due to the character limits on Twitter. People who use “a11y” save 9 characters in their tweet which, as any Twitter user can tell you, is very useful. Ironically,  “a11y” can make the word less accessible than writing it out, but that may change over time as the term becomes more commonplace.

The numeronym "a11y" has become a popular synonym for web accessibility.

2. Who sets the standards?

In 2008, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) released the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, which have become widely accepted as the global standard in web accessibility. Although the WCAG 2.0 is not a legal document, many governments have passed web accessibility legislation based on it. In June 2018, WCAG 2.1 guidelines were released. This retained all the WCAG 2.0 requirements and added new ones. Since WCAG 2.1 requirements are so new, most governments aren’t requiring those standards yet. The general recommendation is that organizations should work toward WCAG 2.1 compliance in 2019. This won’t be a big leap for those who are already WCAG 2.0 compliant.

The WCAG 2 guidelines break down web accessibility into 4 main principles:

  • Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive. The word “perceive” here is critical since some users, like those with vision loss, won’t be able to see the content and will therefore need content that screen readers can access.
  • Operable: User interface components and navigation must be operable. This principle focuses on the ability of users to access elements of a web page without needing the use of a particular piece of technology (eg: mouse or trackpad) and without impediments like time limits or flashing designs that may cause seizures.
  • Understandable: Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable. In a nutshell, content needs to be easy-to-understand, functionality should be predictable, and there should be guidance to help users figure out how tasks need to be completed.
  • Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies. This principle requires that all content and functionality on a web page be accessible to all devices, including those that are used by people with disabilities.

The W3C’s How to Meet WCAG 2 – Quick Reference provides a breakdown of all the requirements within each of these principles. If you can adhere to each of these then you have an accessible site.

The WCAG 2 guidelines aren’t an all or nothing deal. There are three conformance levels that can be met: A, AA, and AAA. Level A passes the most basic accessibility standards and AAA is the highest level of accessibility. The most common level of web accessibility that is legally required is AA so this tends to be the level that most organizations strive for. This is ideal for all parties since AA standards provide strong web accessibility while retaining flexible design and functionality.

3. How many people rely on web accessibility?

It’s estimated that up to 20% of the world’s population has some sort of disability. That’s over 1 billion people! Many of these disabilities can impact how a person navigates the internet or interacts with a website. There is no way to tell just how many people with disabilities access your site. Why not? A primary reason is that people with disabilities are a protected class in the US under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other legislation around the world, therefore privacy and discrimination concerns come into play. Although most companies probably wouldn’t discriminate against a user with a known disability, this can’t be left to chance. Another reason is because assistive technologies like screen readers or specialized keyboards aren’t technically trackable by analytics software. It’s best to assume that some of your site’s visitors will have a disability that impacts how they use the internet, and work to improve their experience on your site.

4. What types of disabilities are affected?

When people think of web accessibility they tend to limit their expectations of who may have problems using the internet. There are, however, a range of disabilities that are affected, including:

  • Blindness, vision loss or blurry vision
  • Dyslexia
  • Color blindness
  • Physical or motor impairment, such as paralysis or shaky hands
  • Hearing loss
  • ADHD

Some disabilities are permanent while other are short-term, and each type of user will rely on different techniques or devices to use the internet. Even somebody who has recently broken their arm may not be able to use a mouse or keyboard like they normally would, so it’s important that we broaden our idea of who may rely on web accessibility standards in their daily life.

The good news is that web accessibility can be planned for and improved over time, from the initial stages of writing a scope document that requires a AA level of web accessibility, to incorporating the requirements in designs and development. The sooner you can start thinking about web accessibility for your site, the better the outcome.

5. Why should you improve web accessibility?

Awareness about web accessibility has increased in recent years, however motivation to meet accessibility standards isn’t as high as it could be. While some organizations view this as a box-ticking exercise, there are actually several benefits to implementing web accessibility on a site. One such benefit is that you are giving all users a better experience on your site, not just those with disabilities. Not only does that leave users with a better impression about your business, but they may also become return visitors or even customers.

Web accessibility isn’t just a choice, it’s the law in many countries around the world, so adhering to accessibility standards will help you avoid lawsuits. For many businesses, this is the biggest motivation of them all and it works. In 2017 there were 814 federal lawsuits in the US over web accessibility, and that number is set to increase by up to 30% by the end of this year. Major web accessibility legislation from around the world includes:

  • USA: Section 508 (of the US Rehabilitation Act of 1973)
  • EU: Web and Mobile Accessibility Directive
  • United Kingdom: Equality Act 2010
  • Australia: Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA)

The W3C website contains a library of web accessibility legislation from around the world, and references which WCAG version those laws are based on and who must comply. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Setting aside business benefits and avoiding legal issues, you should meet web accessibility standards because it’s the decent thing to do. The internet should be a resource for everyone, no matter their disability, and every site that conforms to web accessibility standards helps bring more social justice to the web.

6. Tools to help you meet web accessibility standards

The rise of web accessibility has led to some really useful tools to help implement and check whether or not a web page is compliant. Some of my favorites include:

  • SiteImprove Accessibility Checker: This free Chrome extension will crawl your web page and flag any errors, warnings, and items to review. It breaks down issues it finds by the WCAG 2.0 numerical code and definition, and gives you suggestions on how the issue can be fixed.
  • Funkify: Another free Chrome extension that you shouldn’t live without. This disability simulator allows you to select from a range of disabilities, and simulates what your webpage would look like to those users.
  • WAVE Accessibility Tool: Another free tool that crawls your site to look for accessibility issues. This tool’s user interface isn’t as appealing as SiteImprove’s but it does a better job of showing you where on the page the issue is located. This tool provides you with the WCAG codes and Section 508 guidance that isn’t being met.
  • Adobe Acrobat XI Pro – PDFs and Photoshop: Designers who create PDFs or assets in Photoshop can now use built-in tools to help make their files more accessible. Photoshop includes Color Universal Design (CUD) to simulate color blindness, files can be saved with alt attributes, and users can specify alternative text descriptions for image slices. Adobe Acrobat now includes an accessibility checker for PDFs that looks for WCAG 2.0 compliance.
  • WebAIM Color Contrast Checker: Color contrast is a major factor in web accessibility, and this tool allows you to check to see if your contrast meets WCAG 2.0 AA or AAA standards. It’s a great tool for designers to use in the initial design process.

For a more comprehensive list of web accessibility tools, check out W3C’s website.

Web accessibility has become an important part of any digital project. With an understanding of these fundamentals, you’ll be able to confidently discuss web accessibility with your team, and what next steps you should take to ensure that your site provides a good experience to all users

About the author
Veronica Bagnole
Veronica Bagnole

Veronica has worked in digital marketing for 10 years and has held positions in digital agencies in the US and Great Britain. She has an MA in Globalization & Communication and spent 3 years in the Peace Corps.​