It is very easy to take for granted how effortlessly the majority of us internet users can utilize any website without running into any difficulties; however, imagine navigating the websites you frequent without touching a mouse, or relying solely on a screen reader to tell you what’s on a page. Chances are, you’d have some problems doing so. Most of us who are sighted and able-bodied have never encountered websites we cannot use due to lacking accessibility features. Sadly, this has resulted in many sites falling short in this realm. Yet, with the rise of technology, there has been a boost in awareness around making websites and applications accessible to all users. In 2008, a set of global standards for building a more accessible internet, known as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), was published. According to these guidelines, there are 4 key areas of focus that a site or application should hone in on:
Your site must be perceivable:
This means that everything on your site, be it text, images, or audio content, must be easy to see and understand for all visitors.
Your site must be operable:
Features on your site must be easy to operate for users of all abilities. For example, if a visitor is using a keyboard to navigate a website, they should be able to access everything with relative ease.
Your site must be understandable:
Most of us have encountered the frustrations born from a website that is not intuitive to use. In an effort to combat this, the WCAG guidelines maintain that the operation of a site should be easily understood.
Your site must be robust:
All functionality of a site should be compatible with assistive technologies, so as to be accessible to users who rely on it. Failure to do so neglects these users, resulting in a site that is difficult or impossible to use. This also requires web developers to keep up with the evolution of assistive technology.
Levels of Conformance
It is worth noting that some accessibility requirements are more pressing than others. To illustrate this, the WCAG divided guideline conformance into three levels:
This is the most basic level. Any failures a site has to meet Level A compliance requirements, should be fixed ASAP. In addition to not catering to a wide range of abilities, Level A issues may also be violating disability protection regulations. On the bright side, Level A issues are typically the easiest to rectify. An example of a Level A feature would be the alternative text provided for an image. Alternative text is used by screen readers to describe the image to a user with vision impairment or loss.
A site that complies with Level AA requirements is typically considered acceptable. This level often focuses on assistive technology compatibility, or issues pertaining to a broad range of abilities. An example of a level AA feature would be proper usage of headings on a news site, so a screen reader can tell where one article ends and another begins. Fixing level AA issues can be challenging, but is well worth the effort to meet the needs of a wider range of users.
This level is regarded as the highest standard for accessibility, and usually requires the most work to achieve. An example of a Level AAA feature would be including link text that offers a concise description of a link’s context and destination. This would replace language like “click here” or “learn more”; language we come across all the time on the internet. Achieving this level of accessibility can be challenging and beyond a company’s scope. For this reason, it is not expected that websites meet a level AAA compliance; however, if it is possible, it’s worth striving for.
Is it worth the effort?
So, now that we have a better understanding of what to aim for when making websites accessible, you may be left wondering why, or even if, it is worth the effort. Since the WCAG is not a legally binding entity, there is technically no legal obligation to adhere to it. Even if a website is ripe with Level A issues, the WCAG itself cannot penalize the organization who owns it; however, this should not be seen as a reason to cut corners when it comes to accessibility. Here are some reasons to keep accessibility in mind:
The WCAG itself may not have the authority to get you into any legal trouble for failing to meet accessibility needs; yet, many of these guidelines can be spotted in various countries’ accessibility regulations. Violating these can pose legal threats. So if you shoot for, and achieve, level AA features, your site should pass. It is important to familiarize yourself with your country’s accessibility regulations; you can learn about the Accessible Canada Act here.
Your Business’ Reputation
If your website fails to meet accessibility needs, chances are individuals and online communities will hear about it in due time. Those who require accessibility features that your site lacks may decide to take their business elsewhere.
This is arguably the most important reason to strive for an accessible website. As many as 20% of consumers identify with some form of disability. It is in your best interest to make sure that your website is inclusive, and can be enjoyed by all.
While the accessibility of public spaces is held to a strict code, online platforms often fail to match these standards. As technology continues to grow, it is crucial for the internet world to be as accessible as our physical counterpart. With the increase of information surrounding accessibility and its importance, we can look forward to an accessible and barrier free world-wide web.