Web Accessibility Standards, Guidelines, Laws and Compliance

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Summary: Why does web accessibility matter, and what are the laws that mandate it? We break down web accessibility laws and guidelines, including a helpful checklist for compliance.

web accessibility

According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), website accessibility is the practice of removing barriers so people with disabilities can “perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the web”. When websites are designed and developed with accessibility in mind, all visitors have equal access to site content.

Why Does Website Accessibility Matter?

The web accessibility compliance landscape grows more regulated over time, which results in many companies finding themselves needing a major digital overhaul. Changes to web accessibility laws and guidelines stem from advancements in technology and our shifting consumer behavior – from in-person interaction to a digital-first world. 

Approximately 1 billion people, or 40 percent of global Internet users, have purchased products or goods online. Yet because the vast majority of websites are not accessible, people with disabilities are often blocked from  these digital interactions. If a website is not coded according to specific technical guidelines, a user with a disability may have a frustrating interaction, or find themselves unable to interact entirely.

How is the World Making the Web Accessible?

The World Wide Web Consortium, W3C, is a major player in the global effort to make the web accessible. The W3C is made up of staff, volunteers, and member organizations from all over the world who collaborate to develop standards and protocols for the web.

One of the W3C’s areas of focus is accessibility. This international community recognizes that if the Internet is to continue to grow and flourish, it is critically important that it be accessible to all. Thus, the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) specifically works on guidelines and other materials to support web accessibility. The WAI links disability, government, and business groups with an interest in accessibility together.

The WAI has made great strides over the years. Currently, the WAI’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the most widely accepted set of web accessibility guidelines in the world, often cited in regulations. The WAI working group published the WCAG 1.0 in 1999, released the revised WCAG 2.0 in 2008, and added the WCAG 2.1 update in 2018, andWCAG 2.2 is expected to be released this year. 

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It’s important to remember that even though WCAG standards are directly referenced in some web accessibility laws, WCAG itself is not a law.  

Web Accessibility is the Outcome of Many Components Working Together

People with disabilities use a variety of technology which results in varying online experiences. So what does web accessibility mean in practical terms? Per the W3C, there are several components that must work together to make the web accessible.

  • Accessible content: This is the information on a web page or web application. It includes “natural” information such as text, images, and sounds, as well as code or markup that defines the structure, presentation, etc.
  • Display Software: Web browsers, media players, and other software people may use to visit and enjoy your website. These are known as “user agents.”
  • Assistive technology: This includes assistive devices and software programs that assist people with disabilities when using a computer, tablet, or smartphone. Examples are screen readers, alternative keyboards, switches, and scanning software.

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Other factors that influence the online experience include:

  • Users’ knowledge: Individuals have varying levels of experience and comfort when they are online. Individuals with disabilities may also have developed their adaptive strategies for using the web.
  • Digital experience creators: These are the people who create content and  web experiences. They can be designers, coders, authors, and more. User-contributed content, such as someone who posts a comment or uploads an image, also plays a part in the web development process.
  • Authoring tools: This is software that helps developers create websites.
  • Evaluation tools: These include web accessibility checkers, evaluation tools, HTML/CSS/WCAG validators, and more.

Doing Your Part to Make the Web Accessible

You may not have control over all the above components such as:

  • You can’t decide whether a visitor to your website will use a computer or a mobile device.
  • You can’t select their preferred  browser.
  • You can’t determine their level of comfort or experience using the Internet.

But you are in control of the design and code of your website and the services you provide. You have the power to dictate just how welcoming your corner of the Web will be to people with disabilities, which means adhering to web accessibility laws and guidelines as best you can.

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Anyone who serves, informs, entertains, or sells online has an important role to play in making the web fully accessible. There are many ways to make your website accessible. Ideally, you should be considering these principles to ensure that the needs of everyone are met.

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Web Accessibility Checklist

In almost all cases, web accessibility enhancements  can be put into place without diminishing the appeal and serviceability of your website. 

Here are a few basic web accessibility examples to consider:

  1. Alternative text: Written descriptions known as alt-text should be available for images, graphics, and logos. That way people who use a screen reader can understand visual content on your site.
  2. Online forms: Ensure forms are accessible with features such as labels for any drop-down lists or checkboxes with text. Forms should also be easy to navigate with a keyboard. Time limits need to be long enough that people with disabilities can fill out the form before time runs out.
  3. Organized pages: Web pages should include headers and lists to make it easier for people to make their way around the site.
  4. Captioned media: Videos, audio files, and other sound sources should be captioned or transcribed for people who are not able to hear them.
  5. Hyperlinks: When hypertext links are included, the text should be self-explanatory, even if it’s read outside of context. Someone might skip from link to link without reading anything else on the page. The links should also work with the keyboard.
  6. Special content: PDF documents, Word documents, and PowerPoint must be accessible formats.
  7. Color: Don’t use color to communicate information. You should adhere to the accepted standard for color contrast so people with vision disabilities don’t have trouble distinguishing the text on your site.
  8. Effective writing: The writing on your website should be clear and your message should be easy to understand.
  9. Assistive technology made available: To give a customer with a disability an inclusive digital experience, organizations should consider offering free assistive technology on their websites. With technology, customers who have physical disabilities, like cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, paralysis, stroke, arthritis, and others, can navigate the Web or use their mobile device hands-free.
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The list above is not exhaustive, but it does demonstrate some important things that should be on your checklist for making your website accessible. When organizations implement all the critical factors, they provide a truly inclusive digital experience for their customers with disabilities.

Web Accessibility Regulations, Standards, and Guidelines

Let’s take a look at a few web accessibility laws, regulations, standards, and legal guidelines to find out what they mean, where they take effect, and how to ensure your website is compliant.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0

WCAG 2.0 and 2.1 are universally accepted and adopted sets of guidelines for ensuring web accessibility. While not required as of January 2021, organizations looking to get ahead on legal compliance or make their web content more accessible can look to WCAG 2.1.

WCAG features three levels of conformance: A, AA, and AAA.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA is a U.S. law that prohibits discrimination against any person with a disability. It applies to businesses, schools, and public groups, and private organizations serving the public. While the ADA doesn’t specifically mention web accessibility, U.S. courts and the Department of Justice are interpreting the ADA to apply to digital information.

The Rehabilitation Act (Sections 508 and 504)

The Rehabilitation Act prevents discrimination against people with disabilities.

Section 508 requires federal agencies to create, buy and use Information and Communication Technology (ICT) that’s accessible to people with disabilities. This includes all pages of your website, software, applications, intranet sites and tools, and electronic documents.

Section 504 prohibits any organization that receives federal funding from discriminating on the basis of disability.  These organizations include universities, public and private schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and more.

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA)

The AODA is a law that applies to government, businesses, and organizations in the province of Ontario. It includes the development of accessibility standards that must be followed and a compliance time-frame. A section of the AODA also includes mandates for making websites, web content and web-based applications accessible.

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The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)

The ACAA makes it illegal to discriminate against airline customers with disabilities. It applies to air transportation within, to, and from the United States for all air carriers. Phase II of ACAA went into effect in December 2016 and requires all web pages on an airline’s website to be accessible, 

Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA)

The CVAA became law in 2010. The purpose of the CVAA is to update older legislation and ensure that digital, mobile, and other modern technologies are accessible.

Why Complying with Web Accessibility Laws  Matters

People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world. There are more than one billion people around the world who have some form of disability. Approximately one in five people self-identify as having a disability.

Still, many organizations view accessibility and adhering to web accessibility laws and guidelines as an obligation rather than an opportunity. This leaves many digital marketers unaware of the benefits of inclusive digital assets. However, investing in disability and completing the web accessibility checklist has its fair share of returns:

  • Organizations have the opportunity to enhance the digital customer experience for the largest minority group in the world.
  • Research shows that 86 percent of buyers will pay more for better customer experience.
  • Companies can begin to build a disability-friendly brand presence by enhancing the customer experience with websites that are easy to use for people with disabilities.

Offering an inclusive web accessibility solution to customers with disabilities by integrating a suite of assistive technologies alongside accessibility compliance will enhance the digital customer experience. In return, an organization can expect to create an inclusive digital presence and make its brand accessible to all.

An Innovative Solution

eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive web accessibility solution to help organizations follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and achieve and maintain compliance with standards and regulations. This includes integrating web accessibility evaluation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.

What to do next

We can help you meet WCAG standards and maintain ADA and AODA compliance:

  1. Connect with us today to learn more about our comprehensive approach to digital accessibility, including our automated and manual auditing capabilities and extensive range of managed services.
  2. Visit our resources section to download free white papers and webinars, and find our newest blogs on industry trends.
  3. Connect with us to continue the conversation on Linkedin, Twitter, or Facebook.

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