Web Accessibility 101: A Beginner’s Guide

web accessibility design layout

What is web accessibility? It means that websites, mobile apps and other digital tools and technologies are fully usable by people with disabilities. Too often, digital properties aren’t designed or updated with accessibility in mind, and people with disabilities encounter a wide range of barriers.

Web accessibility, also referred to as digital accessibility, has become increasingly important as more and more of our daily lives and activities – including employment, education, healthcare and recreation – take place online. Legislators and policymakers recognize that access to information and communications technologies (ICTs), including the internet, is essential to equal opportunity. In fact, access to ICTs is a basic human right in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and it’s a key part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other laws.

Who defines web accessibility?

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the leading authority on web accessibility. The goal of this international network of accessibility experts is to make the internet as inclusive as possible. It states that web accessibility “encompasses all disabilities that affect access to the Web, including: auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, visual.” If web accessibility is achieved, people with disabilities should be able to “perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web,” as well as contribute to it 3.

Imagine, for example, that you are blind or have low vision. Navigating and reading the text on a website or mobile app is difficult or impossible without assistive technology such as screen readers (software that reads digital text aloud)4. Unfortunately, many websites are built in such a way that screen readers can’t properly convey what’s onscreen. This causes frustration and excludes many users.

W3C notes that improving web accessibility also benefits people who don’t have disabilities, since web content is rendered and interacted with in different configurations, including different devices, operating systems and web browsers. Accessible content also works better on small screens (such as smartphones and smartwatches) and reduces bandwidth use and server load.

What does web accessibility look like?

W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) develops technical specifications, techniques, guidelines and resources to help individuals, businesses and organizations make digital properties accessible. W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG, pronounced “WUH-cag”) are the most widely accepted accessibility standard. WCAG 2.0 is the version required for compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) and other accessibility laws.

WCAG 2.0 has 12 guidelines divided among four principles: perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. The “success criteria” for each guideline are designed to make content (text, images, sounds, code and markup) on websites and in applications more accessible. Here are some examples of success criteria:

  • Guideline 1.1 Text Alternatives: Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language.
  • Guideline 1.2 Time-based Media: Provide alternatives for time-based media (including pre-recorded audio-only content and pre-recorded video-only content).
  • Guideline 2.2 Enough Time: Provide users enough time to read and use content.

WCAG 2.0 has three conformance levels: A (minimum accessibility), AA (addresses the major, most common accessibility issues) and AAA (the highest standard). For compliance with accessibility laws, websites must meet the requirements of Level AA.

Download our free Must-Have WCAG 2.0 Checklist.

You may have heard that W3C is working on an extension to WCAG, known as WCAG 2.1. It is expected to be finalized in 2018. Organizations should still meet the criteria for WCAG 2.0 Level AA – they will still be required when version 2.1 is released.

Who can assist you?

If you’re new to web accessibility, WCAG 2.0 can seem overwhelming – after all, the guidelines are mainly intended for web content developers, web authoring tool developers and other related professions.

Even if you work in web development, you may want to consult a firm that specializes in web accessibility. They can help you conduct thorough web accessibility testing – including automated, manual and functional testing – to evaluate your digital properties’ current level of accessibility.

While automated testing may seem like the most efficient solution, by itself it isn’t sufficient. A lot of usability issues on websites and in mobile apps are only identifiable by human testers who have disabilities and/or who use assistive technologies.

Once your digital properties’ accessibility issues have been identified, the consultant can assist you in achieving WCAG 2.0 compliance efficiently, correctly and at minimal cost.

An Innovative Solution

eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY has developed a comprehensive 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 compliance evaluation and remediation services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.


  1. 2016 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates United States Census Bureau, 2016
  2. World Report on Disability World Health Organization, 2011
  3. Introduction to Web Accessibility W3C Web Accessibility Initiative, 2018
  4. Screen Readers American Foundation for the Blind, 2018

Discover how you can give people with disabilities an inclusive digital experience

Request a personalized demo, and one of our experts will answer all of your accessibility questions.