Web accessibility standards matter, because they’re the minimum requirements to be considered accessible to people with disabilities. They make the difference between being inclusive and shutting out a large segment of the population.
What Are Accessibility Standards?
Accessibility standards can apply to the physical environment, such as the width of a doorway. They can apply to customer service – one such example is waiving admission fees for personal attendants who assist people with disabilities. Accessibility standards also apply to digital technology, such as websites, software, mobile apps and video streaming.
People with disabilities actively use digital platforms to conduct their lives. They’re looking online for information and services. They’re going online or using mobile apps to pay their bills, book their travel, check their bank balance and pre-order their latte.
It’s not enough to ask whether your website is up to standard. The real question is: is your website up to accessibility standards?
What is Accessibility?
Accessibility refers to genuine usability by people with disabilities. Accessible doesn’t mean usable with someone else’s help, or usable with compromised dignity, or usable but to a lesser degree than for someone without a disability. The bottom line: accessibility means equal opportunity, not barriers, for people who have disabilities.
The World Report on Disability1 published by the World Health Organization and World Bank, emphasizes that if people with disabilities are to enjoy full participation in society, accessibility in information and communication technology (ICT) is essential. But the report notes that in a study of 36 countries and jurisdictions, there were three times as many government accessibility standards for the physical environment or public transportation as there were for ICT! Obviously, there’s a need to pay more attention to web accessibility.
For the website owner, increased accessibility comes with benefits. First, of course, it means that over a billion people with disabilities in the world can potentially have a positive experience on your website. It can also lead to higher search engine rankings, better performance on mobile devices, improved customer feedback, fewer customer complaints, and even lower maintenance costs.
Just ask Legal & General Group, a financial services company in the U.K. that hired an agency to redesign its website with accessibility as a topmost goal. The company reported a 100% return on investment in just one year. Their online traffic increased dramatically, as did conversion rates, while their maintenance costs were reduced by two-thirds.2
When scientific publisher Elsevier3 improved the accessibility of its ScienceDirect website, its vast collection of research papers became easier for subscribers with disabilities to use. Lucy Greco, who has a vision disability and currently specializes in web accessibility at the University of California, Berkeley, says that after Elsevier’s enhancements, she was amazed at how effortlessly she could get at the online research. “Previously it required hours and hours of coordination, including finding people to help me, before I could read a research journal article,” she told Elsevier. “But that day, in a matter of seconds, I was able to find 21 articles on my eye condition that I’d never had access to before. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life.”
Web Accessibility Guidelines
High-quality guidelines already exist, thanks to the Web Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which can help organizations meet accessibility standards on their websites. And luckily, there is worldwide consensus for these standards – which means not a lot of second-guessing!
The W3C is a global community of experts and stakeholders who work together to develop web standards. The Web Accessibility Initiative specifically addresses accessibility issues; its Accessibility Guidelines Working Group has collaborated to produce the world’s most comprehensive, accepted set of accessibility standards for websites, known as WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0).
There are, of course, other web accessibility standards that have been issued by various governments and groups. In a previous article we talked about the “Standards for Electronic and Information Technology,” in Section 508 of The Rehabilitation Act, and the checklist for website accessibility that’s available to aid in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Many laws and policies refer to WCAG 2.0 as the accessibility technical requirements to follow. Ontario’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) and Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act, for instance, both dictate how and when websites must comply with WCAG 2.0. The European Commission also uses WCAG 2.0 to educate content developers about accessibility.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Checklist
The Web Accessibility Initiative has published a basic checklist called “Easy Checks” that covers some of the accessibility standards in WCAG 2.0. Easy Checks doesn’t address every possible accessibility problem, but it’s a place to start. These are the areas it covers:
- Page titles. Do they briefly but correctly describe what’s on the page?
- Alt text. Are there descriptive text alternatives to all images like photos and diagrams?
- Headings. Are they marked up properly so they can be navigated easily?
- Color contrast. Is there a certain amount of contrast between colors (e.g. between text and the background)?
- Text resizing. If the text is enlarged, does it still display properly?
- Keyboard navigation. Can a user move around the website and operate all of its functions using only a keyboard – pressing tab and arrow keys, for instance?
- Forms and labels. Easy Checks lists several criteria to ensure that elements like fillable forms, drop-down boxes and checkboxes can be used by people with disabilities.
- Flashing and blinking content. Is it slow (or small or dim) enough that it won’t trigger seizures in some people with epilepsy?
- Moving content. Can users control (e.g. pause or hide) scrolling newsfeeds and other kinds of distracting content that moves?
- Video and audio. Are videos accessible to people who can’t see them (e.g. audio description), and is audio accessible to people who can’t hear it (e.g. captions and transcripts)?
- Structure. Easy Checks lists a few structural issues to ensure a page is accessible to people who enlarge it or use screen readers.
Useful Web Accessibility Tools
There are also many automated web accessibility checkers online to help website owners and developers check whether they’re meeting web accessibility standards.
They aren’t designed to provide you with a comprehensive accessibility evaluation, but they can highlight problem areas or test specific elements of a website, and they do give instant feedback. These web accessibility tools include:
- Cynthia Says
- WAVE (Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool)
- mobiReady (for testing website performance on mobile devices)
- Color Contrast Checker and Contrast Checker (for checking color accessibility)
A large collection of dozens more web accessibility evaluation tools has been compiled by the Web Accessibility Initiative.
Web Accessibility Testing
By now, you probably realize that there’s a lot to know about web accessibility. The checkers and tools we’ve talked about here are a helpful starting point. And it can only be a good thing for business owners and executives to become more aware of accessibility standards, and why various features will make such a significant difference to website visitors with disabilities.
But to get to the point of full accessibility, it requires more robust evaluation and remediation – and not by an online checker, but by a consulting firm with individuals who have suitable expertise in web accessibility testing.
These consultants will use a combination of automated testing, manual testing, and functional testing. They may apply some of the automated tools that are available, but they’ll also examine individual pages thoroughly to check that they follow accessibility standards. The consultants can also ensure there is testing by actual people who have disabilities and/or use assistive technology when they’re online, because often that’s the only way to identify certain kinds of accessibility barriers.
Once you’ve had proper accessibility testing performed, and all barriers have been addressed and eliminated, only then can you be certain that your website is fully welcoming to people with disabilities.
Increasingly, companies and organizations are committed to ensuring that their digital technology is up to web accessibility standards. Are you on board?
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 services with assistive technology to deliver a transformative experience for people with disabilities. Learn more about eSSENTIAL ACCESSIBILITY’s innovative solution.
- World Report On Disability. World Health Organization, 2011.
- Case Study of Accessibility Benefits: Legal & General Group (L&G). Web Accessibility Initiative.
- Sandra Millers Younger. Why web accessibility is the new usability Elsevier, 2 June 2014.