Accessible website design ensures that all users—including those with disabilities and limited access to the internet—can benefit from your website’s services and share in equitable access to information. After all, it’s important that the people who view your website can complete tasks that align with your organization’s goals—whether that’s to register for a class, purchase a product, or make a donation. The Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG) is an internationally recognized set of guidelines that can help ensure your website is adhering to accessibility best practices.
The state of website accessibility
Research conducted by WebAIM, a leading nonprofit organization based at the Institute for Disability Research, Policy, and Practice at Utah State University, found that 97.4% of home pages evaluated contained accessibility errors in 2021. You may be wondering how many users are affected by these errors. Put simply, the answer is a lot.
More than 14 percent of adults in the U.S. experience difficulty hearing and more than 16 percent have vision impairments, according to the CDC. Even before accounting for disabilities related to motor skills or cognition, this means tens of millions of people in the United States alone may be blocked from engaging with your content or finding the information they need on the internet.
Additionally, people may experience a “temporary disability” due to environmental conditions (e.g. poor lighting). It is likely that as we age, all of us will experience some form of disability. Moreover, different devices and internet connection speeds can affect one’s ability to access content. Accessible website design truly benefits all of us and helps create a more equitable society.
WCAG compliance and the ADA
WCAG is developed by the World Wide Web consortium (W3C) in coordination with organizations all over the world. The goal of the guidelines, as stated by W3C, is to provide “a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments internationally.”
WCAG documents provide a number of success criterions that a webpage must “pass” to be considered accessible. These criteria are broken down into four categories: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. There are currently two versions of WCAG (2.0 and 2.1) and three levels: A, AA, AAA. WCAG 2.2 is expected to be published before 2022 and will include all the elements of the previous versions, with new proposed success criteria added.
In the United States, digital accessibility is protected by the American Accessibilities Act, or ADA. While there is not yet a federal law dictating a specific WCAG mandate for website ADA compliance, many lawsuits have been successfully fought against owners of web properties for failing to meet the needs of people with disabilities. For instance, lawsuits brought by the National Association of the Deaf against MIT and Harvard culminated in 2020 with both universities legally consenting to provide high-quality captions for all online video content. After the Covid-19 pandemic hit, lawsuits against educational institutions skyrocketed as it became clear that people with disabilities could not adequately access educational content online and that the issue was urgent.
What makes websites accessible
Website accessibility revolves around four user-centered principles: they must be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. These principles are sometimes referred to using the acronym POUR. Each principle is explained below, along with examples of how the principle applies to website design and development.
The “perceivable” principle states that information and user interface components should be presented to users in ways that they can perceive. For instance, the criterion that text alternatives must be provided for any non-text content falls under this rule. You may already be aware that most images need to be accompanied by alternative text content that accurately describes the content to users who cannot see the screen. Similarly, input fields must be labeled or named programmatically so that the field can be identified by a screen reader or other assistive technology.
The perceivable rule also dictates that color plays an important role in accessible website design. While color cannot be the only means of conveying information or indicating an action, minimum color contrast plays an important role in the visual presentation of text. Many websites use color schemes that aren’t perceivable by people with impaired vision, including many types of colorblindness. In order for most text to be considered compliant, it must have a contrast ratio of 4.5:1. Luckily, website designers can use a number of tools to determine exact color contrasts and develop effective, accessible color palettes.
In order for a website to be “operable,” its user interface and navigation components must be functional for all users. A large component of operability is keyboard accessibility. Content that is operable only through mouse clicks will not be usable for folks who cannot use a mouse. And while some folks may not be able to use a standard keyboard, most adaptive technologies emulate the keyboard. This makes keyboard accessibility important to provide access to people with motor disabilities, people who are blind, and people with conditions such as tremors.
The operability principle also applies to the ways that users find and navigate content on your website. Many people don’t realize the importance (or existence!) of semantic structure in websites. Semantic structure—implemented through HTML elements such as regions, headings, lists, and ARIA specifications—is essential to helping users with and without disabilities get the information they need from your website. It is particularly important to folks using assistive technologies, such as screen readers, so that they don’t have to comb through every word on the site to find the content they need.
The “understandable” principle speaks to a user’s ability to understand the user interface and the information it contains. This principle includes elements of design, development, and the content itself. For instance, one component of understandability is readability. This includes publishing content at the lower secondary education level and providing mechanisms for identifying jargon words (or avoiding them altogether!) and abbreviations.
In addition to the readability of text, an interface must be predictable and offer input assistance to help users avoid and correct mistakes. This includes making sure elements that perform the same function are labeled consistently and appear in the same order, where relevant. For instance, a button labeled “Previous page” should not be labeled “Go back” in another location. These types of labels are most often implemented programmatically by developers as they create your website. Similarly, error prevention, such as letting a user know when a form input isn’t valid or a field, is required as part of what makes a website understandable.
To be considered technologically “robust,” an interface must be able to be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of “user agents” — mainly browsers and assistive technologies. One of the main elements of robustness is called parsing, which means that mark-up languages such as HTML must be formatted and nested according to proper specifications so that they can be properly analyzed and interpreted by these user agents. A simple extra quotation mark or forgotten angle bracket could make a web page programmatically unreadable.
Another important consideration for robustness is the implementation of status messages. This criterion states that status messages should alert users without interrupting the workflow of a user of assistive technology. For instance, if a user is scrolling through a social media feed when an alert message pops up, the user should be made aware of the alert without the focus (the input area of the screen that receives keyboard input) shifting.
Focus on accessibility, every step of the way
To ensure that websites meet the needs of all users and are WCAG compliant, it’s important to prioritize accessible website design every step of the way—from user experience research to content entry. Here’s an overview of the type of accessibility work that happens throughout the web design and development process.
User experience research
User experience (UX) research is the study of end users and their requirements and wishes. While much user experience research is conducted before a project even begins, the UX project should be iterative — with a testing and feedback cycle that continues even after a website is launched. Accessibility should be taken into account from this early stage in identifying the needs of the users. This can be done by incorporating users with disabilities in the research, building accessibility considerations into personas and user stories, and testing prototypes at various stages using assistive technologies.
User experience design
The UX design process—to include information architecture (organization) and interaction design—can help head off accessibility concerns down the road by ensuring that simplicity, consistency, and user needs are the backbone of a website. At this stage, accessibility can be built in by establishing consistent navigation, metadata, and taxonomies, planning for consistent UI components to be used across a website, and determining the hierarchical and semantic structure of web page templates.
At this stage, designers also consider how to convey information and offer user input across different devices, develop alternatives to motion for alerts and emphasis (which can cause harm to people with certain conditions), and ensure that a meaningful linking strategy is employed to avoid the use of inaccessible “click here” links throughout a website.
In the visual design stage, the perceivable principle takes center stage. Visual designers develop accessible color pallets, decide on typefaces and font sizes for various user interface elements, and ensure element selection and alerts are conveyed without color alone.
Visual designers also play a role in consistency (an important feature of the understandable principle) by ensuring the consistent patterns built into the information architecture are conveyed graphically.
The development stage is where the bulk of accessibility implementation happens. It’s at this stage that mark-up elements are created and formatted according to specifications with proper names and labels. CSS is used to implement accessible styles, responsive designs, and media queries, and create interactivity with scripting languages. Developers build in keyboard accessibility so that any interactivity, any action a user can take using a mouse, can also be performed with a keyboard or device that uses keyboard inputs.
Developers can also implement Web Accessibility Initiative – Accessible Rich Internet Applications, better known as WAI-ARIA or simply ARIA. This framework helps assistive technologies properly interpret interactive website components (e.g. sliders or accordions) by providing additional attributes.
Entering accessible content into a content management system, such as Drupal, is the final step. This includes ensuring images and non-text images have helpful alternative text, using headings in the proper order, and providing high-quality captions and/or transcripts for audio/video content. Learn more about writing accessible web content on our blog from one of our designers.
Feeling overwhelmed? Get in touch!
If you’re new to accessible website design or WCAG compliance, this might seem like a lot to keep in mind! At Redfin Solutions, we pride ourselves in meeting our clients where they are, and we’re here to help with important web considerations like accessibility.
If you’d like an accessibility audit on an existing web property or are interested in starting an new accessible project, get in touch!