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What Is Web Accessibility?

September 08, 2021

Accessibility refers to the practice of making a website work for everybody, including making websites work for people with disabilities. If somebody is visually impaired, they will be limited in how much of a website they can see but by making adjustments to how the text and images are presented, the website can still deliver an equivalent experience. If somebody has a hearing impairment, they won’t be able to listen to videos or podcasts but transcripts can help people understand the information presented. As another example, if somebody has certain types of motor disabilities, using a mouse to navigate a website might not be possible but allowing navigation via the keyboard might help.

While the focus is, rightfully, on people with disabilities, it is worth considering that accessibility isn’t only for people with disabilities. There are situational impairments that act like disabilities too. Somebody without a visual disability might be looking at a website on their phone while outside and, given the lighting conditions, may have a difficult time seeing all the text on the screen. Somebody without a hearing disability might want to read the transcript of a video instead of listening to it because they aren’t in an environment where they can play sound. Somebody without any motor disabilities might prefer to use the keyboard to navigate for productivity reasons. The point is that accessibility is about making your website work well for as many people in as many situations as possible.

Defining Website Accessibility

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) provides the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) which recommends ways to make a website more accessible to all visitors, including visitors with different types of disabilities. WCAG also defines success criteria that can be used to test if a website meets or conforms with specific requirements.

There are three conformance levels: A, AA, AAA. Level A is the minimum level of conformance and, therefore the easiest to comply with but conforming with A doesn’t result in a very accessible website. Level AA is stricter but conforming with AA means that your website is accessible for a broader audience. Level AAA is the strictest level possible and the hardest to comply with (few websites comply with this level as a result). Each of these levels builds on the other. So, if your website confirms with AA, then that means it also conforms with A.

If you are making your website accessible, your goal should be to meet AA. Level AA is typically what is required within various laws. As well, AA typically strikes a reasonable balance between the goal of making your website accessible for more people and the costs involved with making your website accessible. At Elementive, our accessibility audits check your website against AA unless there are specific AAA requirements that make sense given your company’s particular situation.

What Makes a Website Accessible?

WCAG defines accessibility around four key principles instead of around specific technology. Within each of these principles, there are specific, related guidelines and recommendations. You can read the entirety of WCAG for the details of each principle and the related guidelines. However, in this section, I want to briefly summarize each principle and provide a few examples.

To start, these principles (referred to by the acronym POUR) are:

Perceivable

All website content needs to be presented in a way that people can perceive it, visually and aurally. Where this comes up the most on websites is that equivalent text alternatives need to be provided for non-text content. This can include captions within a video or alt text on an image. However, you also want to make sure it is as easy as possible for people to see the text that is presented. As a result, there are requirements within WCAG for things like resizing text, the use of colors, the contrast between the text and the background, the device’s orientation, and the text spacing.

Operable

People need to be able to use, or operate, the website regardless of disability. The most common problem that websites face in terms of operability is that visitors have to use a mouse to navigate a website because it is impossible to navigate using only a keyboard. To comply with Level A (the most basic level), website content and functionality needs to be available using only the keyboard. For mobile devices, single-point activation should be used everywhere possible with more elaborate gestures reserved where there is no other option available. Similarly, people should have the ability to adjust timed-based content, such as sliders or rotating carousels.

Understandable

People should be able to understand the content presented on a website. This includes properly defining the page’s language including correctly defining when different languages are used within the same page. A Level AAA requirement says that definitions should be provided for abbreviations that people may not be familiar with—while this is a Level AAA requirement, this can make sense for more technical websites to follow too. Along with the understandability of text, how the website works should make sense—navigation should be consistent across pages, labels should be provided for form fields, and errors should be explained appropriately.

Robust

The final principle is that the website’s content should be robust enough so that it can be used by different types of browsers and devices now and in the future. In other words, you want to do everything you can to future-proof the website by following the standards of the different browsers and devices people use to access a website, including the standards of assistive technologies people might be using to access a website. This includes making sure the website’s HTML validates and is free of most parsing errors and using additional attributes to markup HTML (called ARIA).

Testing & Evaluating Accessibility

There are many different tools and plugins available that can help marketers, developers, and designers identify website accessibility issues present on the website. W3C lists over 164 tools that can help you evaluate your website’s accessibility. One of the more popular evaluation tools is WAVE by WebAIM. These tools will highlight the different areas on your website that likely don’t conform with one of WCAG’s standards. For example, WebAIM’s tool will highlight areas of low contrast or empty links.

WebAIM Low Contrast Error

While these tools are helpful, keep in mind that the tools are an automated solution to evaluating a very complex topic. To really determine if your website is accessible requires a careful, manual evaluation by somebody who understands the WCAG requirements. You need to step through each of the requirements stated in WCAG to make sure your website conforms, on both mobile and desktop devices. The tools can help aid this evaluation of your website but are not a complete evaluation in and of themselves. In short, whether you hire Elementive or somebody else, you should hire someone to see if your website conforms with WCAG and is accessible.

How Do I Make My Website Accessible?

After evaluating your website’s accessibility, you should have a clear and specific list of which areas of the website need to be altered to make your website accessible (and make your website comply with WCAG). You might need to change link colors, resize text, rework your website’s navigation, adjust how the responsive design works, change how forms are built, fix HTML errors, and more.

WordPress plugins offer one way to begin addressing some of these issues WordPress.org lists over 120 accessibility-related plugins you can use to address some of the WCAG requirements. HubSpot has a good summary of the top plugins that are the most helpful. A plugin might be able to add ARIA attributes or adjust timings on a slider, but a plugin won’t be able to alter your website’s navigation or alter all of your website’s CSS to use appropriate colors.

Similar to plugins, there are AI systems available that can help address some aspects of accessibility, such as alt text on images. While AI systems can help you write alt text for images on your website, some images don’t require any alt text at all, and AI systems won’t always make this distinction correctly. As well, AI systems might not always provide the most descriptive alt text. Remember, to comply with WCAG, it isn’t enough to simply have alt text, the alt text needs to be equivalent to the image if somebody can’t see the image.

While these types of plugins or AI systems can sometimes be part of the solution, the big thing to remember is that they aren’t the entire solution to making a website, or the web in general, more accessible for all. Making your website accessible often requires substantial work altering the design, functionality, and text of your website. Typically, this work needs to be done manually to make sure your website really is conforming not just with WCAG’s stated requirements but also with WCAG’s POUR principles.

Does Web Accessibility Help SEO?

Meeting the accessibility guidelines described in WCAG won’t specifically help your SEO performance and accessibility guidelines are not, at present, one of Google’s ranking factors. However, many of these guidelines do overlap with traditional SEO considerations. For example, a WCAG guideline states that you should provide a text-based alternative for non-text content, such as transcripts for videos. If you provide transcripts for videos, that makes the video more accessible to people but it also makes it easier for Googlebot to understand what information was shared in that video.

As another example, Google has defined a number of mobile usability factors they consider when evaluating a website. One of those factors is that tappable items shouldn’t be too close together because people using a mobile device might accidentally tap the wrong item. A Level AAA requirement in WCAG also discusses the importance of setting tap targets appropriately. Google’s mobile usability factors also discuss the importance of font size and fitting the content to the mobile screen, things that are also addressed by various WCAG requirements.

While accessibility overlaps with SEO and can indirectly benefit SEO, I want to clearly state that making your website accessible will not directly help improve your website’s rankings in search results.

Do I Need to Make My Website Accessible?

Finally, should you make your website accessible? Complying with the requirements specified in WCAG is a time-consuming process and can be expensive. Given this, many companies have opted to not make their websites accessible. I can’t tell you if you should comply with WCAG but there are two big considerations to keep in mind.

First, if you don’t make your website accessible, you are limiting how many people are able to use your website and that can be a sizable number of people. According to the CDC, 12 million people 40 years and older have some type of visual impairment, including one million who are blind. More broadly, also according to the CDC, 2 in 5 adults in the USA over the age of 65 have some type of disability. Remember, too, though, that accessibility isn’t only about people with these types of disabilities. There are also situational impairments that limit people’s abilities to use your website too, which greatly expands the number of people who can benefit from an accessible website.

Second, laws are starting to change regarding accessibility. I’m not a lawyer, so I encourage you, and every client we work with, to discuss this question with a qualified lawyer. At present, there is an open question in the USA whether websites (and apps) have to be accessible. Recently, the District Court of California ruled that Domino’s did have to make their website accessible but only because there was a connection to a physical location. In contrast, a 2012 case against Netflix in the District Court of Massachusetts found Netflix had to make its website accessible by adding closed captioning even though Netflix doesn’t have a physical location. Again, the best advice is to talk to a legal team about accessibility. This is especially true if you have recently received a letter claiming your website violates California’s Unruh Act.

Do You Need Help Making Your Website Accessible?

If you need help making your website accessible or have questions about accessibility, please contact me today. Elementive does offer an accessibility audit if you’d like to review your website’s current compliance with WCAG.

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