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Web accessibility: A critical facet in design

Web accessibility should be viewed as a key facet of product design. Given this, it needs to be an ongoing priority. In this article, I will explain why, providing an overview of disability categories, web accessibility design guidelines, and levels of compliance.

Disability stats

More than 53 million adults (about 19 percent of the U.S. population) have a disability, according to the CDC. Types of disabilities impairing users’ abilities to navigate, interact with, and understand the web include: cognitive (such as dyslexia and autism), physical (such as motor issues hindering mouse or keyboard usage), auditory (such as deafness), visual (such as color blindness or limited vision), and speech (such as muteness).

Web accessibility guidelines & compliance levels

To improve the user experience for people with disabilities, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These are organized into four sections, with descriptions, success criteria, and recommendations for each one. Commonly referred to as POUR, the acronym stands for:

  • Perceivable: Information and UI components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.

  • Operable: UI components and navigation must be operable.

  • Understandable: Information and the operation of the UI must be understandable.

  • Robust: Content must be robust enough to be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including web assistive technologies (such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, selection switches, braille readers, and speech recognition software).

In 2008, W3C published WCAG 2.0; in June 2018, WCAG 2.1 joined it as a W3C recommendation. There are three levels of compliance, ranging from least (Level A) to moderate (Level AA) to most (Level AAA). The updated WCAG 2.1 is backwards compatible, meaning any site meeting 2.1 standards would receive the same rating in the 2.0 recommendation.

Devbridge team works on web accessibility

Who needs to be compliant?

As of January 2018, federal agencies must achieve WCAG 2.0 Level AA compliance for requirements under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (this encompasses Internet and communication technology, including hardware, software, and documentation). The airline industry must achieve the same compliance level, thanks to the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (which was amended in 2013 to ensure that all digital interfaces are accessible to those with disabilities).

Still, regardless of industry, under the Americans with Disability Act, all employees are legally required to receive reasonable accommodations to complete their job responsibilities. Per the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, these may include: acquiring or modifying equipment or devices, restructuring jobs, offering part-time or modified work schedules, providing readers and interpreters, and making the workplace readily accessible and usable. Thus, do not overlook internal websites when it comes to user accessibility.

The high stakes of noncompliance

Although the Department of Justice has not yet extended the Level AA requirements to public websites, it’s likely this will occur in the not-too-distant future. After all, past litigation has shown that the courts tend to favor those with disabilities. For example, the National Federation of the Blind sued Target in 2006, which resulted in a $6 million settlement for the plaintiff. As a result, Target had to complete a full accessibility audit of its website and redesign it to meet Level AA compliance.

Since accessibility audits increase in price as websites grow, it’s best to address these issues as soon as possible. The more you incorporate accessibility now, the less work you will need to do in the future when accessibility standards become legally required or when litigation becomes an issue.

Keep up with compliance efforts

Even if your website receives certification as Level A- or Level AA-compliant, conduct regular internal audits to ensure continual compliance. For example, if your team creates new custom elements and forgets to add accessibility attributes, your site will no longer be fully compliant. Furthermore, with the release of WCAG 2.1, new updates should be considered. These new guidelines are focused on users with cognitive or learning disabilities, users with low vision, and users with disabilities on mobile devices. Keep in mind that adhering to WCAG 2.1 will not invalidate any previous conformance with WCAG 2.0.

Web accessibility benefits all

If you’re still hesitant about prioritizing web accessibility design, know that making such improvements will likely benefit everyone—even those without impairments. Just consider a ramp, which helps people in wheelchairs, plus anyone pushing strollers or suitcases with wheels. Highly-accessible websites are better-designed websites.