It should have been simple: a colourful map filling the screen, and a legend off to one side where each colour is linked to a page with more information. But for the life of me, I can’t tell these shades apart. Is Italy green or purple? Or maybe pink? As beautiful as it is, this map is essentially useless to me. But is it the map’s fault, or mine?
Like roughly one in 12 men, I’m colourblind. And while scenarios like the one above don’t come up very often, they’re incredibly frustrating when they do—especially since they’re easily avoidable. For people with more profound disabilities, though, web accessibility is not just a question of annoyance. It can affect their ability to view online content at all.
Altering or enriching your content to make it available to as many people as possible is at the heart of web accessibility (often abbreviated as “a11y”, with “11” standing in for the eleven letters it replaces). Usually this means adding alternative options for viewing or navigating content—but what sounds simple in principle can prove complex in practice.
Consider users who lack the fine-motor control it takes to use a mouse. To accommodate these users, you should make it possible to navigate throughout your website using only a keyboard—no mouse. But accomplishing this isn’t just a technical exercise; it’s a design exercise as well, since you’ll need to organize your tabbed fields in such a way that linear, keyboard-driven navigation is intuitive, too.
This example only scratches the surface of what web accessibility includes. As accessibility consultant Luke McGrath writes, “Disability on the Internet includes things like problems with sight, problems with using a mouse or keyboard, problems with hearing, and problems with reading and understanding. But web accessibility also helps people who have a slow Internet connection, have a small screen or unusual device, can’t listen to sound at work, or are using an old web browser or operating system.”
Ultimately, accessibility takes into consideration not just the limitations of your users, but also the technology that mediates your content and even the context in which they access it. Fortunately, there’s an international standard for web accessibility that provides clear guidance on the fundamentals.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (or WCAG) first launched in 1999. Version 2.0 followed in 2008, and the latest update, version 2.1, was released in June of this year.
These guidelines are comprehensive, providing standards for content (the text, images and videos that the user sees), as well as the code or markup that defines the way a site looks, which helps to make even website back-ends more accessible.
The WCAG is therefore a useful guide for content developers (including page authors and site designers), as well as anyone developing tools for web authoring or for evaluating web accessibility, or anyone looking for an accessibility standard—even something as generalized as mobile accessibility.
That covers what web accessibility includes and how it’s assessed, but the question remains: why invest in web accessibility at all?
Why You Need to Invest in Web Accessibility
For some, WCAG compliance is a legal requirement. All government sites in the U.S., Canada, the E.U., and a host of other regions, must be WCAG compliant by law, and for that reason alone, it’s a valuable skill to master. And while meeting WCAG standards isn’t legally required for non-governmental sites, it’s still best practice for several reasons.
The first is obvious: inaccessible content cuts out a large section of your audience. According to the latest U.S. census, nearly 19% of Americans have some type of disability, many of which affect what a user can do online. When you fail to accommodate these users, you lose customers and income.
And accessibility doesn’t exist inside a vacuum. The same issues involved with making content accessible also arise when you’re dealing with everyday user experience, optimizing for mobile users, managing multimodal interaction, designing for older users, and even implementing SEO best practises. No wonder, then, that improved accessibility has been shown to extend audience reach and reduce maintenance costs.
That second effect—lower maintenance costs—hints at the second reason why accessibility is best practice: poor accessibility makes it difficult for a company’s own employees (who also rely on both the front- and back-ends of its site) to do their jobs. Every accessibility speed bump employees encounter in the course of work leads to delays and mistakes, which lower your overall efficiency as a business and cost you money.
Third, poor accessibility suggests that not all of your customers are equally important—which sends an unintended message about you as an institution, even to people with no accessibility issues. By contrast, a fully accessible site sends the message that social inclusion is part of your corporate values, which in turn factors into everything from sales to your ability to recruit and hire top talent.
Web Accessibility Is Good Design
Given its many advantages, why is making online content accessible only now gaining prominence among many developers? For one thing, web accessibility is tied to growing awareness of (and sensitivity to) diversity. Social inclusion is a concern that reaches far beyond the web and its content, and the movement toward better web accessibility is just part of that broader conversation.
Parallel to this is a growing emphasis on good design—a trend that has been building for years and shows no sign of stopping. As the leaders of corporations from Apple to Dyson to Google recognize the premium that thoughtful design adds to their products, hire chief design officers and invest in R&D, the design of our everyday world is growing from a niche concern to encompass virtually every category of consumer goods. The result is an improved user experience for all customers.
But just as importantly, well-designed accessible web content needs the right technology to execute it. If websites in the ’90s were as horrible to use as they were to look at, at least some of the blame can be placed on the limitations of the technology at the time. Today, no such excuse exists: new software, hardware, and web standards make it possible to achieve better design and better accessibility. All that remains is for us to learn how to harness those tools.