Implementing web accessibility represents far more than following a set of loose recommendations alone. This concept is instead a core tenet of online site development and yet, the majority of stakeholders are uncertain how such processes should be leveraged. How can accessibility be streamlined without sacrificing time and becoming mired within confusing documentation? What contemporary standards are the most relevant? This article will address the notion of web accessibility from a practical perspective before explaining how it can positively impact any upcoming project. Let us now take a closer look.
What is WCAG?
WCAG is an acronym for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. This framework is a recognised set of standards intended to refine the ways in which online content is made more accessible (1). Originally introduced as far back as 1995, these recommendations were rather complicated in nature and therefore, challenging to implement. They would be further refined in 1998 so that a more coherent set of principles could be realistically enacted. This first iteration is now commonly referred to as WCAG 1.0.
Note here that in this case, the concept of web accessibility is particularly geared towards users who are hindered by some type of disability. The main intention is to ensure that these individuals do not experience any type of interactive hinderance.
The four principles
In terms of implementing web accessibility, WCAG architecture can be segmented into four guiding principles:
Often referred to by the acronym POUR, the main purpose is to provide developers with a standardised approach that does not deviate across different sites, servers or geographic locations. In other words, users will experience the same accessibility options regardless of which portal they visit. POUR is also intended to provide a familiar developmental “template” that eliminates the confusion that was often attributed to WCAG 1.0 and its numerous recommendations.
WCAG 2.1 and 2.2
The 2.0 series of WCAG guidelines was first published in December 2008 and as mentioned previously, these standards were created to simplify the developmental process. Having said this, there are still a number of differences which should be noted before moving on.
Perhaps the most important disparity is associated with the increased emphasis placed upon users with specific disabilities. The three concerns addressed by the WCAG 2.2 framework are (4):
- Vision-related problems (such as cataracts and glaucoma)
- Cognitive and/or learning disabilities
- Tactile related problems such as arthritic fingers
It also needs to be highlighted that unlike WCAG 2.1, the second iteration takes into account the growing prevalence of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Thus, accessibility issues associated with touchscreen formats are more relevant. On a final note, WCAG 2.2 is a backward-compliant framework; it does not negate or change existing 2.1 parameters.
The new WCAG 3: APCA
One recent improvement in web accessibility that is set to further benefit users comes in the form of WCAG 3. This system is heavily focused around the importance of colour contrast and it employs a unique formula known as APCA (Accessible Perceptible Contrast Algorithm). APCA is concerned with two elements that are not sufficiently addressed by previous accessibility versions (5):
- Differences in colours used for the text as opposed to the background
- The size and weight of the text
Simply stated, the main takeaway point is that web accessibility must also concern itself with how pages and content are perceived in terms of contrasting elements. For instance, those with low vision may require a site that offers higher resolutions as well as more noticeable colour disparities in order to discriminate between unique sections.
First Steps for Implementing Web Accessibility in Your Project
Now that we have taken an in-depth look at the concept of web accessibility from a macroscopic scale, what about implementation issues? The first step obviously involves appreciating the audience that the site intends to cater to. This will help to determine which systems need to be put into place (including WCAG 3.0). Other recommendations include:
- Leveraging a content management system (CMS) that actively supports web accessibility
- Labelling images with “alt” text so that they appear within search engine results
- Employing the proper HTML headings and subheadings
- Choosing the correct colour gradients in accordance with WCAG 3.0 algorithmic guidelines
- Ensuring that on-site content can be accessed with a keyboard alone
- Creating a mobile-responsive layout
Note that these are only a handful of web accessibility suggestions to consider. There can be times when more discrete concerns arise. For instance, the CAPTCHA form validation system is not often recommended for those with limited vision. Thus, alternatives may be warranted.
Accessibility Guidelines and Legal Implications
One recent issue which has caused some concern involves web accessibility and possible legal ramifications. The problem here is that laws tend to vary from region to region. At the time that this article was written, there was no universal doctrine that all sites must adhere to. However, certain nations such as the United States have already implemented specific regulations known as US Section 508 and the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (8). In the same respect, the European Union ratified the Web Accessibility Directive in September 2018.
It is therefore crucial to appreciate which guidelines must be followed in order to avoid potential legal action from those who have suffered some form of loss or harm by being unable to access specific portions of a page. While such cases are relatively rare, it is predicted that they will become more frequent as the number of disabled users continues to increase.
Why Accessibility is so Important in Web Development
There are two primary reasons why the notion of web accessibility should never be taken lightly and these can be summarised below:
- Online visibility and the user experience (UX)
The first point should already be clear. Having a robust accessibility framework in place will ensure that everyone can access a website; regardless of any limitations that they may have. These very same systems also help to ensure that the site in question does not suffer from more generic issues such as slow loading times or pages that fail to display correctly when viewed on mobile devices.
However, it is just as important to highlight WACG and web accessibility from an end-user perspective. Many studies have shown that visitors will leave a page in as little as ten seconds if they are unable to find what they are looking for. Simply stated, even a website that offers quality products or services will ultimately suffer if the proper accessibility features are not put into place. This can lead to lower SERP rankings, higher clickthrough rates and ultimately, a failure to resonate with the target audience.
Final Recommendations for Implementing Web Accessibility
It is now entirely apparent that web accessibility should represent an integral portion of any ongoing site development campaign. Furthermore, owners are responsible for making certain that they remain “one step ahead of the curve” in regard to recommended WCAG guidelines. Not only will this augment the experience of the end user, but it can also help to avoid potential complaints that might otherwise harm the reputation of the portal in question.
As technology continues to evolve, there is little doubt that implementing web accessibility will become increasingly important and the associated recommendations will be updated. This is why it is prudent to keep abreast of the latest changes and if necessary, to work with a third-party firm that is capable of providing proactive solutions at the appropriate times. In other words, it pays to think ahead.