Accessibility has become an increasingly significant topic in web development throughout recent years. It seems relatively straightforward on the surface, but this complex topic has left many confused by what exactly an ‘accessible website’ is, and whether it’s required for their business specifically. Hopefully, this article can help you to navigate your way through the minefield that is accessibility.

Why does accessibility matter?

Accessibility is designed to make web pages available to everyone. For those with sensory or mobility disabilities, the internet can be a mixed blessing. Home shopping, for example, can be essential to those for whom busy streets present a difficult challenge. However, in much the same way as a building may be a problem to access for physically disabled people, a website may also present barriers to its access and use…

With the internet becoming increasingly integrated into everyday life for all of us, there’s the danger that vulnerable web users may be “left behind”. The issue has become so pressing that the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises access to information and communications technologies, including the web, as a basic human right.

The average age of the western world’s population has increased over the last few decades and continues to do so. As a result, many elderly people are now living, and this, using the web. With 10 -15 percent of the global population being classified as impaired in some way, the understanding and need for accessible websites are now becoming truly essential. There are several sets of guidelines created by various institutions across the world.

What makes a website accessible? The guidelines…

Currently, there are several different sets of guidelines that have been created by various authoritative organisations but no single one oversees all laws regarding this subject of human rights. The ‘Web Accessibility Guidelines 2.0’ (WCAG 2.0), developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is one example. Although these guidelines aren’t completley necessary, they are currently in use by major businesses and government organisations around the world. US government departments such as the Department of Justice, for example, are also looking to use this set of guidelines in the near future.

Similarly, EU government websites have been compliant to level AA of the WCAG 2.0 guidelines since January 2010. They have also been adopted as the benchmark test in Australia, following a legal case against the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, after they failed to make their website accessible to the blind by using a refreshable braille display.

Generally, the WCAG 2.0 guidelines are used as the benchmark in most western countries and their adoption seems to be growing. Due to the multiple standards, checklists and levels of compliance, it’s hard to make definitive statements on what makes an accessible website.

We work to comply with the WCAG 2.0 standards, due to their broad acceptance around the world. Generally, by complying with these standards, you are likely to be compliant with all others. So, what do the guidelines entail? Broadly, the WCAG 2.0 breaks accessibility down into four key areas. For a website to pass the standard, it must be:

Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be perceivable by at least one of the user’s senses.

Operable: Users must be able to operate the interface, irrespective of their disability.

Understandable: Users must be able to understand the information, as well as how to operate the user interface. This is relevant for both physically and mentally impaired users.

Robust: The content must be robust enough so that it can be interpreted reliably by all users, including those who use assistive technologies, even as technologies advance.

These areas cover multiple checkpoints that must be met to pass each component of the WCAG 2.0. These are further broken down into three levels of compliance: A (the lowest), AA, and AAA (the highest).

Different compliance levels

Higher levels may include adding sign language to videos and editing content so that it is easily digestible for lower literacy levels. Generally, companies are satisfied by an A or AA rating, which should allow the majority of users to access their content. However, compliance at any level will be sufficient to aid access for more users and will greatly reduce your company’s liability to legal risks.

Why you need to have accessibility

Aside from the moral implications of having an inaccessible site, updated regulations that may make your organisation vulnerable to legal risks are being introduced more and more frequently. As we’ve seen in the Australian Olympic Commission example, there are increasing regulations being put place that can penalise your business if it fails to meet accessibility standards.

Companies in the UK currently have a growing legal obligation to make their websites accessible to disabled users. The Equality Act 2010 builds upon the Disability Discrimination act of 1995 in dealing with the issue of disability discrimination. Although it doesn’t explicitly refer to websites, the consensus is that the ‘provision of a service’ can apply to commercial websites as much as traditional offline services. Furthermore, the wording goes beyond merely avoiding discrimination and can require that providers anticipate the needs of disabled users, meaning that there may be legal repercussions for a non-accessible website even to those who are completely unaware of these new impacts to commercial law.

This leads legal advisors to suggest that any large organisation will “struggle to justify any failure to make its website accessible”

Legal actions have already been taken against major organisations including the NBA, Toys “R” Us and various government departments. This seems to be becoming the norm in a regulatory landscape that is tightening its rules on any form of discrimination or exclusion. Like in the UK, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has created a system where there are legal precedents to invoke web accessibility guidelines.

Larger businesses are generally at the most risk of lawsuits but not exclusively. As such, it’s safer to have your website checked and audited for accessibility – since it’s no longer the case that companies can plead ignorance over accessibility issues.

How can we help?

Fresh01 offers a wide range of digital design services for web development. We understand the rigorous design process required for building accessible websites and can deliver a fully-compliant website to any level of complexity. Although accessibility may seem like a hindrance, its subjective nature means that we can work to create services that meet your wants, while retaining as much accessibility as possible and boosting the moral profile of your organisation. Alternatively, if you’d like to check if your current website is compliant, check out our article on a 5-minute accessibility check up…

Click here to get in contact with us to see how we can help with your website accessibility issues and to arrange a consultation with one of our accessibility experts.