Accessibility has become an increasingly important topic in website and software development over the last few years. On the face of it, it seems relatively straightforward, but this fairly complex topic has left many confused by what exactly an accessible website is, and whether it’s required for their business. We’ve collected together all of the necessary information to help you understand what website accessibility is, what the measures are, and whether it’s something you should be concerned about.

Although this article will specifically look at website accessibility, in the next few years, expect it to become a hot button issue for any information accessed through technology, whether it’s your intranet, training documents, or E-Learning systems. With legal precedents around the world increasingly on the side of accessibility, expect to see fast changes in the near future – so get ahead of the curve now and start thinking about it before the tides change.

Why Accessibility matters

For those with disabilities such as sensory or mobility problems, the internet can be a mixed blessing. Many services, such as retail, have been made more accessible to those who would have previously had difficulty navigating the outside world. However, in much the same way as a building may be problematic to physically disabled people, a website may also present barriers to access.

As the internet becomes an increasingly integral part of everyday life, there’s a danger that more vulnerable web users will be left behind, widening the gap between information they can and can’t access. This is so important an issue, 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.

With between 10 and 15% of the global population classified as impaired in some way, and with numbers only set to rise as populations in Europe and the US age, a significant proportion of your potential users could conceivably face accessibility issues. In the EU alone, up to 75 million people could be unable to use inaccessible websites – by no means a trivial number.

In recent years, there has been an increased understanding of the needs of impaired web-users, and this has been articulated in the form of several sets of guidelines created by various institutions.

Website accessibility : The guidelines

Currently, there are a number of different guidelines in existence, but for the most part, the gold standard is the ‘Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0’, often abbreviated as WCAG 2.0. Created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the organisation in charge of the world wide web, they offer a thorough checklist which can be accessed HERE.

Although the guidelines aren’t a global standard, they are currently in use by major commercial and government organisations around the world, and are in the pipeline for use by major U.S. government departments such as the Department of Justice. Similarly, all EU government websites have had to be 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 2000 legal case against the Sydney organising Committee for the Olympic Games after they failed to make their website accessible using a refreshable Braille display. As such, you should generally feel safe in taking the WCAG 2.0 guidelines as a standard in most countries, and adoption of the standard only seems to be growing.

Because of the multiple standards, and multiple checklists and levels of compliance within them, it’s hard to make definitive statements on what exactly an accessible website is. There is a great deal of scope in what an accessible website entails, and this will vary depending on your company’s needs, budget, and the ability to make certain visual components accessible. For this reason, Fresh01 works to comply with the WCAG 2.0 standards due to their broad acceptance around the world – generally, by complying to these standards, you will be compliant with all others.

So, what to the guidelines actually entail? Broadly, the WCAG 2.0 breaks accessibility down in to four key areas. For a website to pass the standard, it must be:

  • Perceivable: information and UI components must be perceivable by at least one of the user’s senses. For example, this means that blind users should be able to navigate the website using text-to-voice software or a braille reader, and any audio components should also be displayed visually for deaf users.
  • Operable: Users must be able to operate the interface, irrespective of their disability. Broadly, this means that the website must be operable using the keyboard only, as those with motor or visual impairments may be unable to use a mouse.
  • 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, who must be able to understand the site structure and the content within it.
  • Robust: The content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by all users, including those who use assistive technologies, even as the technologies advance. This means that websites must be built in compliance with standard practices that will allow niche accessibility aides to function, even in the future as new technology comes on to market.

Within this are multiple levels of compliance, rated A, AA, and AAA, although even basic compliance will allow the majority of users to access your content. If you’d like to understand exactly what this entails, you can see it here on the WCAG 2.0 website: . As you’ll see, each level is broken into multiple sub-points, replying on multiple different compliance 

It’s important to note that within the WCAG, there are three levels of compliance (A, AA & AAA) and for each assessment criteria, there are multiple sub criteria. You can find the complete breakdown here: Depending on your business and technical needs, you should expect to try and find a balance between the information you need to display and the necessity of making it accessible. For example, point 3.1.5 requires “a text summary that can be understood by people with lower secondary education level reading ability”. Clearly, this is not possible for companies that need to explain highly complex concepts, such as our biotech client, Source Bioscience, and would therefore entail a cost-benefit decision in which the quality of the content is more important than reaching the highest accessibility level. Similarly, you can make use of accessibility-specific areas of the website, as you can see on the right side of this website, which allows you to keep your standard layout while providing options for impaired users.

Due to the multiple levels, this means that you can still consider the WCAG 2.0 while building your website, finding a medium where you can make reasonable efforts to help all users get the content they need without compromising on aesthetics or design. Irrespective of the rating, compliance at any level with the guidelines will be sufficient to aid access for users, and will greatly reduce your company’s liability to risk.

Why you need it: Current regulations

Aside from the moral implications of having an accessible site, regulations are increasingly coming in to force that can open up your business or organisation to legal risk. As we’ve seen in the Australian Olympic Commission example, in many countries, there are now regulations in place that can penalise your business if it fails to meet accessibility standards.

Indeed, companies in the UK currently have a legal obligation to make their websites accessible to disabled users. Although the Equality Act 2010 doesn’t expressly refer to websites, the consensus is that the ‘provision of a service’ can apply to commercial websites and internal networks as much as traditional services. Furthermore, the wording goes beyond merely avoiding discrimination and can actual require that providers anticipate the needs of disabled users, meaning that there might be legal repercussions for a non-accessible website.

This leads legal advisors to suggest that any large company will “struggle to justify any failure to make its website accessible” (source), and although smaller companies may have defences based on cost or resources, the trend is towards greater corporate responsibility for accessibility.

In the US, litigation has already been seen against major organisations including the NBA, Toys “R” Us, and government departments and this seems to be becoming the norm in a regulatory landscape that is tightening rules on accessibility discrimination (source). Like in the UK, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has created a system where there are legal precedents to invoke web accessibility guidelines, generally the WCAG 2.0. This means that theoretically businesses of any size could be taken to court if they fail to make their site accessible.

Although, as with the UK, it’s generally larger businesses that are at the most risk, Mr. Klein, a Florida accessibility lawyer, has warned that “many businesses find out about compliance issues by getting sued”. (source). 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 we can help

Fresh01 offers the entire suite of digital design services for your business, with a particular expertise in building accessible digital content. As a BSI Qualified accessible company, we understand the rigorous design process required for building accessible websites, and can deliver a fully-compliant website of any level of complexity, for any company. Although accessibility may seem like a hinderance, its subjective nature means that we can work to create anything you can imagine while retaining as much accessibility as possible for your users.

Alternatively, If you’d like to check if your current website, or other digital content, is compliant,  you can arrange a bespoke consultation with one of our accessibility experts. We can also add additional accessibility features to any website to bring it up to compliance and reduce legal and repetitional risk to your business.