This blog has been updated to reflect the release of WCAG version 2.2 in October of 2023.

What is website accessibility?

Website accessibility, or more broadly, digital accessibility, is the process of making websites and other digital experiences accessible to everyone, regardless of ability. It recognizes that people interact with technology in diverse ways and provides solutions that enable people with disabilities to engage with digital content, tools, products, and services.

Understanding the spectrum of disability

When it comes to answering “what is website accessibility?” it’s important to understand the spectrum of disability and think beyond the more commonly known vision and hearing disabilities. For instance, mobility disabilities are the most common in the U.S., followed by cognitive disabilities. When thinking about making your website accessible to everyone, think about people with disabilities that impact their:

  • Movement
  • Speech
  • Neurological functioning (for example, memory)
  • Cognitive functioning (for example, learning)
  • Vision
  • Hearing

It’s important to remember that accessibility can also benefit those with temporary disabilities, such as a broken arm that prevents someone using a mouse with their dominant hand, or situational challenges, such as when a person tries to engage with a video in a noisy environment. Many older adults also encounter functional challenges online due to age-related impairments but may not identify as having a disability. And at the end of the day, accessible, inclusive design makes a website’s content and user experience easier to navigate for everyone.

Why is web accessibility important? 

Ensuring every individual of every ability can access and engage with your website or digital asset is simply the right thing to do. Just as ramps, braille signage, and audible pedestrian systems enable people with disabilities to navigate the physical world, website accessibility removes online barriers that would otherwise prevent individuals from seamlessly navigating the digital world. Website accessibility is also good for your brand and your business. Organizations that choose to make their website accessible enhance their reputation by demonstrating they are prioritizing inclusion and taking action to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities. More and more organizations are formalizing their commitment to DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) and ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) initiatives. Website accessibility is a critical component of these initiatives.Further, website accessibility expands your consumer market. The World Health Organization estimates there are one billion people worldwide living with a disability. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts that number at about one quarter of all U.S. adults, and these numbers don’t include the fact that we are all “aging” into disability. With an accessible website, you’ll offer your products and services to a much larger consumer audience who, along with their friends and family, represent trillions of dollars in purchasing power.

Website accessibility and the law

Beyond the moral obligation and business benefits, website accessibility is also a legal requirement. There are a number of international accessibility regulations that prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities, many of them clearly requiring web accessibility compliance. Some of the more prominent mandates include the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), and EN 301 549.

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)  is an anti-discrimination law that requires the accessibility of places of public accommodation. U.S. courts and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have interpreted that the ADA’s reference to “places of public accommodations” applies to digital assets.
  • Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal agencies to make their information and communications technology (ICT) accessible to people with disabilities. ICT includes things like software, websites, electronic documents (such as PDFs), multimedia content, and more.
  • EN 301 549 is the European standard for digital accessibility, which sets requirements for public procurement of products and services between European Union states. The standard covers web and mobile applications, but also includes ICT products, services related to products, and telecommunication services.

Access more blog content on navigating international accessibility laws.Failure to make your website accessible puts you at legal risk. In recent years, plaintiffs in the U.S. have already filed thousands of web-related accessibility lawsuits, and these numbers don’t include the suspected hundreds of thousands of legal demand letters also served every year.

Best practices for web accessibility

Now that we’ve answered “what is web accessibility?” and covered why it’s important, you may be wondering how to make your digital experience accessible for all and compliant with global regulations. The best practice is to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG is a set of technical guidelines established by the World Wide Web Consortium with a goal of providing a single, common, global standard for web accessibility. While WCAG itself is not a legal mandate, several laws reference WCAG as the standard for accessibility, including Section 508 and the AODA. The DOJ has also cited conformance with WCAG in its enforcement of the ADA.There are more than 70 WCAG technical standards, which are based on four principles: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust. And there are three levels of WCAG conformance: A, AA and AAA. Level A represents the minimum conformance level and AAA represents the maximum. The latest version of WCAG is WCAG 2.2, building upon versions 2.0, and 2.1. Each version adds additional criteria to the previous, accounting for advancements in technology. Check out our related blog about WCAG technical standards and web accessibility.When closely following the WCAG technical standards, your online content will be accessible for users of all abilities. Here are some quick wins that will help you conform:

  • Make sure all of your non-decorative images contain alternative text. If an individual uses a screen reader to interact with web content, that alternative text will describe the image to the user.
  • Be supportive of keyboard-only navigation. Can you tab through your website without the use of a mouse? Some users will rely solely on their keyboard when interacting online. To support this goal, ensure your headings and content are structured in a logical way.
  • Assess your color contrast. If a foreground color does not present sufficient contrast from its background color, individuals who are colorblind may not be able to distinguish between the two.
  • Ensure your forms are accessible. Forms can be visually and cognitively complex. Accessible forms are easier for every user to use.
  • Write in plain language. Common, simple, clearly defined words improve the experience for people with cognitive and learning disabilities, but also improve understanding for every user.

To check the status of your website’s accessibility, request our WCAG Interactive Checklist.

How to evaluate your state of accessibility

To test your website’s accessibility, start with an automated scan. Automated testing quickly scans a URL, testing against approximately 30 percent of the total WCAG success criteria. From there, you’ll receive an accessibility health score as well as a report listing specific findings. Some identified issues may be easy to fix, such as adding missing alternative text to images. Others might require more in-depth design or development work. Either way, this report will help you prioritize issues to fix and provide a baseline from which you can measure improvement over time. Ready to scan your site? Simply fill out this form, and we’ll deliver a report and preliminary health score.Building upon the results from a scan, it’s important to engage experts to manually test against the 70 percent of WCAG success criteria an automated scan can’t catch. These testers can interact with your website or asset in the way only a human can, validating whether your user flows are accessible, and identifying any that aren’t. The result is a comprehensive audit. An audit of important user flows will provide greater context to each accessibility issue identified and its corresponding WCAG success criteria. It should also provide technical guidance for fixing the issues.

How to solve accessibility issues

Once you’ve identified your state of website accessibility, it’s time to quickly begin fixing issues. As we’ve mentioned, an inaccessible site not only creates barriers for individuals with disabilities and hampers your overall user experience; it may also put your organization at risk of a lawsuit.

Address issues at the source

If your website is already live, the best practice for fixing identified accessibility issues is to fix issues in your code. Fixing issues at the source will upskill your development team, helping prevent future mistakes when building other sites or digital assets. However, it’s recommended organizations incorporate website accessibility considerations well before a site is live. Thinking about accessibility in the ideation and design phase saves development and testing time, and is less expensive than fixing issues after an asset is built. This approach will also improve your chances of launching an accessible experience, and reduce your risk of a lawsuit or legal demand letter.

While it may be tempting to engage a quick-fix provider, like an overlay, it’s important to understand the limitations and risks. Overlays place a snippet of code on your site with claims that the code will find and fix accessibility issues. But, much like automated scanning, an overlay can only test against a fraction of WCAG success criteria, recommending a “fix” for a subset of those. And overlays are increasingly putting companies at legal risk. Some law firms are specifically citing the use of an overlay in their lawsuits, claiming installing an accessibility overlay indicates that the organization knew there was an accessibility problem but chose a non-compliant solution.

Editor’s note: For an updated perspective on how an overlay can be utilized as a powerful tool in a comprehensive program, visit our more recent blog: Our Perspective: Digital Accessibility and Overlays.

Considering a digital accessibility solution? Here are some tips for choosing the best accessibility partner.

Go with a comprehensive solution 

The most efficient, reliable, cost-effective path to website accessibility is to engage a reputable solution provider. At Level Access, our comprehensive solution combines testing, tools, manual evaluation, training, ongoing monitoring, and legal support services. We also have in-depth understanding of the complexities involved with achieving accessibility and compliance, and will work with you on an ongoing basis to do just that. Request a demo today to get started.