In an ideal world, everyone has equal access to the internet. However, in our world, this just isn’t the case. To this day, a significant portion of the population remains unable to access the information, services, and opportunities the digital world has to offer. But when websites are designed with accessibility in mind, these barriers are eliminated, allowing for a more inclusive digital landscape.

What is web accessibility?

Web accessibility is the process of making websites and other digital platforms accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities. Web accessibility recognizes that people interact with technology in various ways and provides solutions that enable people with disabilities to engage with digital content.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 61 million Americans are living with some form of disability. Web accessibility accommodates a range of different functional requirements and access needs for those who have visual, hearing, cognitive and motor disabilities and many others who struggle to access online content due to a temporary functional limitation (e.g., a broken arm) or situational restriction (e.g., a noisy atmosphere when one is trying to access a video).

However, it’s essential to differentiate web accessibility from usability. While web accessibility focuses on making websites inclusive for users with disabilities, usability is a broader concept that addresses the user experience as a whole. It focuses on how well users can navigate through the interface without experiencing any confusion. So, while web accessibility primarily targets people with disabilities, usability addresses the needs and preferences of all users, including those without disabilities.

Prioritizing a user-friendly interface, accommodating every user’s unique needs is crucial for providing a universally accessible web experience. Beyond user satisfaction, incorporating inclusive design principles can protect organizations from lawsuits and boosts brand reputation.

Why is web accessibility important?

Ensuring that everyone can access and engage with digital platforms is an ethical responsibility. Just as accommodations like ramps, braille signage, and audible systems enable people with disabilities to navigate through the physical world, web accessibility eliminates online barriers that may hinder people from interacting with the online world.

Web accessibility is also good for business. Web accessibility can expand the consumer market for businesses, offering services to a larger audience, including people who use assistive technology to access and navigate the web.

Additionally, given that people with disabilities represent a significant portion of the population, it’s crucial for organizations to recognize their unique needs. Organizations that choose to make their website accessible deliver on their brand’s core values and DEI commitments by demonstrating they are prioritizing inclusion and taking action to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities.A website equipped with accessible features demonstrates a business’s commitment to serving everyone equally.

Web accessibility laws and guidelines

While there is no law entirely dedicated entirely to web accessibility, if a website is not accessible for people with disabilities, it’s in violation of many legal requirements. Let’s explore some of the laws, regulations, and guidelines that relate to web accessibility.

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Enacted in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in various aspects of public life. The ADA requires that these areas provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities to ensure equal access and participation in both the living and working world.

While the ADA doesn’t explicitly mention web accessibility, U.S. court rulings have interpreted that it applies to the digital realm, considering websites and digital content a “place of public accommodation,” as stated in Title III of the ADA. This means that websites and digital applications must be designed in a way that allows people with disabilities to navigate and interact with the content just as anyone else would.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal government agencies, as well as organizations that receive federal funding, to make their information and communications technology (ICT) accessible to people with disabilities. ICT includes content such as digital software, websites, and electronic documents.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, otherwise known as WCAG, were established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as a set of technical requirements for making web content accessible for all users. While WCAG itself is not a legal mandate, several laws, like Section 508, reference WCAG as the global standard for accessibility.

WCAG standards are built upon four principles of the user experience. They state that a web experience should be 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. There are also different versions of the guidelines as they are updated over time. Each version adds additional criteria to the previous, accounting for advancements in technology. Furthermore, to be conformant with any WCAG level, an organization must meet every guideline at that level.

How to make a website accessible

While there are many ways to implement web accessibility, closely following WCAG standards will allow all users to access online content. Here are some of the best practices to get started:

  • Provide alt text. Written descriptions should be available for any image, graphic, or logo that is on a website. This way, if someone uses a screen reader to interact with web content, that alt text will describe the image to the user.
  • Use sufficient color contrast. Insufficient contrast between foreground and background colors can lead to difficulties for people with color blindness, who are unable to distinguish between the two, and many other web users. WCAG criteria 1.4.3 provides minimum contrast requirements.
  • Use accessible online forms. Ensure forms are equipped with features such as labels for drop-down lists or checkboxes with text. Stay away from time limits and provide comprehensive instructions to help users understand how to complete the form.
  • Add captioning for media. Videos, audio files, and other content that uses sound should include captioning and transcripts for users who are unable to hear or have slower cognitive functions.
  • Organize content. Web pages should include headings to make it easier for assistive technologies to navigate through websites. Be supportive of keyboard-only navigation for users who rely solely on their keyboard to interact with websites.
  • Write effectively and plainly. Utilizing simple writing and fonts can improve the experience for all users and will make web content more readable.