Accessibility, in the context of the web, refers to the design and functionality of a website that makes it usable for everyone, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. In the words of the famous physicist Stephen Hawking, "The Paralympic Games are changing our perception of the world." The same can be said about web accessibility, which is changing the way we perceive the internet. The goal of accessible web design is to provide equal access to information, communication, and technology for everyone.
In the following article, we will explore the importance of accessibility, the diversity of users, and the principles of creating accessible websites. We will also discuss accessibility laws and guidelines, types of disabilities, accessibility tools, and the developer's checklist. So, let’s get started!
What is Accessibility and Who Needs It?
Accessibility is the practice of designing and developing digital content and websites in such a way that they can be used by all people, including those with disabilities. This concept is essential because it allows people with disabilities to access information and services that may otherwise be inaccessible to them.
However, accessibility is not only about accommodating people with disabilities, but it is also about making the web usable for everyone. In fact, many people benefit from accessible websites, such as the elderly, people with temporary disabilities, and those using low-end devices.
Accessible Websites are Good for Everyone
As we mentioned, creating an accessible website not only helps people with disabilities but also benefits everyone. Accessible websites are easier to use, faster to load, and more user-friendly. They improve the user experience and reduce frustration, leading to higher engagement, more conversions, and better SEO rankings.
Website Accessibility Laws
There are many countries that have laws requiring websites to be accessible to people with disabilities. For example, in the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires all public-facing websites to be accessible to people with disabilities. In most cases, failure to comply with the laws can result in legal action and fines.
There are five main types of disabilities: physical, hearing, visual, motor, and cognitive. With this, each disability can be further broken down into these categories:
- Situational disabilities are temporary disabilities that occur due to a particular situation, such as trying to hold a conversation with someone who speaks a different language. Situational disabilities can also occur due to environmental factors, such as poor lighting or noisy surroundings.
- Temporary Disabilities are disabilities that are time-limited, such as an injury or recovery from surgery. These disabilities can significantly affect a person's ability to use a website and require temporary accommodations.
- Permanent Disabilities are disabilities that cannot be cured or reversed. These disabilities can include visual, hearing, or physical impairments and require permanent accommodations to ensure equal access to digital content and websites.
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Four Accessibility Principles
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) developed four accessibility principles that serve as a foundation for creating accessible websites:
- Perceptible: Websites must be perceivable by users with different disabilities, primarily sight and hearing.
- Operable: Websites must be operable with a keyboard, mouse, and other auxiliary devices.
- Understandable: Websites must be coherent and free of any confusion.
- Robust: Websites must be robust and accessible to both new and legacy technologies.
WCAG Levels Difference
The WCAG guidelines have three levels of conformance that you can meet, with each level progressively harder. These levels are A, AA, and AAA. Level A is the lowest level of conformance and requires the minimum level of accessibility. Level AA is the mid-level of conformance and the most common of all. Level AAA is the highest level of conformance and requires the highest level of accessibility.
That said, it’s vital to be aware of the different types of disabilities and what you can do as a designer to make a website better for all users. The following is a quick look at each common disability and how a designer can help with accessibility:
People with visual disabilities have impairments that affect their ability to see and read. Some examples of visual impairments include color blindness, low vision, and complete blindness. To make websites accessible to people with visual impairments, designers must create alternative text for images, use contrasting colors, provide full keyboard support, and ensure that fonts are large enough to be easily read.
People with hearing disabilities have impairments that affect their ability to hear and process sound. To make websites accessible to people with hearing impairments, designers need to provide closed captioning and transcripts for videos, use descriptive text for audio content, and provide visual cues for sounds.
People with physical disabilities have impairments that affect their mobility and dexterity, making it difficult for them to use traditional input devices like a keyboard or mouse. To make websites accessible to people with physical impairments, designers must ensure that websites are operable with a keyboard, provide alternatives to mouse-based interactions, and avoid using time-based interactions that require quick reflexes.
Low Cognitive Ability
People with low cognitive ability have impairments that affect their ability to process and understand information. To make websites accessible for these users, designers need to use simple language, avoid complex navigation structures, and provide clear and concise instructions.
There are several accessibility tools available to help designers and developers create accessible websites. These tools include:
- aXe Plugin for Chrome: An easy-to-use accessibility checker plugin. It finds problems and gives recommendations on how to fix them.
- Wave: An accessibility tool that visualizes the accessibility of content by adding icons and indicators directly to the page.
- WCAG Color contrast checker extension for Chrome: This tool helps calculate the contrast ratio of text.
- Adobe Color-contrast-analyzer: A tool that analyzes the color contrast of your design to ensure it meets accessibility standards.
- Contrast - Figma Plugin: A plugin that checks the color contrast of your design elements in Figma.
Overlays Are Not Just Tools
Overlays have been touted as a quick-fix solution to improve website accessibility. However, they are not just tools that can be easily deployed to solve all accessibility issues. In fact, overlays can only detect about 30% of accessibility issues through code analysis. This means that they are not comprehensive solutions for accessibility and may leave behind a significant number of accessibility issues that need to be addressed.
Perhaps the first thing to mention is that overlays cannot make an unresponsive website responsive, nor can they magnify embedded text in an image. Yet, it's also essential to note that overlays only work in the web world. In contrast, 55% of emails are opened on mobile devices, which means that overlays are not an effective solution for accessibility issues in email content.
If the overlay script gets hacked, your site could be compromised. Similarly, if the overlay site's performance is slow, your site's performance will also be affected. These potential security and performance risks highlight the need to carefully evaluate the use of overlays for accessibility and consider other options for improving accessibility on your website.
Here are some critical tasks to consider while developing a website to ensure that all people can have a consistent experience:
- Use semantic HTML to ensure that the website is understandable to all users.
- Provide alternative text for images, captions, and transcripts for videos and audio content.
- Use contrasting colors for text and backgrounds to ensure readability.
- Ensure that the website is operable with a keyboard and provides alternatives to mouse-based interactions.
- Avoid using time-based interactions that require quick reflexes or complex navigation structures.
- Use simple language, avoid complex instructions, and provide clear and concise content.
In conclusion, building an accessible website takes a little more time and forethought, but it's worth it. In addition to having to comply with the laws and regulations of your country, an accessible website becomes much easier for everyone, improves SEO returns, and helps all your visitors have a better experience on your site. It also makes your site accessible to the 15-20% of the population who have some sort of restriction.
So, always remember, accessibility is not just good for people with disabilities but is usability for all! By following the accessibility principles and using the right tools and checklists, designers and developers can create websites that are usable and accessible to all people, regardless of their abilities or disabilities.