There are a lot of companies that offer solutions to organizations and web development companies for web accessibility, though the information that is out on the web can seem to be anything from cavernous to contradictory. This article aims to shed more light on the nuances of web accessibility, requirements and needs for business and other organizations, and a brief description of the types of actions needed to be taken in order to comply with the most basic accessibility standards.
Web Accessibility Defined
Accessibility is, at its core, about the ability for anyone to access something in either a practical or business sense. In practice, when it comes to businesses and organizations, accessibility is used to describe the ability of people to access their business or organization, specifically for people with disabilities, with an emphasis on physical disabilities. This affects a number of daily organizational concerns, from parking space availability to entranceways and restrooms.
When discussing accessibility in terms of the web, the basic definition still stands, but tends to refer either to people with disabilities to read and/or process any information on a website or social media platform, or for users on different technological platforms or software which require alternative means of accessing information. A good example of a non-disability need for accessibility standards is content and design that can be understood in more than one language.
The Importance of Web Accessibility
Approximately one out of every six persons in the world has some sort of disability. Additionally, approximately one-to-two out of every 50 persons in the world has severe mobility issues. For people with sensory disabilities, especially visual disabilities, the ability for anyone to access a website, whether for commerce, social interaction or necessity and properly interact with it is paramount to both the user and the content owner.
Aside from disability, there are almost 4,000 written and actively used languages among the world population. While there are many workaround technologies and devices that aid disabled people in a given day, the web is still a relatively new tool, and one that has radically altered how people consume and interact with the world around them.
The overarching concern of accessibility for designers and developers is this: the web is meant to be used by everyone, and it is very easy for both stakeholders in an organization and designers to overlook a group of potential users when planning their online content. Designing with accessibility in mind does not necessarily solve every issue of information access for users, but it does cover a lot of ground that even the top designers in the field might not consider otherwise.
Legal Concerns (Existing and Potential)
Both the US and EU have some sort of legal standard for government and government-contracting organizations. Further legal requirements for non-government sites are most likely forthcoming from both jurisdictions, which will require accessibility standards to be implemented to a certain degree on both new and existing websites, as well as other related social media and business apps. While these concerns are speculative at the moment at best, it is a prudent measure for designers and developers to research accessibility design standards, especially as web accessibility for non-governmental organizations is likely to transition from simply being good and ethical professional practice into legally mandated professional practice.
Web Accessibility Aids and Complements Website SEO
Implementing web accessibility into a website has an added benefit of aiding standard search engine optimization (SEO), allowing users of all types to find an organization’s site faster and more efficiently. Many HTML coding-based best practices, such as alternative text for images, descriptive hyperlinks, writing out abbreviations and acronyms, short but descriptive page titles and avoiding CSS for text emphasis are also outlined as general accessibility guidelines (as written by the W3C).
Types of Web Accessibility
The W3C’s accessibility guidelines are tiered in three levels: A is the most basic level of standards, AA is the intermediate level, and AAA has the most thorough standards. Best practices from a legal perspective (so far) rely on adhering to the second most involved level of compliance (AA), though that could change. The following items give an idea of the types of concerns that a website designer/developer would want to keep in mind when publishing to the web at that level for the most recent guidelines.
The standards regarding text primarily revolve around text legibility. While screen readers can read text, not all people with visual impairments require screen readers; some have issues seeing all or specific colors.
Standard text should have a contrast ratio between the text and the background of 4.5:1.
Large text or images of text should have a contrast ratio between the text and the background of at least 3:1.
Text in logo images have no standards (though text meant to legible to users should have a reasonable contrast ratio, if only for good design practices).
Color should not be the only means of differentiating important words in a body of text. Bold or italicized text (where appropriate) are better indicators of emphasis, both visually and in HTML code.
Additionally, it is good practice to use simple language for the widest audience whenever possible; clear and concise descriptive language allows not only for efficient comprehension, but also allows for more concise translation of text into other languages. Figures of speech and other language-specific constructions do not necessarily translate well into other languages, especially when it concerns translation programs.
Photo accessibility relies primarily on the use of alternative text, or a text description in code that describes the image to someone who cannot see it (but who has screen reading technology available). Purely decorative images or structural images must be coded in such a fashion to be ignored by screen readers. Many content management systems (such as WordPress) actually have image uploading systems built so that back-end users can add alternative text without having to add it in via code, which helps developers for large organizations which require non-coding employees to add content to a website. For advanced AAA levels of accessibility, the W3C recommends avoiding images where text could be used to inform users more efficiently.
Most websites have one or more hyperlinked buttons with text on them (usually with an interactive component, such as a change in color once a mouse hovers over the button via CSS) and many sites have fill-in forms for users, whether to sign up for a mailing list or for contacting someone at an organization. Sections of fill-in forms, “submit” buttons on such forms and button graphics with live text must have labels assigned to them in HTML code to allow for adaptive technologies to identify such sections of the form and/or buttons. Labeling these elements are both among the easiest things to add from a coding perspective, and among the most overlooked items to add.
Videos uploaded on a site, whether housed on a local server or on a video service’s servers (such as YouTube or Vimeo) must have closed captioning available to users. Some video services (such as YouTube) have captioning options available upon a video’s upload, as well as the option to edit the captions. Sign language translation is only required at the AAA level of compliance. Live audio content also requires captioning. Audio descriptions are also required where applicable. Lastly, instructions on mechanisms (such as a video player script) cannot rely on color, shape, size of text, or sound to convey its information. As with standard text content, ease of use and brevity work best.
Sound files (such as songs with lyrics) require captions to be made available, whether prerecorded or live. Like video files, instructions on mechanisms used to control an audio file must not rely on color, size of text, shape, or sound.
Additionally, if any audio automatically plays for more than three seconds on a page, a mechanism must be available for a user to turn it off.
PDF Document Accessibility
PDF documents must have selectable text available, whether by OCR text recognition or other means, such as laying out a PDF in a word processing program that automatically allows for selectable text when saved as a PDF, or via professional desktop publishing software that behaves similarly, such as Adobe InDesign or comparable applications. Good document design should also allow for reasonable information hierarchy. It should be noted that if the web is the primary means of conveying information on such a PDF document, that it would be wise to have a webpage with al the PDF’s information and applicable graphics as a primary option for getting the information, with a downloadable PDF document as a secondary option, especially as PDFs are not properly able to be embedded into a webpage’s visual area (one always has to click a PDF directly to access it).
Above all, information should be arranged on a webpage and/or supporting documents and media in a logical fashion with a noticeable hierarchy. This can be aided by properly nested headings in HTML (i.e., H1, then H2, H3 under that, etc.), as well as standardized text size for the general page body. Additionally, all pages should have titles (with an HTML heading level of one). Structural data, such as tabular data, should be coded correctly to allow screen readers to determine the subject matter of the tabular data, headers within a table and the general structure of the table (for example, whether the table relies on rows or columns primarily, or a combination of the two).