Website accessibility is not an afterthought

Blog

Written by Josh Stopper

Quite a nice title for an article isn’t it?! It’s bold, thought-provoking, and alludes to what is to come. You could say that it’s an “accessible” title.

In the design of the products and services that we use in day-to-day life, we should always be considerate and inclusive of as many people as possible. This makes sense, not only as we open our products and services to a larger audience, but in theory, to create a better product or service for everyone.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s first understand what accessibility is, and what it means for websites.

What is website accessibility? And how does it relate to the web?

Accessibility is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “how easy something is to reach, enter, use, see, etc”. When we think of what that can mean in the physical world, we could think of ramps instead of stairs, sign language instead of auditory communication, or braille for those who are vision impaired. In essence, making a product or service accessible to those who it might not have been before.

Web design and development in that respect is no different. An accessible website makes the information provided available to those of all abilities.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) discusses in depth the diversity of abilities that can impact a person and how that impacts their access to a website. They are:

  1. Age-related impairments: Many people develop age-related impairments. While they share the same functional requirements as others with disabilities, sometimes there are significant differences in the use of assistive technologies, the level of computer skills, or in the use of the Web in general.
  2. Multiple disabilities: Some people have combinations of different kinds of disabilities, which may limit their approaches to interacting with the Web. For example, someone who is deaf and has low vision might benefit from captions for audio, but only if these captions have adjustable size and colour.
  3. Health conditions: Some people have health conditions that may affect their stamina, dexterity, or concentration. For instance, some may experience fatigue, pain, or other symptoms that could have an impact on their physical use of the computer or limit the duration or extent of their use of the Web.
  4. Changing abilities: Some people may be experiencing progressive or recurring functional limitations that impact their use of the Web differently at different times. For example, some may need particular accessibility features on one day, and others or none on another day, depending on their condition.
  5. Temporary impairments: Some people may be experiencing temporary impairments such as those that may occur due to an accident, surgery, or medication. They may not know about accessibility solutions, may not know how to use accessibility features, and may be unaware of their needs.
  6. Situational limitations: Some people may be experiencing constraints due to their surroundings or due to other situational aspects. For example, they may be in a loud environment and unable to hear audio, in bright sunlight and unable to see a screen, or they may not be able to afford some technologies

Website accessibility, therefore, is about ensuring that users with any range of abilities can consume the content on a website. As owners and creators of websites, we aren’t however left to our own to make this happen.

The W3C, specifically the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), have created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The most current version is 2.1, and it defines 61 success criteria, in 4 categories (perceivable, operable, understandable, robust), across 3 levels of accessibility, A, AA, and AAA, with AAA being the most accessible.

The guidelines go even further than just documentation, they include real-world examples of how to make some of the most challenging components in a website accessible to the highest standard. 

Consider a site header with dropdown menus. The design and code of the header needs to:

  • Allow a user to skip the menu entirely and go straight to the content
  • Communicate that it is the primary navigation for the website
  • Communicate the menu item that the user is currently interacting with
  • Communicate the menu item that represents the current page (if applicable),
  • Communicate if a menu item contains a dropdown menu
  • Communicate whether a dropdown menu is currently open or closed
  • Hide menu items and content that are in a closed dropdown menu

All these requirements need to be met whilst taking into account the diversity of abilities, and the preferred method of interaction with the website for the user, be that a mouse, keyboard, touch, or other. All of this combined is what makes achieving a highly accessible website such a challenge. 

Fortunately, a site header implementing the disclosure pattern is one of the examples provided by the WAI. The example steps through the behavioural requirements of each element, and how the code needs to behave to achieve an accessible outcome.

What is the right level of accessibility for my site?

This question can seem a little loaded, as what has been discussed suggests the right answer is “the one that includes everyone”. In a perfect world, every website would be AAA accessible. What we haven’t touched on though are the considerations and costs that need to be taken into account when making decisions concerning accessibility.

Unfortunately, an accessible website takes more time to design, and more time to develop.

As noted earlier, an accessible header needs to do more than just be usable with a mouse or on a touchscreen. It doesn’t end there either, the content on the site needs to be communicated in a manner that doesn’t make assumptions about how it is consumed, for example, directional language (to the right, above, below, etc). There is simply an attention to detail required that elevates time and cost.

Whilst the higher upfront cost and time can seem like an expense too high to bear, the investment often leads to gains further down the line. The WAI discusses the business case for an accessible website, and explores how accessibility can:

  • Drive innovation
    Accessibility features in products and services often solve unanticipated problems.
  • Enhance your brand
    Diversity and inclusion efforts important to business success are accelerated with a clear, well-integrated accessibility commitment.
  • Extend Market Reach
    The global market of people with disabilities is over 1 billion people with a spending power of more than $6 trillion. Accessibility often improves the online experience for all users.
  • Minimise Legal Risk
    Many countries have laws requiring digital accessibility, and the issue is of increased legal concern.

It is worth noting too that an accessible website requires auditing to ensure that the requirements have been met. Audits fall into two categories: automated or manual. Automated audits will help ensure that a baseline of accessibility has been achieved, they can audit colour contrast, font sizing, and ensure that the site has valid HTML. Manual audits look deeper into a user’s engagement and interaction with the site to ensure that the information is communicated to the user adequately and that their experience is logical. At the end of this process, the site can receive a report stating that at the time, it is accessible to a certain standard. Once again though, there is a cost to this process.

Whilst there is no mandate for non-Australian Government Agencies to have an accessible site, the business case for an accessible website shows how the investment in an accessible website is warranted.

When is the right time to discuss accessibility?

As alluded to in the title, an accessible website must be actively pursued and championed from day one of the project, and continuously worked upon after the website has launched. An accessible website results from a pursued goal and considered approach at every stage of the life cycle. 

As a product owner commissioning a website, it is imperative that accessibility be part of the conversation and acceptance criteria from the start of the project so that all parties are invested in achieving the desired outcome, be that AA accessibility or AAA accessibility.

With that being said, reviewing and improving the accessibility of a website is a continuous process and, whilst the best outcomes are achieved considering accessibility from the start, improvements to existing websites where it wasn’t a focus are more than achievable. Simple audits and changes can have a dramatic impact towards the accessibility of a site.

How to get started with website accessibility?

Website accessibility isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, and the best place to start is by discussing and defining your project goals. If you have an existing website that you are looking to improve upon from an accessibility point of view, we would also recommend an accessibility audit to highlight existing issues and trigger questions and conversations that will help define the brief.

As a constantly evolving area of user interface design, we can work with organisations to support them on the journey towards a more accessible, inclusive web.

Drop us a message at info@beleaf.agency, or give us a call on (03) 4050 7773.