Website Accessibility for Beginners

Acer laptop sitting on bright green grass outside.

Website accessibility means making your website accessible to persons with disabilities.

Think of it as making your website — it’s content and functions — more flexible so that people with different types and degrees of disabilities (potentially using varying assistive technology) can still fully engage with your website.

When it comes to websites, many people immediately think of vision impairments but hearing, motor skills, and cognitive impairments all need to be accounted for to have a truly accessible website.

Other considerations:

  • Speech disabilities (for voice input)
  • Reading disabilities
  • Seizures

It may be helpful to view accessibility as we’re opening up our website so that everyone can have equal access to the content and functions. The means of access might be different, but, if so, it’s equivalent.

For example, someone with a vision impairment may not be able to see an image but as long as descriptive alternative text is provided for that image, the image can still be effectively conveyed.

How To Make a Website Accessible

The best way to approach accessibility is to follow the guidelines put forth by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) under their Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

The formal name of these guidelines is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and version 2.0 level AA is a good baseline to strive to meet first.

WCAG 2.0 AA has 38 success criteria. Think of success criteria as bullet points you take care of to make your website accessible.

Some of these are fairly easy to understand and implement while others are more complex and require a developer.

For example, some important accessibility to-dos include:

  • Adding alt attributes to all of your images (and including alt text values for all of the meaningful images)
  • Making sure your website is navigable by keyboard only (you can unplug your mouse and still fully use your website)
  • Programmatically adding labels to all of your form fields and controls (e.g., your contact form has labels bedded in the code)

WCAG 2.1 AA is an updated version of WCAG that includes 2.0 but adds 12 new success criteria.

Think of 2.1 AA in terms of 38 + 12 = 50.

This math formula helps illustrate the difference between the two WCAG versions.

With 2.1, nothing has been undone in 2.0, all that’s happened is we’ve added 12 new things.

WCAG is a set of technical standards so it can be hard to understand but this WCAG 2.0 guide makes learning much easier.

You can get my WCAG 2.1 AA checklist for free by subscribing to Accessible.org.

Legal Side of Accessibility

In many countries across the world, digital accessibility is the law.

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is being interpreted by the majority of federal courts to apply to websites of private entities (from small businesses to non-profits to corporations).

The result is that if a website isn’t accessible, it can be viewed as discriminatory against persons with disabilities and therefore in violation of the ADA.

In 2020, there were no formal federal guidelines forthcoming on what constitutes an accessible website — and none are expected in 2021, but we do know that both the Department of Justice (DOJ) and federal and state courts commonly reference WCAG 2.0 AA when assessing accessibility.

Besides the ADA, there are various other federal and state laws and regulations that also require digital accessibility.

Solutions

There are a handful of companies who specialize in web accessibility.

The process of fixing (referred to as remediation) your website begins with a manual audit (unless you know a developer who can identify and instantly repair issues).

An audit is conducted by an accessibility expert who evaluates a website against =WCAG success criteria. The expert then lists all of the accessibility issues in a report that is delivered to the client.

Once an audit has been completed, a website owner either has a company, in-house developer, or freelance developer correct all of the issues flagged by the audit.

There are several vendors who promote and sell an overlay widget as a solution to website accessibility. Sometimes you’ll see the widget referred to as a toolbar or a plugin but the result is users have an option to click on an icon and open up a panel of options for accessibility.

While they can provide some nominal benefit, toolbars are not a viable solution to accessibility — not even close.

I highly advise against buying anything that sells itself as an instant fix.

In a Nutshell

Website accessibility is critical in making the web accessible for everyone and maintaining compliance with the law.

To make your website accessible, fix (remediate) your website so that it meets WCAG 2.0 AA standards.

Once you’ve worked on 2.0 AA, go to the next level by updating to 2.1 AA conformance.