As the internet is becoming ubiquitous, more and more people with accessibility needs appear in the digital ecosystem. Website accessibility is an essential feature that doesn’t solely help disabled users but also improves the user experience of every visitor who lands on your site.
According to the World Health Organization’s statistics, there are more than one billion people worldwide who live with some kind of disability, and due to the aging population, this number is growing every year. Thus, targeting the expanding disability market is not only a moral or legal issue anymore but also an important business imperative, which is still largely unrealized.
What Is Accessibility?
Accessibility is an overall design objective that aims to make products and services usable for people with permanent or temporary disabilities. Some examples include wheelchair-accessible ramps, Braille keyboards, audio signals at pedestrian crossings, or high-contrast user interfaces.
Digital accessibility is a part of accessibility. It refers to the design and development of websites and applications built with the needs of disabled users in mind, following accessibility guidelines, patterns, and best practices.
Types of Disabilities
Accessibility needs come in many forms, including:
- sensory impairments: the partial or full loss of one of the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste)
- physical impairments: the partial or full loss of one or more body system
- mental impairments: various types of mental, cognitive, and psychological dysfunctions
Many disabilities fall into more than one category — for example, vestibular disorders cause both physical and mental symptoms. Some people also have more than one type of disability, such as deaf-blindness.
All in all, disabilities have many intersections that accessible website design needs to take into consideration.
Accessible Website Design and Development
Accessible web design creates digital user experiences that users with different kinds of disabilities can consume, understand, and use without any loss of information and with as little extra effort as possible.
Website accessibility is technically implemented by accessible web development practices that make sure that web browsers, assistive technologies, and other user agents deliver both the content and functionality without any access issues.
Digital Accessibility Needs on the Web
The best way to address the digital needs of people with disabilities is using an accessibility-first design approach that starts at the ideation phase and encompasses the entire development workflow — you can even make it part of your DevOps culture.
The following comparison table summarizes the most important things to know about website accessibility:
|Type of disability||Examples and symptoms||Assistive technologies and services||Website elements that can cause access issues||Digital accessibility needs (examples)|
|Vision||blindness, color blindness, low vision, blurred vision, extreme light sensitivity, astigmatism||screen readers, Braille devices, text-based browsers, applications in high-contrast mode, audio descriptions||fonts, colors, images, videos, icons, forms, navigation||high color contrast; descriptive text alternatives for images, icons, and videos; properly labeled form controls; adjustable font size|
|Auditory||deafness, hearing loss, hyperacusis (sound sensitivity), tinnitus (ringing in the ears)||speech recognition software, HATS (hearing assistive technologies), sign language interpreters||audio and video content||closed-captioned videos, transcripts, removal of unnecessary background noise|
|Cognitive||autism, dyslexia, attention deficit, learning disabilities, memory loss||text-to-speech and easy reading software, graphic organizers, specialist keyboards (e.g. helpikeys)||longer text blocks, distractions, navigation||well-structured content (illustrations, diagrams, comparison tables, summaries of longer text blocks), fewer distractions, clear navigation, descriptive error messages|
|Seizure and vestibular||epilepsy; vestibular migraine, seizures, and nausea; dizziness caused by sudden/unexpected movements||balance belts, wearable sensors, virtual reality apps (for rehabilitation)||animations, auto-playing videos, too much movement (e.g. flickering or flashing effects), parallax effects, scroll-jacking||thresholds for the frequency of content flashes (fewer than three flashes per second), animations with pre-set duration, short videos instead of animated GIFs|
|Motor||loss/damage of limbs, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, spinal cord||one-handed keyboards, half-keyboards, trackball mice, foot-controlled mice||mouse and touch movements, keyboard navigation||highly visible focus styles, easy-to-follow tab navigation, ‘jump to main content’ links|
Web Accessibility Standards and Laws
There are two official resources that can help you implement website accessibility: standards and laws. While laws are mandatory, web standards are guidelines and recommendations you can follow to meet the needs of disabled users and comply with accessibility laws.
Website Accessibility Standards
Web standards that discuss digital accessibility implementations are published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
They are as follows:
- WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0, 2.1, 2.2 (all three are in use: WCAG 2.1 extends 2.0, while WCAG 2.2 extends 2.1)
- HTML5 (many assistive technologies understand semantic elements)
- WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative – Accessible Rich Internet Applications) for accessibility features not covered by HTML5
Accessibility Laws and Regulations
While there are many local and regional regulations, the most well-known and frequently quoted accessibility laws are:
- Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (USA)
- ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)
- EAA (European Accessibility Act)
- EN 301 549 (European Standard for Digital Accessibility)
Accessibility Tools and Resources
You can make use of various tools and resources to improve website accessibility, including:
- Accessible color palettes
- Accessibility-ready themes for content management systems such as WordPress
- ARIA best practices
- HTML5 conformance checkers
- Website accessibility testing tools
- Accessibility features of your browser’s developer tools
It’s also recommended that you manually test websites with the tools disabled people typically use, such as screen readers, keyboard navigation, or text-to-speech applications.
However, avoid using accessibility overlays as they can seriously harm website accessibility.
Implementing website accessibility takes long-term commitment, accessibility-first design, and continuous testing and evaluation.
It also comes with many advantages — for example, you will:
- support disabled users
- reach a larger audience
- provide better user experience for everyone
- increase business value
- connect with socially conscious customers
- comply with website accessibility laws and regulations
- improve your search engine rankings
To learn more about website accessibility, look into the accessibility checklist of the A11Y Project, check out the success criteria of the WCAG 2.0 guidelines, or generate a WAVE accessibility report for your website.
You can also see how assistive technologies work in practice by giving a try to your device’s built-in accessibility tools, such as Immersive Reader for Microsoft Edge, VoiceOver for iOS and macOS, or TalkBack for Android.
Editor’s note: This article was the first part of our WordPress Accessibility series. It covered website accessibility in general, including the digital accessibility needs of disabled users, website accessibility standards and regulations, tools and resources, and more. Check out the second part, too, which discusses WordPress accessibility in detail.