If you asked someone to explain ‘web accessibility’ most people would say it’s something to do with improving the web for disabled people. But it is much more than that.
Accessible web design is all about making your website available to as many people as possible, not just those with a disability.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, first published in 1999, provide recommendations to website owners on how to make content more accessible. One update and 17 years later the guidelines are still the benchmark.
To help demonstrate why accessibility benefits us all, and not just those with a disability, I’m going to discuss four of those guidelines.
- provide captions for video and audio (guideline 1.2.2)
- content distinguishable between the foreground and background (guideline 1.4.1)
- make all functionality available from a keyboard (guideline 2.1)
- make text content readable and understandable (guideline 3.1)
Provide captions for video and audio
Captions for audio and video don’t just help the hearing impaired. For example if your first language isn’t the one being spoken or the presenter has a strong regional accent, captions can help.
You could even be in a situation where the device you are using doesn’t have any working speakers or you are in a location where the speaker isn’t loud enough to be heard over the background noise.
Captions also help Google find your content. If users can’t find your content in the first place, you’re not making your site available to as many people as possible.
Read the full spec for accessibility guideline 1.2.2.
Content distinguishable between the foreground and background
Having a high contrast between the text and background will help make it easier for low vision users to read the copy on your website. High contrast also helps users trying to view a website on a screen in bright sunlight, or when a user has battery saver mode on or basically any scenario where the screen isn’t being viewed in the best conditions.
Read the full spec for accessibility guideline 1.4.3.
Make all functionality available from a keyboard
The mouse or trackpad is utterly useless if you are blind and use a screen reader to navigate your way around the web. Being solely able to navigate the web using just the keyboard is essential.
If you don’t require a screen reader being able to navigate the web with the keyboard is still really useful. Some users prefer to tab up and down content with the keyboard instead of taking their hand away to use the mouse. But it really helps when you are using a wireless mouse and the batteries fail. It means you can still carry on using the web with just the keyboard (albeit a little slower).
You are also helping make sure Google can understand and crawl your entire site to appear in search.
Read the full spec for accessibility guideline 2.1.
Make text content readable and understandable
Any effort to make your site technically accessible will be wasted unless your content is written as clearly and simply as possible.
People with disabilities experience text in many different ways but so does everyone else. The steps you should follow to create accessible copy will help everyone. For example if you write for a nine year old reading age you won’t alienate
- a younger audience
- people new to the topic being discussed
- user’s who are reading the site in their second language.
You can test the simplicity of your copy using a website text editor like Orwell or Hemingway. However it is always best to get someone else to read your own words which is one of my essential copywriting tips.
For more writing help read the accessibility guidelines 3.1.
Summary and the missing guideline
I’ve only picked four Web Accessibility Guidelines but every single one has a dual benefit. They were originally written to help disabled users but they can help everyone which is why they are a must do for any site.
However the guidelines don’t cover everything. For example there are no specific guidelines to cover how quickly a page loads or the size of the page – both can be barriers to accessing a website. You can read a little more about this in my article called internet rationing.
Accessibility is something you have to think about with every new bit of content added to your site. It can’t be an afterthought. However no site is perfect so you as long as you a making incremental improvements and reacting to feedback you are doing a good job.