The name itself pretty much explains it - web accessibility means making the web accessible to anyone and everyone, including people with disabilities. But behind such a seemingly simple concept lies a very complicated and sometimes lengthy process, as well as lots of uncertainty about which regulations, standards, and rules to adhere to.
What Is Web Accessibility?
Making the web accessible means that people with various disabilities such as visual, physical, and cognitive can perceive, understand, and navigate the Web. Many aspects of a web service can become barriers to accessibility for the millions of differently-abled web users. Imagine what it might be like for someone with colorblindness to navigate a website with poor color contrasting or how disappointing it may be for a person with hearing impairment to be on a site in which none of the videos have closed captioning or subtitling.
Web users encounter scenarios like these everyday, highlighting the need for a more accessible web both for those with permanent conditions like hearing or visual impairments and those with temporary conditions like a broken arm. Web accessibility is all about designing website experiences that allow everyone to access and interact on the web meaningfully.
How Do I Know If My Web Content Is Accessible?
To bring attention to web accessibility issues as well as to start implementing and enforcing necessary changes, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) launched their Web Accessibility Initiative in 1997 with the aim to provide international standards, rules, and regulations for Web Accessibility. Their website outlines the process for planning and implementing strategies for web accessibility and most importantly provides a set of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
The most detailed and recent set of guidelines is the second iteration, known as WCAG 2.0. Their twelve guidelines for creating accessible web content are categorized into four overarching principles - perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. The guidelines provide a technical standard on making all aspects of a web service accessible.
Within each guideline, testable success criteria are assigned to the three levels of compliance (A, AA or AAA) and while AAA is the highest level of compliance, the accepted rule is that web services meet at least A but aim for the AA compliance level. The W3C does not recommend the highest level of compliance as general policy as it is not possible to satisfy all level AAA success criteria for some content, however WCAG 2.0 AA level compliance does encompass all the guidelines and criteria necessary to be considered accessible.
WCAG vs. 508 Compliance
Clearly you want your website to be accessible to all visitors, but understanding the consequences for not being accessible can be tricky. While WCAG 2.0 Guidelines are widely accepted as the standard for web accessibility, they are not yet backed by law in the United States. The only regulations currently in place in the US, and the ones that have been used to bring about multiple lawsuits, are Section 508 compliance and Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act is currently the only federal law that includes standards on web accessibility. US federal websites must comply with these standards, but because they are outdated, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has been seeking an update in order to more closely align them with the WCAG 2.0 Guidelines which are accepted worldwide. There is currently not a clear timeline for this update or for when the DOJ will start enforcing WCAG for both federal and public entities.
Title III of ADA
With a lack of clear guidelines or enforcement for non-federal websites, adhering to specific web accessibility regulations may seem unnecessary, however that could get you into trouble. A recent explosion of lawsuits challenging the accessibility of websites under Title III of the ADA which prohibits public accommodations from discriminating against an individual on the basis of disability has made not adhering to web accessibility best practices very risky.
Recently Harvard and MIT were met with lawsuits for violating Title III of the ADA by failing to provide closed captioning for thousands of videos on their websites. Despite the DOJ having not officially adopted the WCAG, most of the settlement agreements for these lawsuits have required companies revise their websites to comply with the WCAG 2.0 standards.
What Should I Do Now To Make My Web Content Accessible?
For now, especially if you run a public web service within the United States, the smart move is to make sure your sites follow the standards set forth in the WCAG 2.0 AA regulations. Not only will you benefit from making your site accessible for users with disabilities, but you’ll also be protecting yourself from legal and financial exposure.
In many countries, WCAG is already law and it is just a matter of time that the Department of Justice makes these the mandatory standards for all public web services in the United States. Get ahead of the game and start evaluating the current accessibility of your site, then implement any necessary changes in order to meet the WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines. You can use this helpful checklist to get started.