Digital accessibility is a vast field of knowledge few are truly adept in. It’s easy to think, when you know a little, that you know a lot.
So what is web accessibility, and what is it not?
What is web accessibility?
Web accessibility is about writing, designing and making websites (and other digital products like apps) in ways that a wide range of disabled and non-disabled web users can use. For example:
- making sure it works with assistive or restricting technology, like screen readers, voice-operation and keyboard-only use.
- giving alternatives, like video transcripts, for content not everyone can use.
- adapting to issues that affect some people, like colour blindness or difficulty distinguishing between low-contrast colours.
What’s this W3C WCAG 2.1 thing I keep hearing about?
This incomprehensible string of letters and numbers is at the heart of what it means to be accessible online.
W3C, or World Wide Web Consortium, is an organisation that sets standards for online services – like privacy, fair data use, trust and accessibility.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 is their set of principles for making websites and other digital content accessible, made by consulting and testing with disabled web users.
WCAG 2.1 sets out three accessibility levels, from A (accessible at the lowest level) to AAA (most accessible). AA is a good level of accessibility. Organisations that have many disabled web users may go for AAA.
Reading the guidelines won’t tell you much; they need interpretation. To apply the guidelines, W3C recommends you seek expert advice and test with disabled web users.
Top accessibility myths
The first time I professionally edited a website in 2005, the sum total of my accessibility training was being told you shouldn’t use “click here” as link text, because Deaf people can’t hear a “click”.
This is a classic web accessibility myth. It tells you:
- what not to do, but only in one limited instance
- gets the ‘why’ completely wrong
- doesn’t say how you should write link text, and
- misrepresents disabled people.
Here are some more misconceptions to leave behind.
Myth 1: Accessibility and usability are the same thing
Web usability refers to designing and making websites so that the largest number of web users are likely to achieve their goal. For example:
- placing converting links (like ‘contact us’ or ‘buy now’) where users are most likely to notice them.
- reducing how much scrolling and clicking users must do to achieve a goal.
There’s a huge overlap, and all websites should aim to be usable and accessible. But chasing usability doesn’t automatically give you accessibility, and chasing accessibility doesn’t automatically give you usability.
Myth 2: If your website has an ‘accessibility toolbar’, it’s accessible
You’ve seen accessibility toolbars in the headers of prominent, often public sector or charity, websites. Like this:
They include features like changing site colours, increasing text size and reading pages aloud.
While they can be helpful to some users, accessibility toolbars can’t solve the wider, more fundamental accessibility problems that most websites have.
Myth 3: Websites can’t be accessible and attractive
There are many ways to apply WCAG 2.1 correctly.
If you’ve found making a website accessible produces ugly results, accessibility isn’t the problem. You may have an unimaginative, inexperienced web designer, for example.
Many accessible websites also have attractive visual design. Organisations famed for good accessibility and elegant visuals include:
Myth 4: Non-disabled people know if something’s accessible just by looking at it
Pointing out an accessibility issue to a non-disabled colleague is sometimes met with a shrug and, “Well, I think it’s fine” or “But I can read that”.
When it comes to accessibility, personal opinions aren’t (usually) relevant. WCAG 2.1 isn’t random guesses – it springs from comprehensive testing and consultation with many disabled web users.
Also remember, all disabled people are different. A colleague with dyslexia once told me all dyslexic people find the typeface Arial unreadable. He may have honestly believed that, but the British Dyslexia Association recommends Arial among other typefaces because they perform the best in testing with dyslexic people.
Myth 5: Popular websites have good accessibility, so if we copy their practice, our website will be accessible
In fact, most websites have poor accessibility. Big brands are as guilty of accessibility fails as any organisation.
Myth 6: Our web or content designer says they’re hot on accessibility, so our website must be accessible
Sadly, many in web – including those who work for the public sector and other organisations with high accessibility standards – claim accessibility expertise they don’t have.
It’s probably not intentional. You don’t know what you don’t know, so someone with a little accessibility knowledge may genuinely think they’re an expert. I made this mistake myself until I worked for UK disability charity Scope and found out just how much there is to accessibility.
If you’re thinking of hiring a design company and want to know if they really know accessibility, check the colour contrasts on some of their past websites.
- Enter the web address (also know as a URL) in Experte.com’s color contrast check. It’s free, requires no log in and will flag all pages within the site where there are problems.
- Take a screenshot of any text with its background colour and upload the image to the colour contrast checker.
Here are some examples from the websites of companies claiming to be accessibility experts.
White on aqua:
Fails all colour contrast standards:
White on dark lavender:
Accessible only at some sizes:
One truth: Accessibility is doing your best and always improving
Some organisations expect a ‘one size fits all’ answer to accessibility questions. Others want to go through an accessibility process and find it ‘done’ forever.
Great accessibility means doing your best and always improving. It’s often about choosing the best option rather than doing only what’s perfect.
An example: Google Maps is a fairly accessible map tool, but it’s not perfect. However, if you want to use a map the answer probably isn’t, “Don’t use Google Map because it’s not perfectly accessible.” Rather, if you want to use Google Maps, provide other options. For example, if you’re trying to locate a building, include in text the full address and directions alongside the map – a classic example of why content writing is a core part of web accessibility.