What is web accessibility & WCAG

Try a simple experiment: use your computer without a mouse for 10 minutes. 

You might notice things don’t work as you expect them to. You might use your keyboard’s tab key and arrow keys to move through a website and content flows in an odd order, or links fail to highlight. 

Maybe you have to hit tab a dozen times just to get past a menu, can’t dismiss a popup, or fail to fill in a form. Worse still, no two sites work the same.

This gives you some idea of the troubles people with certain physical disabilities have navigating content. Common solutions involve replacing a pointing device (like a mouse) with keyboard inputs, or using a screen reader where vision issues necessitate some extra assistance.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are recommendations for individuals, organisations and governments around the world to make the web accessible. They cover things like keyboard navigation, correctly mark-up of link and form elements and standards for dealing with images, text and sound. At the time of writing, the latest guidelines are WCAG 2.1, published on 5 June 2018.

Each guideline has “success criteria” that can be used to judge how well content conforms with the recommendations, measured as A, AA and AAA. Meeting the AAA standard is a target that often requires making design compromises, but the AA standard is one that can dramatically improve your site’s accessibility and, of increasing importance, make your content compliant.

Accessibility and the law

Accessibility standards are a legal requirement in many countries. For example, the UK government mandates accessibility for public services. In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is cited in accessibility cases, though the law is open to interpretation (and predatory lawsuits) in the courts. 

For both the UK and US, WCAG guidelines often provide the clearest path to making your site accessible. Compliance is a tougher topic.

The ADA, governing accessible content in the US, was signed into law in 1990 and has not kept pace with the advancement of digital content. That, and the complex legal framework between state and federal bodies in the US, highlights a lack of formally-adopted standards for accessibility.

A recent decision in the US demonstrates that the ADA can at least be interpreted as governing web content. Will this fuel more claims? We would expect so. Does it mean the retailer will always lose? That will come down to the strength of the claim and the opinion of any given judge, and it’s likely we’ll see more cases decided at the state level while federal law doesn’t make accessibility guidelines clear.

Luckily, the WCAG provides a clear framework for addressing accessibility and is generally accepted worldwide. In fact, US court rulings reference WCAG and it can be taken as a logical foundation (but not an assurance) of compliance.

We use these guidelines and our experience in the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand to help assess risk for our clients and provide guidance and solutions for accessibility.

Next week, our Design Executive Officer, Merlyn will give us five quick tips to audit and build accessible content.

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