Web accessibility standards

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 was a landmark achievement for people with disabilities, but it also gave businesses new responsibilities. The ADA mandates businesses provide “reasonable accommodation” and access to businesses, services, and information for everyone, including those who use wheelchairs, have visual impairments, and are otherwise challenged in ways that people without disabilities aren’t.

While the ADA addressed the need for accessibility to both physical spaces and technology, the only specific guidelines it set forth were in relation to physical architecture. Because the ADA was enacted years before the internet became ubiquitous, there were no clear regulations pertaining to technology.

To fill that gap, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) introduced the first Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in 1999. The WCAG 2.0 guidelines name four principles essential to making web content more accessible to people with disabilities, with three levels of conformity that determine an organization’s performance in each area. These guidelines are considered best practices for accessibility. The current version is 2.0, although a newer version is underway.

We discuss the four principles and the levels of conformance below, and provide some examples of success for each.

Web accessibility standards: POUR principles

The four principles of accessibility are referred to as POUR: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. If your website adheres to these four principles, it will be accessible to everyone.

  1. Perceivable

  2. Everyone must be able to gather all information on the page through a variety of senses. No aspect can be invisible to certain users. This includes text alternatives for non-text content, captions or audio descriptions on multimedia, and options to consume the content in different ways, such as enlarging the font, reading it aloud, or changing the text color.

  3. Operable

  4. Not everyone can use a mouse and keyboard to access web content, so your interface must be navigable, or operable, to visitors who require specialized tools. “Operable” also means that users can consume the content at their own speed, with no time limitations.

  5. Understandable

  6. Your website must be understandable to be accessible. Your visitors need to be able to comprehend your content. This pertains to identifying the language in which the text is written and producing content at the appropriate reading level.

  7. Robust

  8. Your interface must be compatible with a variety of assistive technologies, such as a screen reader. Robust content is also available on different devices, such as computers and mobile devices.

Conformance levels

The guidelines include three levels of conformance that determine how accessible your website is. Each level has a set of success criteria, or requirements. If your website satisfies the expectations set in that level, then your website has met, or conformed, to that specific level.

Level A (beginner)

All websites are expected to meet the criteria within Level A, the most basic level. Level A conformance means an organization has implemented the simplest features of accessibility, such as text alternatives, logical structures, meaningful sequences, audio control, and keyboard functionality.

Level AA (intermediate)

To reach Level AA, the website must meet both Level A and Level AA standards. The latter requires more advanced aspects of accessibility, such as audio descriptions, captions on live video, and resizable text. Glen Schubert, executive vice president of marketing at Braille Works, says this level achieves a reasonable accommodation, which means the user can access all of the content and easily navigate through the site.

Cary Coppola, CEO of Blue Compass, adds that Level AA is the default for most organizations. He says websites that comply with Google’s best practices already meet several of the criteria at this level because there’s a lot of overlap, such as the use of clear headings and labels.

Level AAA (advanced)

To achieve Level AAA status, your website must meet Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA criteria. Examples of the criteria for Level AAA include sign language translation for videos and text alternatives to videos.

While it’s great to have these advanced features, it’s not always doable. According to Schubert, “There are some additional standards in AAA that are very labor intensive and very cost prohibitive.” As a result, not all websites can satisfy every requirement.

While organizations aren’t required by law to meet specific standards of web accessibility, users can sue your business if your website isn’t accessible. It’s important to provide reasonable accommodation to ensure as many people as possible can access your web content. “There’s no excuse, with all the resources available, to ignore accessibility,” says Andrew Kirkpatrick, head of Accessibility at Adobe.

To evaluate where your website stands in terms of accessibility, test it by using a website accessibility checker.

Grew into his computer desk. Learned to code as a child, never looked away. Occasional socializing while hiking or biking.

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