We tend to think of the web as a really convenient place for business, social activities, and shopping. But this isn’t the case for everyone. My husband is colour blind, my mother uses a really old laptop, my father has Parkinson’s, and my father-in-law is deaf. Sight, technology, motor skills, and hearing are all factors that can make using the web difficult. And that’s just examples from my family! If we want to have a web for all, then websites have to be designed to be accessible.
What the law says
Since September 2020, all public sector websites are legally required to meet accessibility requirements and publish an accessibility statement. For everyone else, accessibility considerations are covered by The Equality Act 2010. While the Equality Act doesn’t go as far as the 2020 legislation for public sector organisations, it still requires you to make reasonable adjustments to ensure people with disabilities can access your website.
With 1 in 5 people in the UK having a disability, having an accessible website should be a key consideration in how you present your business or organisation online.
What are the accessibility principles?
You may have heard of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1. These guidelines cover four key principles:
- Perceivable – people must be able to perceive web content with the senses available to them.
- Operable – people must be able to find, navigate through, and use web content, irrespective of their method of access.
- Understandable – people must be able to understand web content and how to interact with it.
- Robust – people must be able to access web content via their user agent (e.g. web browsers, media players, and assistive technologies such as screen readers) both now and in the future.
What does this mean in practice?
It’s important to understand how people interact with the content on your website in different ways.
- Is your website content structured in a logical order?
- Can it be read by a screen reader?
- Is there sufficient colour contrast, and are you using text as well as colour to explain or distinguish things?
- Can keyboard-only users access all areas of your website?
- Is it clear to those users what item in your website they are currently focused on?
- Can any moving content or blinking animations be paused or disabled?
- Are any technical acronyms and abbreviations explained?
- Are there any complicated words and phrases that need further clarification?
- Does your website use valid HTML so that assistive technology can accurately interpret your content?
- Are all user interface components (e.g. accordions, tab panels) suitably identified and labeled for assistive technology?
- Are people alerted to the current state of such components, and if that state changes?
The importance of user testing
You could appoint a testing partner such as the Digital Accessibility Centre (DAC) or Zoonou to regularly test the accessibility and QA of your website. People might be using your website in unforeseen ways and issues can be spotted. The best testing partners are those whose staff include people with disabilities who use assistive technologies, such as screen readers, on a day-to-day basis.
Common accessibility problems
In February 2021 WebAIM, one of the leading providers of web accessibility expertise internationally conducted an accessibility analysis of the top 1 million website homepages. 97.4% of homepages had detectable WCAG failures, with an average of 51.4 errors per page.
These errors are effectively barriers between you and your customers. The majority of barriers come from the following six types:
- low contrast text
- missing alternative text for images
- missing labels for form inputs
- missing document language
- empty links
- empty buttons.
All of these are easy to detect with automated tools and they are easy to address. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) write the standards for the web and has a list of tools that you could use. Or you can talk to your web agency about an accessibility audit.
Three things you can improve today
WebAIM concluded that the number one problem with websites is a lack of colour contrast.
Colour contrast is one of the easiest issues to test and fix – you could start with WebAIM’s free colour contrast checker.
Add alternative text for images
Informative images (which convey a simple concept or information that can be expressed in a short phrase or sentence) and functional images (e.g. icons within interactive elements such as links and buttons) must have suitable alt text. This is important for helping non-visual users understand the content of your website. Use this free alt decision tree to help you decide which images to label and how.
Write links that make it clear what you’re linking to
It’s really important that you don’t use generic link text, such as ‘click here’ or ‘read more’, because it provides no context for people using assistive technology. Descriptive links are also helpful in a broader sense, as most people tend to quickly scan a web page to see if it contains what they’re looking for. Rather than use ‘click here’ if, for example, you want someone to complete a consultation, use ‘complete the consultation’.
Accessibility is an ongoing process
A website is never really ‘finished’. We talk about websites ‘going live’, and they really do take on a life of their own and need looking after. Content will be added and changed, new functionality may appear over time, technology and browsers continue to evolve, and at some point, the marketing department will ask for a design refresh.
In the UK, 1 in 5 people have a disability – this could be visual, hearing, motor (affecting fine movement), or cognitive (affecting memory and thinking). Anybody can experience more temporary restrictions on their abilities, such as tiredness, injury, or poor lighting. And none of us is getting any younger!
Have a conversation about accessibility at the start of your website build or design refresh and remember to keep checking the accessibility of your website. By removing barriers to accessibility you’ll be contributing to making a web for all – for my family, for your family, and for everyone in between.