Accessible Design

The information presented within this glossary entry is aimed at website owners seeking to learn the ropes of web accessibility. Technical elements are described in layman’s terms, and, as a rule, all topics pertaining to the legalities of web accessibility are presented in as simplified a manner as possible. This guide has no legal bearing, and cannot be relied on in the case of litigation.

Accessible design is a user-centric approach that prioritizes the creation of products, services, and environments tailored to be usable by everyone, including individuals with disabilities. This design philosophy goes beyond merely complying with relevant accessibility laws, or ticking off a checklist; it's about fostering inclusivity and ensuring that all users, irrespective of their physical or cognitive abilities, can interact with, understand, and benefit from the designed entity without requiring special adaptations or interventions.

While often associated with digital platforms, accessible design extends beyond just web content. It encompasses a broader philosophy of creating environments, products, and services that are inclusive and usable by everyone, especially those with disabilities. Whether it's a physical space, a digital interface, or even a service, the principles of accessible design ensure that all individuals, regardless of their abilities, can engage with and benefit from it.

Principles and guidelines of accessible web design

Accessible web design is a specialized discipline within the broader field of design, focusing on creating digital platforms that are inclusive and usable by everyone, especially those with disabilities. As the internet becomes an integral part of daily life, ensuring that websites, web applications, and other digital assets are accessible is paramount.

The gold standard in this context is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). WCAG provides a comprehensive set of recommendations tailored specifically for web content. These guidelines are built upon four foundational principles that aim to ensure a holistic approach to accessibility:

  • Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presented in ways all users can discern, ensuring no information is hidden from any user group. This includes providing text alternatives for non-text content and ensuring content is adaptable and distinguishable
  • Operable: Web functionalities must be usable by all. This encompasses making all functionalities available from a keyboard, providing users ample time to read and use content, and designing accessible navigation methods
  • Understandable: Websites should be intuitive and straightforward. This involves creating text that is readable, designing predictable and consistent navigation, and clearly identifying errors and providing suggestions for correcting them
  • Robust: Web content must be coded so it can be reliably interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies. This also ensures that as technology advances, the content remains accessible

The most important elements of accessible web design

When designing for accessibility, certain tools and techniques stand out as fundamental in ensuring that websites and web applications are inclusive and user-friendly. These elements not only enhance the user experience for everyone but are vital for those with disabilities. Here are some of the key elements that play a significant role in accessible web design:

  • Alt text for meaningful images: Providing descriptive alternative text for images that convey significant information ensures that users with vision impairments can understand the content conveyed by the image
  • Keyboard navigation: Ensuring that the website can be navigated by keyboard alone caters to those who cannot use a mouse or touch screen
  • Resizable text: Ensuring that when text size is increased (up to a certain point), there is no loss in content or functionality
  • Compatibility with assistive technology: Ensuring that websites and applications work seamlessly with tools like screen readers, magnifiers, and voice control software
  • Captions and audio descriptions for videos: Providing text captions for spoken content and audio descriptions for visual elements in videos ensures that multimedia content is accessible to users with hearing or vision impairments
  • Sufficient color contrast: Designing with adequate contrast ratios between text and background colors, as well as between functional elements (e.g., buttons and inputs) and their background color. This ensures readability, especially for those with color vision deficiencies (like color blindness) or other vision impairments

The benefits and importance of accessible design

Accessible design offers tangible benefits for businesses, developers, and users alike. These include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Enhanced user experience: Clear navigation and intuitive layouts, hallmarks of accessible design, benefit all users by offering a smoother online journey
  • Wider audience reach: Designing for accessibility means reaching a broader demographic, including people with disabilities (a group that consists of 1.3 billion people), expanding potential engagement opportunities
  • SEO boost: Websites designed for accessibility naturally incorporate SEO-friendly elements, like alt text for meaningful images and structured headings, enhancing their visibility in search engine results
  • Positive brand image: Commitment to accessibility can elevate a brand's reputation, showcasing its values and dedication to all community members
  • Legal compliance: Adhering to accessibility standards helps businesses avoid potential legal issues, as many jurisdictions mandate digital accessibility
  • Financial gains: Accessible websites can lead to increased sales and reduced support costs, as users find it easier to understand and interact with content

Important tools and approaches for accessible design

In the realm of accessible design, a variety of tools and methods play a crucial role in ensuring that digital platforms meet the highest standards of accessibility. These tools and approaches, while diverse in their functionalities, collectively aim to create an inclusive digital environment. Some of the most common and important accessibility tools and approaches include:

  • Accessibility evaluation and testing tools: Tools such as accessScan are designed to assess a website or application's current level of accessibility. By identifying areas that don't meet accessibility standards, they provide a roadmap for necessary improvements
  • Remediation tools: These tools perform an automated audit of a website or application's code, identifying problematic areas from an accessibility perspective. Once issues are identified, the tools remediate said problematic code, ensuring the website or application is compatible with assistive technology, in conformance with accessibility standards
  • User interface tools: Some tools empower users by offering them an interface to adapt design elements according to their individual needs. This can include adjusting font sizes, changing color contrasts, or modifying navigation options.
    Important note: Some tools, like accessWidget, perform both the automated audit and code remediation processes, as well as offering website visitors an accessibility interface
  • Development-stage tools: Integrating accessibility from the beginning of a project is more effective than making adjustments after completion. Tools such as accessFlow can be used during the initial stages of development ensure that systems are designed with accessibility as a fundamental consideration
  • Expert manual interventions: While automated tools are invaluable, human expertise cannot be underestimated. Expert service providers, such as accessServices, can manually evaluate, test, and enhance accessibility, often catching issues that automated tools might miss
  • Blended approach: For optimal results, a combination of automated tools and manual expertise is recommended. This approach ensures a comprehensive coverage of accessibility requirements, marrying the efficiency and precision of automation with the contextual understanding provided by human judgment

Accessible design is not only a best practice but also a legal requirement in many jurisdictions. Over the years, various laws and regulations have been enacted to ensure that both physical and digital spaces are accessible to all, including individuals with disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted in 1990, is a landmark legislation for physical environments. It mandates that public and commercial spaces be designed to accommodate individuals with disabilities, ensuring equal access and opportunities.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act mandates that U.S. federal agencies, bodies that receive federal funding, and service providers to such organizations ensure their information and communication technology (ICT) is accessible to people with disabilities. ICT encompasses a range of technologies used to access, store, transmit, and manipulate information, including computers, software, websites, telecommunication devices, and multimedia resources. In Canada, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) sets forth specific digital accessibility standards for various sectors within Ontario.

It is important to note that many U.S. courts have now interpreted the ADA to apply to online environments, including websites. This shift underscores the growing recognition of websites as essential public accommodations. As a result, businesses and organizations are increasingly required to ensure their online platforms are accessible.

WCAG's role in web accessibility laws

Due to its comprehensive nature and wide acceptance, WCAG has been referenced in various laws and regulations related to digital accessibility across the world. For instance, both Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and the AODA in Canada point to WCAG as the standard for compliance. This means that organizations governed by these laws are required to meet a specific WCAG conformance level - WCAG 2.0 Level AA.

Furthermore, in the U.S., the Department of Justice (DOJ) has, in official statements, indicated that websites should conform to the WCAG 2.0 Level AA to be considered accessible under the ADA. This endorsement further solidifies WCAG's position as the go-to standard for web accessibility compliance in legal contexts.

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