Digital accessibility is the practice of ensuring that websites, software, documents, videos, and other online content can be accessed and used by members of the disability community. Digital accessibility involves creating inclusive digital experiences for individuals with specific disabilities, which include, but aren’t limited to, vision impairments, hearing impairments, cognitive disabilities, and motor impairments.
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.
The importance of digital accessibility
Digital accessibility ensures that everyone, including members of the disability community, can fully participate in our increasingly digital society. Accessible digital content and technologies provide equal opportunities for individuals with various disabilities to communicate, learn, and engage with the world. In addition to being a matter of equality and inclusion, digital accessibility is also a legal requirement in many jurisdictions. It can also enhance user experience for all users, improve SEO performance, and expand audience reach for businesses and organizations.
Who benefits from digital accessibility?
Digital accessibility benefits the following groups:
- People with disabilities: Digital accessibility is essential for people with a range of disabilities, including visual, auditory, cognitive, and motor impairments. The disability community consists of more than 1.3 billion people, and accessible digital environments provides them with equal access to critical services and opportunities
- Older adults: As people age, they may experience changes in vision, hearing, or motor skills that can make it more challenging to use digital technology. Accessible design helps to accommodate these changes
- People in temporary situations: Someone with a broken arm, or a parent holding a baby in one arm, might have trouble using a device that requires two hands, for example. Similarly, someone in a noisy environment might benefit from captions on a video
- The general population: Accessible design is a foundational principle of quality design. It makes websites and apps easier to understand and use, which improves the experience for all users, not just those with disabilities
The difference between digital accessibility and web accessibility
While digital accessibility and web accessibility are often used interchangeably, there is a subtle difference between them.
Web accessibility specifically refers to the practice of making websites and web-based applications usable by people with disabilities. This includes aspects like website design, coding, and user interface, and ensuring that content on these platforms, including embedded media, is accessible.
Digital accessibility, on the other hand, is a broader concept that extends beyond just websites. It encompasses all digital content and technologies, such as standalone digital documents like PDFs, and Microsoft Office files, multimedia (like videos and audio), and even digital kiosks. The goal is to make all digital tools and content accessible to all users, including those with disabilities.
Important digital accessibility standards and guidelines
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
The most widely recognized standards for digital accessibility are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). WCAG provides a wide range of recommendations to make websites and web-based applications more accessible to people with disabilities. WCAG is quite a lengthy and complex document. However, its success criteria are based on four guiding principles:
- Perceivable: Ensuring that users can perceive the information being presented. This means that information should be presented in ways that are perceivable through various sensory abilities
- Operable: The interface cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform. This ensures that all functionalities are operable through a keyboard and that users have enough time to read and use the content
- Understandable: Information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable
- Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be reliably interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies, such as screen reader tools
Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG)
The Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) are designed to ensure both the accessibility of web content and the tools used to produce that content. ATAG emphasizes two primary areas:
- Producing accessible content: ATAG provides detailed guidance to developers on how to create software that encourages and supports the production of accessible web content. This includes features like offering accessibility suggestions, automatically generating accessible templates, and integrating accessibility checks
- Accessible authoring tools: ATAG also stresses the importance of the development tools themselves being accessible. This means that individuals with disabilities should be able to use these tools effectively to create and manage web content. By ensuring the tools are usable by all, it promotes a more inclusive web development environment
User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG)
User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) primarily focus on user agents, including web browsers, plugins, and media players, ensuring they present web content in ways that are accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. Key aspects of UAAG include:
- Access to all content: UAAG emphasizes that user agents, like browsers, provide access to all available content. This includes ensuring that if there is alternative content (like alt text for images or captions for videos), the user agent can render it appropriately
- User control over content rendering: Users should be able to adjust how content is displayed. This can include changing font sizes, colors, or even the layout to better suit their needs
- User control over the user interface: Beyond content, UAAG emphasizes that the user interface of the user agent itself should be customizable. This ensures that users can navigate and interact with the browser or media player in ways that are most comfortable and effective for them
- Standard programming interfaces: UAAG recommends that user agents support standard programming interfaces. This ensures compatibility with assistive technologies, allowing them to interact seamlessly with the user agent to provide an accessible experience
PDF/UA (Universal Accessibility)
PDF/UA (Universal Accessibility) is an ISO standard specifically designed for the accessibility of PDF documents. It provides a set of guidelines to ensure that PDFs are accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities. Much like WCAG, these guidelines require that PDFs be readable by assistive technologies, incorporate alt text for meaningful images, and feature text that is both selectable and searchable, among other requirements.
Important digital accessibility legislation
Digital accessibility legislation plays a pivotal role in ensuring that digital platforms, tools, and content are accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. These laws mandate that organizations and businesses adhere to certain standards, ensuring that no individual is left behind in the digital age. Different jurisdictions have enacted their own sets of laws to address the unique needs and challenges faced by their populations.
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Enacted in 1990, the ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability in all areas of public life. While the ADA doesn't explicitly mention websites, many U.S. courts have ruled that websites fall under the purview of the ADA, making web accessibility a requirement for many businesses. The Department of Justice, in an official letter, has referenced WCAG as the standard websites and web-based applications should conform to under the ADA
- Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act: This U.S. federal law, updated in 2018, mandates that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities. It references and applies WCAG as its standard for conformance. This law applies to organizations that receive federal funding and to service providers to such organizations
- Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA): Enacted in 2005, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) applies to most Ontario-based businesses and organizations. Under the law, websites and web-based applications need to conform to WCAG
- The European Accessibility Act (EAA): The European Accessibility Act (EAA) is a directive that standardizes accessibility requirements across the European Union’s member states, targeting key products and services like websites and mobile apps. One of its primary objectives is to address and eliminate the inconsistencies in accessibility regulations between different EU member states
- UK Equality Act 2010: One implication of this UK law is that services provided digitally by organizations in the UK must ensure they do not discriminate against individuals with disabilities. This often means making digital platforms and content accessible to ensure equal access
The future of digital accessibility
As technology continues to evolve, the landscape of digital accessibility is set to undergo transformative changes. The rise of self-driving cars promises enhanced mobility for individuals with vision, physical, and cognitive impairments. The push for universal internet access, spearheaded by organizations like ONE, coupled with the declining costs of broadband satellites, suggests a more connected world by 2030. However, this connectivity comes with the responsibility of ensuring web content adheres to accessibility standards like WCAG.
3D printing is poised to revolutionize the production of affordable prosthetics, catering especially to growing children and offering a variety of styles. Voice assistants, powered by advancements in AI and natural language recognition, are expected to dominate internet navigation, emphasizing the need for voice-compatible web designs. Wearable technology, already on the rise, will further augment accessibility. Devices like the Dot Watch, which displays text in Braille, and the Apple Watch with its VoiceOver screen reader, hint at the potential of wearables in creating an inclusive digital environment.
As these technological trends continue to evolve, it's crucial to recognize that standards and laws will also need to adapt, ensuring that they remain relevant and effective in addressing the ever-changing landscape of digital accessibility.