WEB ACCESSIBILITY HAS been part of the web development conversation for decades now, but even some of the biggest brands are missing the mark today.
You may remember hearing about the major accessibility lawsuit involving Domino’s pizza1. Guillermo Robles sued the pizza chain with claims that their website and mobile app were not accessible to him as a blind man. On October 7, 2019, the Supreme Court allowed the case to move forward. It was a decision that would highlight the disparity between accessibility standards and rapidly changing technology—and it was considered a major victory for disability activists.
Broadly defined, accessibility refers to designing products, devices, services and environments so that someone with disabilities is able to use them with reasonable accommodation. In 1973, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act2 became the law governing accessibility of information technology (IT) in the federal government. In just 2022, there were almost 100 ADA-based digital lawsuits per week3—up 75% in the last two years.
So, having a website that isn’t accessible could get you sued4. But more than fear of a lawsuit, making sure your site is accessible is simply the right thing to do. Sixty-one million Americans have some disability. That’s 26 percent of all American adults5. Twenty-six percent!
Recent revisions to Section 508 mandate that all federal department and agency websites created after January 18, 2018 must follow new accessibility standards. Now, Section 508 points to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as the standard for accessibility compliance. There are plenty of other industries and organizations that require WCAG compliance, too.
The WCAG Standards
WCAG is a much more modern and robust set of guidelines compared to the old Section 508 standards. It does a better job describing the functionality of a website needed for a variety of users who have disabilities. WCAG has three levels of accessibility standards:
The new Section 508 Guidelines point to WCAG AA as the new standard, so if your website is compliant with WCAG AA, it will also be compliant with Section 508.
The WCAG standards are organized around four principles of accessibility. These principles make up the foundation for anyone to access and use Web content. Anyone who wants to use the Web must have content that is:
Perceivable content means that users must be able to perceive the information being presented. Put simply, your content and user interface components can’t be invisible to all of your users’ senses.
Operability means that users must be able to operate the user interface and navigation. The interface cannot require interaction that is impossible for the user to perform. For example, if someone is unable to use a mouse, the website can’t require that they hover over an object to interact.
Your website should also be understandable, which means that users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface. The content or operation cannot be beyond the users’ understanding. Here, you have to take into account your users who may have some cognitive impairment. You also have to consider reading level6 (which, by the way, is at an 8th-grade level on average).
The last principle is robust, which means that your content can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user tools, including assistive technologies. Not only that, but as technologies and user agents evolve, the content should remain accessible. Your content shouldn’t be limited to only desktop access—it should be robust enough to be interpreted by a wide variety of tools (like smartphones, screen readers, refreshable braille displays, etc.).
If any of these principles of accessibility are not true, users with disabilities will have trouble using your website.