New legal standards could require accessibility improvements to your website. Get the basics here, and stay tuned for more posts in this series.

Web accessibility can be tricky at first, as there are scarce resources available for beginners, and it’s difficult to incorporate late into a project. As was the case with responsive design, performance optimization, and browser support — accessibility deserves serious consideration for upcoming web projects. 

Accessibility for a site or app means building and designing in a way that gives all users the ability to process the information or features, regardless of how they actually browse the web. Keeping accessibility in mind is a way to account for a large number of potential disabilities. These can range from color blindness or low vision to motor and cognitive disabilities. 

Understanding how users interact with the web will help with the overall design and build processes. The goal is to create a better, more usable experience for all disabled and non-disabled users.

WCAG 2.0 and Accessibility Standards

If you’ve done any research on web accessibility, you’ve probably come across WCAG 2.0, which is a technical standard for web accessibility. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were created by a working group that’s closely related to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and had become the standard on which many web accessibility laws and policies are based. The USA Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which outlines current web accessibility policies, will soon start to look similar to WCAG 2.0. WCAG 2.0 is the standard we need to meet, but unfortunately, it is pretty dense and hard to get started with. If you really want to dive into this, I recommend this summary document.

Here’s the shorthand version — WCAG is a set of guidelines and also a set of “success criteria” based around four principles of accessibility: perceivable, operable, understandable and robust -- or POUR. POUR is a great way to gut check your build or design. POUR also provides a series of high-level questions that can help quickly assess the current state of your website or app. POUR can help answer questions like:

Meeting the success criteria of the guideline is called conformance, and this is broken into three levels: A, AA, and AAA. These three levels are to accommodate different situations a developer might encounter when building a site. For example, body copy at a font size of 14px might only meet A conformance, while creating a scaling font system that allows the user to zoom 200+ percent would meet AAA. As a general rule, you should try to hit at least AA conformance on all projects. 

There are a number of different tools that can help you meet these conformance levels, such as Colorable, which is a color palette combination contrast tester. The image below shows how you test the contrast of your text on the background color of your website. The tool even tells you the level of conformance for your color combinations.

What Does the Section 508 Refresh Mean for Your Business?

For businesses in the health care, financial, educational and transportation industries, it will be very important to meet at least the WCAG AA guidelines. This will ensure that your website is 508 compliant. Section 508 is part of the same law that requires a business to have handicap parking, wheelchair ramps and accessible bathrooms. 

This Section 508 refresh will be going into place sometime this year, so the possibility of legal action for non-accessible websites is very real. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that more than 240 US businesses have been sued in federal court over website accessibility in the last year. Making web accessibility a priority in your next web project is not only a way to avoid legal action, but it will also open your content to an entirely new group of disabled users, while improving the experience for non-disabled user as well. 

Stay tuned for future posts where I will discuss the POUR principles in more depth and how they tangibly affect design and code choices. I will also be covering specific, real-life accessibility issues for coding and design that arise while you attempt to meet conformance.