Web accessibility: Ensuring equal access to digital services for all

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the web in 1989, he had a vision of creating a universal platform that anyone could use. But three decades later, some people still encounter barriers to navigating the wealth of services and applications that are available on the web. Many websites and mobile apps are still designed and structured in a way that makes them impossible to use for people with permanent, temporary, or situational disabilities.

Yet there is a growing awareness that accessibility needs to be a priority in a world where diversity and inclusion have become government and business imperatives. There aren’t specific laws that require websites and apps to be accessible in most jurisdictions as yet. But equality and anti-discrimination laws in many countries arguably require organisations to ensure that services and information on their apps and websites are accessible to all.

Apart from it being the right thing to do, creating accessible websites and apps also enables your organisation to expand its audience and strengthen its brand. Furthermore, an accessible website is usually easier to use for everyone, not just people with disabilities. It also may score higher on the search engines’ algorithms, helping your search engine ranking.

Accessibility versus usability and inclusion

It’s important to make the distinction between the overlapping areas of accessibility, usability, and inclusion. Usability generally focuses on user experience design. It focuses on creating apps and websites that are effective, efficient and satisfying for users at large, without a specific focus on the needs of people with disabilities. Inclusion is about designing apps and services for all — it encompasses issues such as:

  • Computer literacy and skills
  • Education
  • Economic situation
  • Age
  • Language
  • Disability

Accessibility, meanwhile, is the specific focus on creating websites and apps that everyone can use and access, regardless of disabilities such as visual or auditory impairment, inability to use a mouse, or cognitive or neurological disabilities. In addition to helping people with permanent disabilities that make it hard to use a mouse, for example, or to read text, accessibility benefits people with temporary disabilities such as a broken arm.

Accessibility in action: Checkable case study

Checkable is a government site that helps small and medium enterprises in New Zealand improve their digital footprint. To meet its goals, it needs to cater for people of all abilities with visible and invisible differences. To identify and address accessibility errors for  Checkable, the +OneX team used AXEDevTools, a testing tool that provides detailed error messages that make it easy to diagnose accessibility issues.

The tool provides documentation for most errors and offers specific guidance about how they can be corrected to meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (known as WCAG), an internationally recognised set of recommendations for improving web accessibility. AXEDevToolscategorised errors into critical, serious, moderate, and minor categories, highlighting issues such as:

  • Missing alternative text for images
  • Missing form input labels
  • Missing document language
  • Low contrast text
  • ID duplication

By addressing these errors, Checkable was able to develop a site that met the WCAG’s minimum requirements.

Tips for improving accessibility

As the example of Checkable shows, today’s tools can help you to easily audit and improve the accessibility of your website. At the time of this project Paul Seremu, an intern who was part of our Workplace Experience Program,noted some practical tips:

  • Take advantage of semantic HTML markup, which is about using HTML tags to accurately describe the meaning and purpose of content on your website. This enables assistive technologies like screen readers to understand the structure of your website and provide users with a better experience.
  • Add alt text to images—this is a description of an image used by screen readers and other assistive technologies to help users understand the content of an image.
  • Ensure functionality of your website can be accessed using only the keyboard.
  • Design the colour contrast to be high enough to be readable by users with visual impairments.
  • Provide captions for videos for users who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Test your website using accessibility testing tools like aXe, WAVE, or NVDA.

Committing to the best experience for everyone

Website accessibility is an ongoing commitment to providing an intuitive, full-featured web experience to all. It is important to maintain open communication channels with product managers and designers to understand the end goal of the product you have to deliver. Everyone has the right to access the benefits and power of the internet and apps that make daily life easier and more enjoyable.