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The Quest for Better Web Accessibility

Web accessibility matters. Just ask Tim Berners-Lee—a professor of computer science at the University of Oxford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the best known as the inventor of the web—who said that the power of the web is in its universality.

Today, over half of the world’s population has internet access and millions more people connect every day. In the United States alone, about 56.7 million people—19 percent of the population—have a disability, with more than half of them being severely disabled.

Unless we strive to make the web accessible to everyone, a large portion of the world’s population won’t be able to access many critically important resources, including healthcare, education, social support, and job sites, all of which have become digitized to a very large extent over the last few decades.

What is web accessibility?

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the main international standards organization for the web, defines web accessibility as, “the inclusive practice of removing barriers that prevent interaction with, or access to websites, by people with disabilities. When sites are correctly designed, developed and edited, all users have equal access to information and functionality.”

World Wide Web definition of web accessibility.

With an improved layout and design, web accessibility provides a better user experience to everyone regardless of whether they can’t use their arms and have to type with a mouthstick, can’t hear well and rely on captions when watching online videos, can’t see well and use a screen reader to read aloud what’s on the screen, or have various age-related impairments such as reduced dexterity.

But it’s not just people with disabilities who benefit from better web accessibility. Websites that are designed with accessibility in mind work better on legacy devices and are not frustrating to use even with a slow internet connection, just to give a couple examples.

According to 18F, a digital services agency within the United States Government, accessibility is one of the most important aspects of modern web development, which includes progressive web apps, “Accessibility means the greatest number of users can view your content. It means search engines will be able to read your site more completely. Users of all types will have a better experience if you take accessibility concerns into account.”

Current status of web accessibility

When Vivienne Conway, the founder and director of digital accessibility specialists Web Key IT, published her 2014 thesis titled “Website accessibility in Australia and the national transition strategy,” her conclusion was that very few organizations succeeded in meeting even Level A of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

WCAG is intended for the developers of web content, web authoring tools, web accessibility evaluation tools, and others who want or need a standard for web accessibility. It provides stable, referenceable technical standards with testable success criteria at three levels: A, AA, and AAA.

Tips for better web accessibility.

“It was found that government agencies were more likely to meet accessibility requirements and that the closer the agency is to the federal government departments related to the development of the requirements, the greater their accessibility. Organizations not directly related to the government were found to have the most inaccessible websites. Therefore, it may be stated that the type of organization did make a difference to the accessibility of the website,” stated Conway.

Fortunately, non-governmental organizations have finally realized the importance of web accessibility, which is evident from the research by Kevin Yang, Will Hang, and James Liu, students at Stanford University. Google is now frequently advocating for better web accessibility on its accessibility-related Twitter account, @googleaccess, and the number of GitHub repositories created for the term a11y, a numeronym for accessibility, rose from about 260 in 2016 to around 370 in 2017. Currently, the search term “a11y” on GitHub returns around 1,500 results.

Tips for better web accessibility

Web accessibility is a complex and constantly evolving topic, but anyone can make a website accessible by adhering to the following three basic tips for better web accessibility.

#1 Choose the right technology

Modern frameworks are designed with accessibility in mind, and they can help you create a very sophisticated website with great performance even on slow devices. For example, when it comes to JavaScript, a great option worth recommending for building a fast and relatively lightweight front end of an app is React JS, a framework built by Facebook and appreciated by hundreds of thousands of developers worldwide.

#2 Give your content a proper structure

Screen readers rely on HTML headings (H1, H2, H3, H4, H5, and H6) to navigate content. By using HTML headings correctly, you can make life a lot easier for visually impaired visitors of your website, who can’t read the text that is displayed on the computer screen themselves. Properly structured content is also favored by search engines, so it’s a win-win situation for everyone.

#3 Keep your design functional

Last but not least, remember that the design of your website should be functional above all else. Color vision deficiency affects approximately 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women in the world, so a lot more people might be dissatisfied by your extravagant choice of colors than you probably realize.

Conclusion

The quest for better web accessibility is important. The tools and technologies that allow us to create websites that can be readily accessed and enjoyed already exist, and every organization should use them to make the web accessible to all.

Resources:

  • http://www.colourblindawareness.org/colour-blindness/
  • https://18f.gsa.gov/
  • https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/miscellaneous/cb12-134.html
  • https://ro.ecu.edu.au/theses/1405/
  • https://www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/wcag/
  • https://medium.com/include-ai/everyone-else-cares-about-image-accessibility-so-you-should-too-2745db8e4b30
  • https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/steps-you-can-take-now-to-address-web-accessibility-at-your-institution/ (image)
  • https://www.w3.org/WAI/fundamentals/accessibility-intro/ (image)

Matt Warcholinski

Matt Warcholinski is the COO of Brainhub (a software house building awesome node.js web and mobile apps) who loves to build startups and play guitar.

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