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What Is Web Accessibility: A Five-Point Guide

The Basics of Web Accessibility - Picture of a neon sign "Enter"

The discussions on web accessibility have gained momentum as new rules and regulations are announced around the world. In Finland, for example, a new 2019 law requires accessibility from the web contents of more and more organizations. Read about what you need to know to master the basics of web accessibility!

1. What is Web Accessibility?

Digital accessibility is a means to make it possible for a wide range of people to use the web with ease. It’s about paying attention to the diversity of people when planning and executing web services. Even though aiming at accessibility can feel like a bit of a puzzle, it’s an essential aspect of human equality.

Behind the idea of web accessibility, there are greater causes. These are the likes of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities or the European Convention on Human Rights, which both strive to ensure that we all have equal opportunities in taking part in society. Where the equality of the physical world is pursued e.g. by building ramps and elevators, web accessibility is the way to make the digital world accessible to all.

In other words, the idea of web accessibility is based on digital equality. An accessible web service needs to be easy to use and comprehend, whether you’re the average joe, or a person with temporary or permanent disabilities.

2. Who Will Benefit From My Accessible Site?

People who benefit from your accessible website, are naturally those who encounter challenges when using an average website. These primary target groups are for example:

  • people who are visually impaired, colorblind or have poor eyesight
  • hearing-impaired people
  • people with cognitive challenges or e.g. dyslexia
  • people with physical disabilities, such as inability to use a mouse

Accessible web services are also enjoyed by the average user. Plain language, perceivable content and a user interface that’s easy to use, make your service more pleasant for even those users who don’t have any disabilities. And you should remember too, that a temporary obstacle like a slow wi-fi can create temporary disabilities. This means that an accessible site that runs smoothly, can be of great use at those times.

And finally, accessibility is beneficial for the organization itself. By offering accessible web contents, you can be sure your messages are perceivable to your entire audience – even to those that poorly accessible sites turn away. Also, accessibility goes hand in hand with SEO in many ways. So by investing in web accessibility, you also invest in your contents to be better found online. Web accessibility is something you should always aim at, at least to an extent, even if the law doesn’t require it from you.

3. Am I Obliged to Provide Accessible Web Content?

Web accessibility is something organizations have been encouraged to pursue for at least a decade or two. The International Web Consortium W3C, created its first web content accessibility guidelines back in 1999 and its latest version WCAG 2.1 was approved in 2018. These guidelines have been the basis for many rules and regulations around the world. One of such regulations is the EU directive published in 2016. This directive requires accessibility from the websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies.

Countries like the US, Ireland and Finland have specific laws, that require accessibility from the web services of certain organizations. In Finland, for example, the new 2019 law doesn’t restrict to just authorities and public sector bodies. In short, in Finland you need to offer accessible web services also if you are funded by an authority or work in certain fields such as water and energy business, banking, investment, insurance, transportation or mailing services.

W3C has released a list of laws and policies in different countries. This list is not exhaustive though, and can contain outdated information. But it is a good starting point for looking into the different policies around the world.

4. What are the Characteristics of an Accessible Web Service?

To make your web services accessible, you need make sure that certain technical as well as visual and content-related matters are in order.
You should remember too, that web accessibility doesn’t limit to just websites, but it extents to all online services. Even the policies often require accessibility from e.g. online documents, videos, social media accounts and mobile applications as well.

Here are a few features an accessible web service possesses:

  1. The code is flawless and logical. The site complies with the HTML standard and WCAG guidelines. It works well on different devices as well as with different assistive technologies such as screen readers and magnifying software. The code is carefully structured and certain tags are added to make it easier for the assistive technologies to understand.
  2. The user interface of the web service is easy to use, clear-cut and easy to understand. You have, for example, paid attention to a clear and descriptive navigation as well as to an appearance that’s perceivable and has adequate contrasts. Different elements such as buttons and links are recognizable and logical. It’s easy to search for content on the site and the key contents stand out clearly.
  3. Essential is also, that the contents are understandable. The language you use needs to be plain language. Avoid difficult words and overly long sentences. Make sure your copy is logically structured, your headings are descriptive and your paragraphs are short enough. Also ensure that your anchor texts are descriptive and understandable. Add other formats like images, video or audio to support the text. Keep in mind, however, that these formats have requirements for accessibility as well.

5. Where Do I Start With Making My Contents Accessible?

As you can conclude from the above, reaching web accessibility requires knowledge as well as cooperation between different professions. Often times at least your programmer, graphic designer and content producer need to get their hands dirty. Accessibility is not a completely stable condition either. You need to keep it in mind every time you create new content for the web or make changes to the site’s structure.

Tools exist to evaluate and fix accessibility issues. These tools can help you get started with examining your site’s accessibility.

  • Wave is a free tool that lets you test the technical accessibility of any site. You can do this by entering the URL on their page or by downloading a Firefox or Chrome extension.
  • Siteimprove is a tool that makes it possible to evaluate accessibility even further. With Siteimprove you can fix accessibility issues directly from their platform. In addition to the technical issues, Siteimprove scans your site also e.g. for spelling, broken links and SEO related details.

To sum it up, you can test accessibility and pursue it by utilizing the free online tools and materials. The safest bet, however, is to turn to a professional who is familiarized with web accessibility issues and who knows how to fix any issues that come up.

We at Verkkovaraani work in cooperation with Siteimprove and offer their tool for our customers to try. We will also test your site’s accessibility for you and do all the necessary fixes. In addition to technical tools, reaching web accessibility always requires manual testing and understanding of accessible contents.

This article is based on the first part of our free series of webinars, where we dig into the basics of web accessibility. Download the webinar video (in Finnish) free of charge.

Also, have a look at our article on the accessibility of web releases such as PDF publications.

Get In Touch, If You’d Like to Know More

We at Verkkovaraani would love to help you in all aspects of web accessibility. Contact us, if you would like to test your website accessibility with the Siteimprove tool, or otherwise discuss any accessibility issues!