Web accessibility matters

Web Accessibility as a Right – Should WCAG be Mandated by Law?

There is a reason why the drivers’ seat in a car is adjustable: Not every body is built the same, and to appeal to as wide an audience as possible auto makers know they need to make it possible to drive a car whether you are 1m 30cm or 2m 30cm. The adjustable car seat makes driving accessible for the majority of the adult population.

With this in mind, join me for a short experiment: If you’re on a computer open a separate tab in your browser, navigate to your favourite website and try to navigate through the site using just your keyboard. Chances are it will be a frustrating experience. This is the inaccessible web. And its retirement is long overdue, not just because accessibility is a rights issue but also because accessibility makes the sites we make … well … accessible.

Web Accessibility as Law

In 2013 the Norwegian government passed new regulations regarding the Universal Design of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) which mandates that all websites must meet a minimum accessibility standard of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, level AA. The new law takes effect on July 1st 2014 for new web solutions and all existing / grandfathered web solutions must meet the same requirements by January 1st 2021.

The new regulation is an extension of the existing Anti-Discrimination and Accessibility Act which states, in part:

Universal Design means designing, or accommodating, the main solution with regards to physical conditions, so that the solution may be used by as many people as possible, regardless of disability.
§11, Norwegian Anti-Discrimination and Accessibility Act

The regulation targets all private and public organizations, institutions, and businesses who use ICT solutions as their main form of communication with the public regardless of who owns the solution. In other words even if you rent space or services from another business you are still responsible for meeting the requirement.

The “solutions” mentioned are divided into two groups:

  • Web Solutions (publicly accessible informational websites, websites targeted toward mobile devices, and ecommerce solutions)
  • “Automata” (ATMs and ticket vending machines).

And as with any law there are exceptions:

  • Social media including blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, used for personal purposes and in the private sphere
  • Custom accessibility solutions for individuals
  • ICT solutions in schools and educational institutions
  • Broadcast media including film and streaming broadcast solutions

This all boils down to a simple message: If you are a web designer or developer or you own a website or web solution in Norway the government is about to get all up in your business. And it is high time they do.

Lack of Access = Discrimination

The decision made by the lawmakers is clear (not a quote):

If you provide valuable or important information to the public and limit certain groups from accessing that information you are performing a discriminatory act.

It’s hard to argue against this. If you substitute “website” with “pedestrian crossing” or “mall” or “high-rise” or even “television” you’ll realize our society puts a lot of emphasis on accessibility in public, commercial, and private spaces: Pedestrian crossings have audio cues for the visually impaired, malls and high-rise buildings have elevators for those with limited mobility, and television broadcasters provide closed captioning for the hard of hearing. You also realize that these accessibility measures benefit everyone: The audio cues at a crosswalk are useful to a sighted person, everybody uses elevators, and closed captioning allows us to watch TV with the sound off.

In contrast the web is largely inaccessible. And even on sites where accessibility standards have been implemented they are usually an afterthought or extra add-on that provides a reduced experience for the end-user requiring this assistance.

I would argue the lack of accessibility on the web is discriminatory. The web has become an integral part of our information society and limiting access to certain groups is equivalent to a restaurant saying “Oh, you’re hard of hearing? Sorry, we only have the menu available in audio format”. Not only is it an unacceptable practice but its justifications – that accessibility is too hard or too expensive – are untrue.

It is high time we make web accessibility the baseline standard. And if we don’t the government should step in with legislation like they have done in other realms where accessibility is an issue.

Accessibility as a Standard

Like I said: Accessibility is not hard. Nor is it expensive. Accessibility is just different from the status quo. When websites and web solutions are built the accessibility aspect is rarely at the forefront and it is often pushed to the back of the long line of other more pressing requirements – from responsive web design to cross browser compatibility to SEO. This is both what makes accessibility hard and what makes it expensive:

As an afterthought building web solutions that meet accessibility standards requires rewriting the code. But if we design and build our solutions with accessibility in mind from the ground up there is neither much of an extra expense nor any pain and frustration. Accessibility is for the most part about proper standards-based markup,  proper use of attributes and tags, and designing for communication.

Reading the requirements of WCAG 2.0 not as an onerous list of unnecessary demands but rather as a blueprint for building a solid web solution will make our code better and our content more accessible.

Accessibility is not just about Disability

You may think that accessibility is about disability. That is no longer the case. Accessibility is about to become something every consumer of web resources cares about. As I write this Microsoft, Apple, and Google are fighting tooth and nail to be the first to launch a production model car with a computer dashboard wired to the web. Soon web users will start demanding that Siri, Cortana, and Google Now read the web back to them in the car, on the bus, or while jogging, and they’ll want to navigate the web by voice. And don’t get me started on Google Glass, Samsung Gear, and whatever wearable device Apple will roll out this year. The hands-free web is around the corner and one of the main things that is holding it back is the lack of accessibility the web is currently suffering from. 

On the flip side this means those that focus on accessibility now will reap the benefits once the voice controlled revolution kicks in full force. Accessibility is about access for everyone, and accessibility will make your content easier to access for everyone.

Accessibility is also about creating informational experiences that make sense. Many of the accessibility requirements in WCAG are common sense web standards: Proper hierarchy markup through the use of headers, blockquotes, cite tags, and so on, using alt and title tags on images and links, clearly explaining the target and purpose of links, annotating images and videos, the list goes on. None of this is about accessibility for the disabled but rather accessibility for the user.

A note on WordPress and Accessibility

The inspiration for this article came from one of my lynda.com students Hanne Brøter who asked how this new regulation will impact Norwegian WordPress users and developers.

I have good news for Hanne and the Norwegian WordPress community: WordPress is very much on the forefront where accessibility is concerned. The default themes that ship with WordPress, in particular Twenty Fourteen, are almost up to modern accessibility standards, and there is work being done to make the application fully accessible.

More importantly though making a WordPress site accessible is not hard, and most of it has to do with how you manage your content: Using proper content hierarchies through headings and markup, adding alt tags to images and title tags to links, properly annotating videos, adding cite tags to links, etc. And when it comes to building themes keeping up with accessibility just means following the guidelines and writing standards based HTML5. As I said before, make WCAG your baseline and it will be mostly smooth sailing. And when you butt up against apparent blockers like keyboard accessible drop-down menus know that there are solutions Superfish available to get you back on track.

Most importantly start thinking about accessibility as a value, not a hindrance. Having the right attitude is half the battle.

Accessibility for all

I applaud my homeland of Norway for its move to legislate accessibility and I have every hope that other countries follow suit. While I can’t imagine how this would be enforced in a reasonable manner on a global scale I also have no reservations about a government taking this drastic step and getting all up in our grills: The web design and development community has disregarded and ignored accessibility for too long. It is a shameful practice and it has no rational explanation. So when the community won’t self-regulate and get with the programme it is up to our elected governing bodies to do something about it.

In other words if you don’t want to have a bureaucrat knocking down your door because your markup sends visually impaired visitors on an endless goose chase for your content, stop treating that visually impaired visitor like a second grade citizen and make accessibility the baseline of your sites.

Postscript

Yes, I know this website is not 100% accessible. What you are looking at is an alpha version of a new theme. My intention is for the theme itself to be fully accessible by the time it is released.

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