Guidelines matter, but shouldn’t be the only reasons for making sites accessible. If they are, consider doing something else with tech. But knowing legal issues around accessibility are helpful, since they’re clear precedents of what not to do.
For example, in 2006 in the US it was ruled in National Federation of the Blind v. Target that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires commercial sites to be accessible for those with disabilities (under the ADA and any state laws). The UK equivalent to this is the Equality Act, where the Royal National Institute for Blind People sued a UK airline due to an inaccessible website.
Most companies in lawsuits like these settle out of court and improve their sites. Not doing so is rarely worth the bad publicity and loss of a market audience.
The most common US law related to accessibility is Section 508, a 1998 amendment made to the US Rehabilition Act of 1973. Government sites must give equal info access to federal employees with disabilities, and federal websites must do the same. It also applies to company sites receiving federal funds or are under contract with a federal agency. The new standards recommend sites meet Level A and Level AA of the WCAG 2.0 Guidelines.
WCAG 2.0 is one of the most common guidelines followed for accessibility today. They have a broader, tech-independent focus so they’re easier to apply to new technology. For example, it says “all functionalities” should be usable by a keyboard (except when certain user movement input is needed). It doesn’t limit itself to things like links or forms.
WCAG 2.0 has for base principles, with a “POUR” acronym to remember them by:
- Perceivable - Info and interfaces must be shown in ways all users can perceive (access)
- Operable - Interfaces and navigations must be operable
- Understandable - Info and interfaces must be understandable (access and understand)
- Robust - Content should be robust enough that a wide array of user agents, like assisstive tech, can reliably interpret it
These principles are useful for making accessibility principles easier for people in the company to understand, and should be referred to often.
WCAG 2.0 has three levels:
- A (minimum)
- AA (middle)
- AAA (highist)
Most companies that aren’t specifically focused on inclusive design go by the AA level, since AAA requirements need much more time and resources most companies can’t afford to invest. Beginners may want to start with A and naturally make their way to AA as they consider audience needs. Most A rules wind up also conforming to AA rules, or just need some slight improvement.
If you specifically work with CMS’s or anything that lets users upload and edit content, use the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines, or ATAG. It makes user-made content more accessible, and the authoring tools for making it are accessible too. It also has A, AA, and AAA levels.
These guidelines are good frameworks and starting points, but aren’t a substitute for just caring about accessibility and making sites for our users. Seeing them as just “checklists” makes us more likely to do the bare minimum, which doesn’t make for good websites.