Designer’s Guide to the Basics of Web Accessibility Design

The internet should be universally accessible, allowing everyone to access the same content no matter where they are in the world. Techniques for responsive design have significantly improved how we design for various devices. However, designing for accessibility – that is, making your websites usable for all people, including those with disabilities – is just as crucial.

Although web accessibility has been a focus for quite some time, effectively implementing it can be challenging due to the need for advancements in technology and web development practices. Many developers are eager to contribute to more accessible web environments but struggle with the complexity involved. Key elements include creating high-contrast text, audio adaptations for the visually impaired, media optimizations, and alternative functionalities for browsers that do not support JavaScript or CSS.

In this article, I will explore the fundamental concepts of accessibility design, its objectives, and practical first steps you can take towards mastering this essential aspect of web development. Although mastering accessibility design is a detailed and lengthy process, the efforts are rewarding. Implementing these practices will not only comply with legal standards but also enhance the overall user experience, ensuring all visitors have equal access to your content.

Designing For People With Accessibility Needs

Designing For People With Accessibility Needs

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Introduction to Accessibility

At its core, accessibility involves designing content that is usable for everyone. This includes individuals who are blind and unable to read, as well as those with physical disabilities that prevent the use of traditional input devices like a mouse or keyboard.

Accessibility also caters to those with less severe impairments, such as minor vision issues, dyslexia, or other reading difficulties. Essentially, the concept of “web accessibility” encompasses any impairment that might affect a person’s ability to interact with or access a website.

One comprehensive definition, as per Wikipedia, states that web accessibility is the practice of eliminating barriers that prevent access to websites by people with disabilities. When websites are properly designed, developed, and edited, everyone has equal access to information and functionality.

However, Anne Gibson suggests in her article on A List Apart that this definition should be broader, not limited to just those with disabilities. It should include all users who might have less than optimal internet access, emphasizing that web accessibility benefits everyone globally.

Contrary to common belief, accessibility does not solely benefit individuals who are blind. According to the A11Y Project, there are four main categories of web accessibility:

  1. Visual: This includes individuals with low vision or no sight at all.
  2. Auditory: This category helps those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  3. Cognitive: It assists people who face challenges in understanding or processing information.
  4. Motor: This focuses on individuals with physical disabilities that might require alternative input methods, such as adaptive keyboards or voice recognition software.

These categories are supported by a range of techniques that evolve along with web standards, yet they adhere to the stability provided by the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). These guidelines are internationally recognized and mandated for certain organizations, like government bodies, to follow.

Next, we’ll explore the regulatory framework surrounding web accessibility before delving into practical design tips that can be applied to enhance website usability.

The W3C and Accessible Design

Web accessibility involves a variety of acronyms that can be overwhelming for newcomers. However, once demystified, they provide a clear framework for understanding and implementing accessibility standards.

  • W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) – This international community works to define and guide web standards for languages, protocols, and guidelines, including those for accessibility.
  • WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative) – This program under the W3C umbrella outlines all the rules, guidelines, and techniques needed for up-to-date web accessibility practices.
  • WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) – These standards help designers measure and improve the accessibility level of their websites.
  • ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) – Specifically focuses on creating accessible applications using JavaScript/Ajax and similar technologies. Further details can be found in this article by Anna Monus.

Under the WAI, there are additional guidelines such as UAAG (User Agent Accessibility Guidelines) and ATAG (Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines). Initially, focus on the principles and standards outlined in the WAI framework and the WCAG quick reference guide.

A valuable resource for understanding the user perspective is the W3C’s overview on how people with disabilities use the web. This resource offers insights into the challenges faced by individuals with disabilities and provides practical solutions for web designers.

Understanding WCAG conformance is also crucial. This involves evaluating a website’s accessibility level, which is categorized into three ratings: A, AA, and AAA. The highest standard of web accessibility conformance is AAA, and this can be verified using tools like the web accessibility checker.

For a deeper dive into these guidelines, consult the Introduction to Understanding WCAG 2.0 provided by the W3C, along with these helpful resources:

Steps to Accessible Design

I strongly recommend checking out the A11Y Project website for actionable accessibility tips. A11Y, a numeronym for accessibility, is an open-source initiative available on GitHub, providing resources for accessible web design.

Explore their comprehensive accessibility checklist or dive into various design patterns suitable for web elements like dropdowns, tabs, accordions, buttons, and modal windows, among others.

Homepage of the A11Y Accessibility Project

Mastering accessibility is a gradual process; start small and continue learning. If you find certain aspects confusing, don’t hesitate to delve deeper into research.

Begin with A11Y’s how-tos and quick tips to get started. You will encounter specific strategies such as skip navigation links and high-contrast color schemes. These methods vary in complexity, so trial and error are essential to find what best suits your site.

Also consider the needs of blind or visually impaired users, who may use screen readers or audio translators, and might navigate via a keyboard rather than a mouse. This underscores the importance of using proper semantic HTML (see this detailed guide), including attributes like tabindex and accesskey to enhance navigability.

If you’re ready to dive deeper, consider adopting an accessibility-ready theme. These themes provide a solid foundation in accessible design principles, allowing you to customize and extend them as needed for your projects.

Accessibility Testing Tools

To start, simply choose a specific aspect of accessibility to focus on, and experiment with it. Utilize testing tools to evaluate how well your designs meet accessibility standards.

List of Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools

This endeavor can be challenging: the vast array of considerations and the complex nature of the WCAG guidelines might lead to information overload. However, it’s important to persevere. Select one accessibility focus at a time, use these tools to refine your approach, and gradually expand your expertise.

For instance, you might begin by enhancing text visibility through the WCAG’s contrast specifications. After choosing your color palette, check their compatibility using this free contrast ratio tool to ensure they meet accessibility standards.

Screenshot of the Contrast Ratio Checker tool

Understanding the WCAG guidelines can be daunting at first, but with practice, they will become clearer and more intuitive.

To assess the accessibility of an existing website, consider using WAVE, a free tool that visually identifies errors and potential issues on your site, highlighting areas like contrast errors and general accessibility violations.

WAVE Tool Displaying Accessibility Errors on a Website

The Cynthia Says portal is another excellent resource that tests for WCAG conformance levels A, AA, and AAA, as well as Section 508 compliance, providing a comprehensive analysis of your site’s accessibility.

CynthiaSays Tool Screenshot

For those interested in DIY or community-driven solutions, here are some open-source accessibility tools available on GitHub:

Homepage of HTML CodeSniffer
HTML Code Sniffe

Browser Add-ons for Accessibility Testing

Browser add-ons offer a quick and efficient means to test accessibility. These tools can be used on any computer and website, providing immediate and actionable insights.

AInspector for Firefox is highly recommended for comprehensive accessibility evaluations, surpassing many other tools in detail, including WAVE.

Screenshot of AInspector Sidebar for Firefox

Firefox users can also utilize the WCAG Contrast Checker, another free tool that is essential for checking visual accessibility.

While Chrome does not support AInspector, it offers Accessibility Developer Tools, developed by Google. This extension provides a robust set of tools integrated into the Chrome Inspector to help developers adhere to accessibility standards effectively.

Screenshot of Accessibility Developer Tools extension for Chrome

Chrome enthusiasts also have options like luminosity contrast checkers and the Color Contrast Analyzer for visual accessibility, among other free extensions.

While options are limited for Safari, Opera users can access tools like the Siteimprove Accessibility Checker, which evaluates WCAG 2.0 compliance. A deeper search may reveal more tools available for different browsers.

Further Reading on Web Accessibility

Delving into web accessibility is a challenging yet rewarding journey. It requires commitment but the outcomes are profoundly beneficial.

By this stage, you should have a better understanding of what web accessibility means, its purpose, and the specifics of what developers can do to enhance accessibility on their websites. The next steps involve deepening your knowledge and integrating these principles consistently into your projects.

For more detailed information, explore the articles listed below and consider reviewing the WCAG guidelines directly from the primary source for comprehensive guidance.