Building Connections Through Accessible Web Design

Why accessible web design is good for your company

As a brand, making your digital properties accessible is not only the right thing to do, but also smart for your business.  There are over 40 million people across the US and Canada living with disabilities that benefit from the use of the Internet and social media, just like the rest of the population would. These are also potential customers of your product and advocates for your brand.


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By providing accessibility to your websites and other digital platforms, your brand is fostering a culture of inclusion and empowering disabled individuals to be self-sufficient, improving their overall quality of life. In turn, you are opening up your brand for engagement with a whole community of users and their extended network. When considering more than half of the population has a friend or loved-one with a disability and is influenced by them when deciding which businesses to solicit, the impact of providing accessibility is even more far reaching. Conversely, not implementing accessibility means that these customers will have a very difficult time engaging with your brand and will surely be inclined to switch over to a competitor that does.


It's the Law

Many jurisdictions (including the US and most of Canada) have accessibility laws for the web that apply to government and public sector organizations. Encouragingly, most jurisdictions worldwide implementing these laws are aligning on a set of standards that will help provide access to a more predictable user experience and a consistent style of code that assistive technologies will be better able to utilize. It also means less ambiguity for the organizations and their developers implementing the changes.


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In Ontario, the provincial government has taken this a step further and has extended accessibility laws into the private sector, and will be the first jurisdiction to do so world wide. As of January 1st, 2014, private sector organizations in Ontario with over 50 employees are required to be compliant with WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0 Level A, and Level AA by 2021. Increasingly, building accessible websites is not only the moral right and smart business approach, but one that is legislated as well.


Assistive Technology

We are living in a world where technology has advanced to a point where it enables unparalleled access to information for those living with disabilities and impairments. Implementing WCAG 2.0 conforming sites allows for a breadth of assistive technologies (a tool that assists with a disability or impairment) to be used to deliver the site’s information and content. Oftentimes, web accessibility is associated with visual disabilities like blindness, but actually encompasses disabilities of all types including dexterity/mobile, hearing, language and speech as well as cognitive and learning.


Beyond Desktop: Mobile & Tablet

Implementing accessibility and producing highly usable mobile and tablet sites often times go hand-in-hand, as many of the best practices geared towards touchscreen interfaces and small screen sizes also satisfy many of the WCAG 2.0 principles (for example: appropriate font sizes, buttons and use of color). While WCAG 2.0 officially covers content for mobile and tablet, it requires interpretation to apply some of the guidelines appropriately. Seemingly non-applicable rules may actually be relevant in very simple but overlooked ways. For example, guidelines requiring the use of a keyboard may seem silly to consider on a touch screen device, but the requirement is relevant for users who opt to attach assistive external keyboards not native to the device. Rather than shrug off accessibility for mobile as something that is out of scope, it is important to take the time to look at each guideline, and make best efforts to meet the criteria in the spirit of making the resulting product more accessible.


How to Activate Accessible Web Design Within Your Brand

There are many excellent articles and reference materials available on how to implement WCAG and accessibility at a technical level, so this article will not focus on that. However, implementing accessibility at the enterprise level requires participation from multiple stakeholder groups.

Education and Buy-In

It is critical to the success of enabling accessibility within an organization is to ensure that there is general awareness of the topic, including what accessibility entails, why it is the morally right thing to do, its impact on business, and any legal requirements that should be considered. This can be accomplished in a top down approach:

  • Designate an Accessibility Champion within the organization to oversee alignment of the vision, and to spearhead and coordinate execution.
  • Key stakeholders including business, creative and technical owners of all digital properties should attend a workshop led by accessibility experts – accessibility consultants who specialize in this field or the Accessibility Champion sharing the knowledge. The goal is to get alignment on what accessibility means to the organization, and buy-in to procure budget and resources to execute on that vision.
  • On a broader level, there should be company wide teach-outs on accessibility concepts (what it is and why it is important).
  • At the implementation level, there should be Developer and Designer workshops to go through details on WCAG 2.0, and the corresponding techniques to achieve compliance for each guideline.

Integration Into Existing Processes

Once there is alignment on the vision, existing processes across various disciplines and functions must be updated to incorporate accessibility:

  • Scoping and Estimating: new projects, features and change requests must include additional effort and timelines to incorporate accessibility. Where possible, accessibility activities should be tracked separately in order to have clear measurement of the time and effort being spent, with the end goal of understanding costs refining future estimates.
  • Quality Assurance: the QA process needs to incorporate test cases to validate against the WCAG2.0 guidelines. The W3C provides helpful tools and checklists to assist with this activity.
  • Design best practices need to be established to ensure designs have accessibility in mind. The WCAG2.0 guidelines are constructed in such a way so that there should be little to no impact on designs that are highly usable (which is in general a positive thing).
  • Development guidelines need to be established around accessibility to ensure that WCAG2.0 is being met, and assistive technologies that rely on implementation of these guidelines will work correctly for users.

Validation and Collaboration

Once implemented, it is an important step to validate that the work was done correctly, both to verify the interpretation of the guidelines, as well as to ensure legal compliance. It is recommended that 3rd party auditors who specialize in this field be brought in to assist with this step for the first implementation. Quite often, it is an iterative and collaborative process to interpret and apply WCAG2.0 guidelines correctly, and subject matter experts are invaluable in working with the team to both validate and provide knowledge transfer for future updates and implementations.