Accessible Web Design

Yes, it's a big deal...

So, what is a accessible web design?

Don’t worry, we will help answer this age old (from 2005 – present) question.

Accessibility, That Means Wheelchairs, Right?

Most of us are aware of accessibility these days, but what do we think of when imagining the topic? Wheelchair accessible bus platforms, elevators, dipped sidewalks? Yes, while all true and legitimate, many tend to forget one of the most prevalent portions of our modern life: The web.

Think of how much more difficult our lives would be today without access to the information on the internet! The thought is actually quite scary. Accustomed to the advanced speed and flow of information, it would be tough to function properly without internet access. However, for many with disabilities, this can be the case if web content is not designed with accessibility in mind. Fortunately, more attention is being given to accessible web design, and the situation is improving, making digital content available for all.

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Hello? Is There Anybody Out There?

So who is in charge here anyways? Are there any guidelines or laws to abide by regarding accessible web content? Well, funny you ask, because there are! Acronyms abound here, W3C, WCAG, AODA, ADA, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum. But they are luckily all quite similar in terms of what information they portray and are quite consistent in their laws and guidelines. Really they’re just fancy names for the same thing when it comes to accessible web content, which is nice for us.


The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the main international standards organization, and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is the main list of guidelines they publish concerning web accessibility. The other acronym-headed organizations are typically specific to countries, provinces, or legal jurisdictions. In this sense, the W3C could be seen as the parent, the WCAG as the list of rules, and the other organizations as the treehouse clubs in different parts of the neighbourhood. 

They have their own treehouse rules, but they all have to play by the rules of their parents. They just feel special by giving their list a different name. Some organizations part of the acronym club include: the AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act) and the US counterpart the ADA (Americans with Disability Act). Unfortunately, we can’t explain why “with” doesn’t get its letter added to the names. Let’s continue.

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How Strict Should We Be?

Continuing the metaphor, the parents can decide on how strict to be. Well, let’s rephrase that. Their intentions are very good, so it’s not just being strict, it’s holding the children to higher and higher standards! That way everyone can play.

The WCAG has three levels of compliance, A, AA, and AAA. And just like on a report card, the more A’s you have on there, the higher the standard of your work. For accessibility on the web, this means that more conditions are required to satisfy AAA than AA, also, if you comply to AAA, this automatically means you are complying to AA and A standards. They build off of each other as you move up the latter. By January 1st, 2021, web sites and web content from organizations with over 20 staff are required to comply to at least WCAG A standards. Here’s a quick reference guide with details.

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Okay, So How Do These Guidelines Help Exactly?

In a lot of ways, actually. And while a comprehensive list (click to visit this page <!–> Insert Link maybe < — >) will get down to all the nitty-gritties, these can be broken down into a few more simple categories of web accessibility issues. The guidelines help by adding a checklist to avoid the issues below, and help to keep all users happy when accessing web content.

Issue 1: I Can’t See It! Annoying.

Not being able to physically make out what is on the screen is obviously an issue when accessing information. This could be from text being too small, not visible in the current frame, or from having insufficient contrast against the background (like a teacher trying to use a light yellow marker on a whiteboard or dark green chalk on a blackboard…You know, to give some old school examples).

There are also those with more serious visual impairments who will require access to screen readers so the text or image may be accessed in audio form and read to them or explained. Imagine trying to look something up if you had to turn your screen’s brightness level almost all the way down (or even right to zero), you would require some help and alternative means to access. Empathy is key here.

Issue 2: I Can’t Hear It! Aggravating.

Maybe someone needs assistance to access crucial audio information on a page. In this case, a reading alternative would have to be offered to allow proper access.

A simple voice recording could be transferred into text, and something more complex, such as music, could include text for lyrics, as well as an explanation of the non-lyrical music itself.

Another classic example is adding subtitles to videos, which include what is being said (or a translation of this!) and possibly an explanation of voice tone and mood (similar to explaining music actually… Interesting).

Issue 3: I Can’t Understand It! Frustrating.

Okay, it can be heard, it can be seen, but what does it mean? If we can’t make heads or tails of the content, what does it matter if we can perceive it? For some reason the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind here, but that’s a different issue of artistic contemplation. We are talking basic access to content on the web. #kubrickrocks

Issues in comprehension can be helped by making writing more straightforward, organized and understandable. For reading level, think Harry Potter here, and not deep academic arguments relating to literary theory. It also goes without saying that it must be in a legible language for the reader! Other solutions are creating a structure that is simple to follow, not too content-heavy, and not too mentally taxing. This helps the overall user experience.

Issue 4: I Can’t Access It! Irritating.

For some, physical impairments may make using a keyboard or handheld device nearly impossible, and this could stop them from accessing content on the web. These impairments could be permanent, or temporary (not being able to use your fingers due to an injury, for example), but a range of solutions such as voice readers can equally be implemented.

Siri is one popular example, or HAL (the spaceship computer system from 2001: A Space Odyssey), which allows the user to make commands and access information with their voice. Of course, that’s assuming the computers won’t get too smart and begin to disobey. Fingers crossed.

Issue 5: This Is Just Plain Old Dangerous. Yikes!

The final category goes a step further to include those prone to seizures or who become easily disoriented. While certain elements, such as quickly flashing items, may be no real problem for most (other than the fact that they are just annoying), they can pose a danger to others, and should be avoided. The same should be done for unexpected changes of context, which could affect the ease of use for all, but could make some feel completely lost and unable to orient where they are within the website.

All Hands In Everybody. Let’s Bring This Together.

We have made great advancements in accessibility in our physical landscapes, and the digital world is now catching up quickly. Organizations such as W3C has helped a lot by issuing WCAG guidelines to help companies and web developers avoid excluding those with disabilities and avert legal issues. We seem to be moving in a very progressive and inclusive direction.

One last thing: By helping create an inclusive, accessible atmosphere for those with disabilities, we are helping to improve the web experience for all. Even users without disabilities will benefit from the extra attention paid to inclusive design. Better design. More accessible web design and information for all. 

What is there to lose? Let’s do this together.