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The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) defines web accessibility as websites, tools and technologies designed for use by everyone, including people with disabilities. This philosophy, which has gained traction in recent years, encompasses all forms of disabilities and respects everyone's right to be informed and express themselves through the internet.
Guaranteeing such rights has become more crucial than ever. A report released by the Australian Communications and Media Authority in 2021 noted an 11 per cent increase in active broadband connections and a 20 per cent increase in data traffic compared to the previous year. The report also mentioned that 98 per cent of Australians are now online. That's a significant increase from 76 per cent in 2019.
Simply put, doing business without a website, let alone an accessible one, is painstaking. It's still possible but extremely hard without tapping into the world's largest source of leads. Even local businesses, which cater to communities, are struggling to get away without one, as accessing the internet has become the daily norm.
In this highly digitised world, a website is no longer optional. It isn't even enough to have just one. Apart from containing valuable content, a website must be as usable to people with disabilities as everyone else.
To understand the significance of an accessible web design, business owners need only keep one figure in mind: one in six Australians.
According to the latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics Survey of Disability, Aging and Carers (which is from 2018), around 4.4 million- one in six - have some form of disability. Of these, one in three is reported to have a 'severe or profound' disability. While the prevalence rate hasn't kept up with the population growth, the number of people with disability keeps rising.
The survey also noted that physical disability is the most prevalent type among ages 25 and over, naturally rising as they age. Sensory and speech impediments rank second, but among ages 55 and up. The prevalence rates of intellectual, psychosocial and injury-induced disabilities tend to stay relatively close to one another.
Among the most common disability cases in the country include:
It isn't hard to visualise how disabilities affect access to the internet. People who have lost their vision can't read text, while those who have lost their hearing can't get the full experience from videos. On another but relevant note, visitors see no incentive to visit a website not optimised for mobile or that isn't working as intended.
Web accessibility caters to these limitations but isn't restricted to permanent disability. The W3C definition also includes users with 'temporary disabilities' (e.g., recovering from a broken limb) and under 'situational limitations' (e.g., noisy environment, intermittent internet connection).
Getting web content and design to be accessible relies on interdependency. From the developer's end, Pursuit Digital website design services and those of similar companies create an accessible web design with authoring and evaluation tools. From the user's end, visitors use a browser to open the site and use media players and assistive tools to access specific content.
However, this interdependency can be delicate at times. If the browser or media player doesn't support an accessibility feature, developers may be less inclined to create something that won't work. Workarounds are possible but not for all cases.
To help with this, the W3C developed three web accessibility standards via its Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The nuts and bolts of every standard are too intricate to summarise in a paragraph, but web developers showing competency on the subject should be a given.
As for best practices, they can be summarised into four principles aptly acronymised as POUR. These state that a website's content and interface must be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. The web accessibility standards go into each element in depth, but here's a rundown.
For a site's content and interface to be perceivable, they must be identifiable through hearing and vision. An accessible design is perceivable via both to allow users with impaired hearing or vision to fall back to whichever is still functional.
Some web design best practices already adhere to this principle, such as using headers to organise lengthy content or enabling one-click font resizing. They can also be as basic as spelling out 'Search' on a search button instead of the symbol for a magnifying glass.
More importantly, non-text media should have text-based alternatives and vice versa. Images and videos that don't load can provide alternate text. Articles and blog posts that a user can't read can provide audio of the whole thing, whereas podcasts and other recordings that a user can't hear can provide full transcripts.
An operable website must not disrupt a user's session. A typical way of achieving this is to avoid feature creep or load a website with features that serve no function whatsoever. The more features added, the more resources and effort required to get them running.
But in this context, an operable website should also avoid aggravating users' disabilities. For example, flashing lights aren't just irritating but also risk triggering seizures. Meanwhile, a confusing site layout won't be friendly to users with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Operability extends outside the Web, as some users rely on keyboards and input modalities to find their way around a website. A website's functions should be quick to activate when prompted via keyboard, touch or voice command. For touch, actionable assets like buttons should be large enough to be pressed easily.
Understandable content is, for lack of a better term, clear-cut. No matter the topic or niche it belongs to, the average reader must be able to understand its idea. If jargon is unavoidable, it must explain its meaning in simple terms.
On the other hand, an understandable interface assumes that the user will commit mistakes throughout their session. As with perceivable elements, some understandable best practices are already in play, such as error pages and confirmation pages. Additionally, user interface elements must be consistent across a site's dozens of pages.
Lastly, the content must be accessible across various user-end platforms, notably browsers and assistive technologies like screen readers. It's worth noting that assistive technologies rely on properly coded HTML to parse the content into a more accessible format for users. Some examples include employing start and end tags and avoiding duplicate attributes.
The latest version of the standards suggests the inclusion of status messages whenever the user completes an action. For example, if the user enters an invalid value in an online form, the system should show an error message and indicate the location of the erroneous value.
Accessible web design isn't just about improving the overall user experience. Australian federal law guarantees users' right to file a complaint with authorities if they believe a website's lack of accessibility is discriminatory to their conditions.
Case in point: in 2014, a blind female sued a supermarket chain after the latter's website proved to be a hassle to use with her screen reader. Its lack of accessible features like scheduling orders and complicated navigation would take a person with disability hours to close a transaction. The case was settled out of court, but not before reaching the Federal Circuit Court.
The Australian Human Rights Commission states that the provision of online services is covered under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. In other words, businesses can be at the receiving end of lawsuits if users find their website too difficult to use. If a grocery chain can be sued for such an issue, smaller businesses can be just as vulnerable.
The Commission recommends that web designs be at 'Level AA' or acceptable compliance to avoid potential lawsuits. Some of the criteria for achieving this level include:
Note that the highest level of compliance is 'Level AAA' or maximum. While it may seem logical to aim for this level, experts say it's unachievable for some types of content.
Local business owners may not need to remember such technicalities, but they definitely need to hire a digital marketing agency for this purpose. A part of its job description includes developing and optimising websites for all users and platforms.
Public awareness of disabilities and other limiting health conditions is more prevalent than ever. Any form of discrimination will no doubt attract serious backlash, including a poorly accessible website or, worse, a lack thereof.
Local businesses should invest in making their websites accessible to everyone, even if it doesn't come cheap. From a business perspective, a person with disability or serious limitation will pay for a product or service just as their able-bodied counterpart. Catering to just one group of people isn't an optimal way to maximise revenue.