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Digital accessibility standards to note

Business leaders must understand the benefits of creating an accessible digital experience. Learn more about the digital accessibility standards laid out by the W3C and ADA.

The World Health Organization estimates that a quarter of all people have accessibility challenges related to vision, hearing or motor skills and temporary issues, such as injuries. Increasingly, web developers are called on to reduce digital accessibility issues for these users.

Digital accessibility standards, such as the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (W3C WCAG), can not only improve user experience for these users but also improve business results and reduce the risk of lawsuits.

Regulators are asking enterprises to conform to technical standards of digital accessibility to improve accessibility for these users -- a move that would also be good for business. In 2020, the Return on Disability Group estimated that people with disabilities control over $13 trillion in annual disposable income, which means improving access for these users can also improve the bottom line.

What does digital accessibility mean for businesses?

Alex Weishaupl, a managing director at Protiviti Digital, a digital transformation consultancy, said, "At its most basic level, digital accessibility means that a digital experience has been designed and developed in a way that ensures a diverse population across a range of physical or cognitive abilities can understand, navigate and interact with content effectively." Beyond being a baseline for good customer service, accessibility is an increasingly important legal requirement in many countries.

The U.S. Department of Justice recently proposed rules for state and local entities in the U.S. In addition, many EU states are ramping up enforcement of digital accessibility requirements that comply with standards for private companies. Underlying these efforts is the desire to ensure that digital resources are perceivable, operable, understandable and robust for everyone regardless of their physical, cognitive or sensory abilities.

Holly Albano, principal product manager at NCino, a cloud banking platform, has seen digital accessibility efforts accelerate in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns and as more business happens digitally. Furthermore, U.S. enterprises are feeling pressure from the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to ensure users can access services in all places of public accommodation, and the web is considered a place of public accommodation.

Albano emphasizes that this is important from more than a legal perspective. Supporting digital accessibility increases market reach and creates opportunities to grow businesses.

CJ Gregorios, equality and inclusion council director and benefits senior advisor at Quest Software, said they use accessibility guidelines to improve technology support for individuals with different challenges. Screen adaptations such as readers and magnifiers can help people who are blind or visually impaired. Hardware adaptations, such as keyboard filters and electronic point devices, help those with motor impairments. Closed captioning and transcripts can improve the experience for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or deaf and hard of hearing.

What is WCAG?

The WCAG provide a framework for improving and testing accessibility support. It includes specific guidance for supporting several types of vision, hearing, mobility, and thinking and understanding impairments. It also supports design principles for ensuring website content and interactions are perceivable, operable, understandable and robust, particularly directly or through assistive technologies.

Enterprises that previously conformed to a certain level of compliance with WCAG 2.1 might not achieve the conformance level with the update.

The WCAG also specifies various conformance levels that build on each other, with "A" supporting the least requirements and "AAA" having the most.

It's also important to note there are various versions of WCAG. WCAG v1.0 was released in 1999, and v2 in 2008. The latest version, WCAG 2.2, finalized in October 2023, includes 13 guidelines, four guiding principles and nine success criteria. Enterprises that previously conformed to a certain level of compliance with WCAG 2.1 might not achieve the conformance level with the update.

The most recent update also improves experiences for those with visual, motor and cognitive disabilities with guidance on keyboard navigation, consistency of UI elements and form validation.

The W3C is already in the exploratory phase of WCAG, which might represent a major overhaul with a different structure, conformance level and broader scope. Dr. Lionel Wolberger, chief operations officer at UserWay, an accessibility tools vendor, said the insights of the WCAG 3.x series will help the industry make significant progress toward full accessibility. For example, it will evolve beyond the current binary pass/fail assessments to pass parts of a site or page and identify compliance issues more granularly.

WCAG, ADA guidance on digital accessibility

The W3C is the most authoritative and comprehensive source of digital accessibility standards. Weishaupl sees WCAG being widely referenced by designers, content makers and developers because it provides guidelines and testing criteria to determine if a piece of content is accessible.

The web content accessibility guidelines represent a shared technical accessibility standard for web-based content. It spells out expectations through guidelines and test criteria to determine if web-based content conforms to standards. It can also function as a standard that large organizations can adopt as a control to determine if content is accessible for their audiences.

Albano observed that WCAG is not a legal requirement but is often referenced in legal rulings around accessibility, such as the American Disability Act website accessibility rulings in the U.S. or directly.

Many tools are built on top of that standard, making it straightforward to evaluate and audit experiences against those test cases. ANDI is a free testing tool created by the Accessibility Solutions Branch of the Social Security Administration. The Accessibility Project, going by the numeronym A11Y, is an open software community for sharing tools and best practices among accessibility practitioners. The hashtag "#a11y" is widely referenced in accessibility discussions.

George Lawton is a journalist based in London. Over the last 30 years, he has written more than 3,000 stories about computers, communications, knowledge management, business, health and other areas that interest him.

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