Integrating WCAG and Accessibility into your Company’s Digital Experiences

by Ellie Krysl

The web is an essential part of daily life, and everyone deserves to use the web equally. From a user experience and technology perspective, addressing accessibility within digital products and experiences has become both a best practice as well as a social responsibility. Beyond that, for many of our clients addressing online accessibility is also the law. 

If you or your company are new to this topic, incorporating accessibility within your digital spaces can come with a lot of questions and reading. This blog looks at common questions and approaches to help you and your company achieve a clearer understanding of the data, compliance guidelines, how to address them and the associated legal requirements. 

1 in 4 U.S. adults live with a disability

First, it’s important to understand the numbers, according to a 2018 CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) report 1 in 4 U.S. adults live with a disability. This equates to roughly 61 million Americans living with a disability which “impacts major life activities.” 

According to the World Wide Web Foundation’s Web Index and David Berman, an eAccessibility and Inclusive Design expert who works with the W3C regarding WCAG that is at minimum 1 billion people worldwide. And nearly every person will face some form of temporary or aging-related disability in their lives. 

When put into those very real terms, the importance of addressing accessibility becomes clear.

How do you design for accessibility? Part I

When people speak of “addressing accessibility requirements,” in most cases they are referring to is WCAG, short for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These guidelines specify how to ensure online and digital content is accessible to everyone, particularly users with disabilities. 

The guidelines were created by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which is part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). For years WCAG 2.0 was the standard, but in June of 2018, the W3C released WCAG 2.1 which includes a number of additions, many of which (but not all) are aimed at addressing mobile interactions. 

Reading through the detailed guidelines, success criteria and techniques on the WCAG site can be quite technical, so it’s a good idea to reach out to someone with experience in that arena. But that’s not to say you have to wait for the experts. 

Phil Kragnes, manager of computer accommodations at the University of Minnesota and his team created Accessible U, a site focused on improving accessibility within their campus’s digital spaces. They advocate to “start small, start now” and recommend doing so by beginning with the “six core skills of accessible, usable digital communication.”  They list these six core skills as focusing on:

  • Headings and Document Structure
  • Hyperlinks
  • Video Captions
  • Bullets and Numbered Lists
  • Color and Contrast
  • Image Alternative Text 

I invite you to explore their site to learn more about these topics and the tips they offer in addressing each. There are many other great resources and sites out there to explore, like that uses more approachable language to describe WCAG requirements (they will be adding a WCAG 2.1 section in the near future). 

While understanding the guidelines is one thing, how to apply them is another.

How do you design for accessibility? Part II

For UX Specialists like myself, there are a plethora of tools and techniques available including application plugins that can simulate different forms of colorblindness, check contrast ratios and test text sizes. However, not all requirements can be met at the visual design phase. Interaction designers, developers, even content creators have tools and techniques available to help them meet accessibility guidelines at different stages of a project.  

Companies using out-of-the-box libraries or applications with a library included instead of creating custom user interfaces still need to consider accessibility requirements. While accessible and inclusive design is becoming the norm, many products are still playing catch-up. It is not safe to assume any one application has done the work for you. 

One good example of this is SharePoint. Many large companies use SharePoint for their internal sites and intranets. SharePoint is powerful, versatile and highly customizable, and many companies are already using the rest of the Microsoft 365 suite, so integration makes sense. The problem is, SharePoint is not WCAG compliant out-of-the-box. Microsoft is making strides to be more accessible, especially with their new Modern Experience, but to ensure that your implementation is truly meeting guidelines, custom styling and changes are needed. At Limina, we’ve managed this very challenge for multiple clients both big and small.

At what point should a company design for accessibility?

It’s best to include accessibility requirements and considerations as early in the process as possible. As mentioned above, all accessibility requirements cannot be met by just one discipline or at one phase of development. Some requirements need to be addressed during interaction design, some at visual design, others during implementation. So it’s a good idea to have a team and plan in place early on.

It’s best to include accessibility requirements and considerations as early in the process as possible.

Who needs to design for accessibility? Or the better question may be: Who needs to comply?

The short answer is everyone.

The governments of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the U.K., and the U.S. have already adopted WCAG 2.0

In the U.S. agencies that receive federal funding, such as non-profit organizations, government agencies, public schools, and public colleges and universities are required to be WCAG 2.0 compliant under Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act. Digital spaces within the private sector such as private enterprises fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and can also fall under Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act and the Air Carrier Access Act

Requirements under the ADA are not as clear as those under Section 508, greatly due to it being passed in 1990, prior to the wide-spread use of the internet and mobile devices. However, greater and greater precedence is being set in U.S. courts saying private enterprises must follow the same digital accessibility standards as government sites or face possible litigation. So it comes as no surprise that more and more companies are making accessibility a greater focus.

As this article in SEO Inc. explains, “It is wise to choose to be compliant voluntarily. Not doing so increases the risk that someone in your customer base will not be able to use your website or any of the features it offers.”

If you’re interested in learning more, Hunton Andrews Kurth has published an excellent in-depth piece on ADA Website Compliance.

Closing Thoughts

This is just a small part of the conversation. There is more to talk about regarding online accessibility including accessibility testing techniques, using WAI-ARIA tagging and how accessible design can improve SEO. The key is not to get overwhelmed.  Instead, set a plan, find or hire the support your company needs and then address one guideline at a time, because accessible design is important. Inclusive design is important and our attention to accessibility and inclusion in digital information, systems, and product design should reflect the great diversity within our society – open for all to participate.

Our attention to accessibility and inclusion in digital information, systems, and product design should reflect the great diversity within our society – open for all to participate.