Designers can demonstrate empathy by implementing accessibility standards for users with disabilities.

The first version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) was published in 1999, and the standards have since gone through several updates. As of 2020, the most current guidelines to follow are called WCAG 2.1, with version 3.0 currently being developed.

Who needs to be WCAG compliant?

If an organization uses money from the federal government, it is legally obligated to have an accessible website. However, even if a business doesn’t use federal money, it may still be subject to legal ramifications in the future. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990 and “guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life.” Title III of this act specifically requires businesses (defined as a private place of public accommodation) to provide “reasonable modifications” when serving people with disabilities. As Apple’s Director of Global Accessibility Policy and Initiatives says, accessibility is a basic human right. Thus, it is best practice to implement accessibility standards sooner than later to help build a more inclusive brand.

The Tenets of Website Accessibility

WCAG 2.0 is based on four core principles: A website must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. WCAG 2.1. added additional guidance for users with cognitive or learning disabilities, users with low vision, and users with disabilities on mobile devices.

Websites can be evaluated on how well they comply with WCAG via a scoring system that uses A, AA, or AAA as ratings. An “A” rating is the baseline or minimum standard; if a website fails to meet the A rating, then it will not be accessible. AA is a step above this, and AAA the highest level of conformance. Because achieving AAA level requires a website to be limited in its design and content, most websites do not meet this standard. Designers should strive for an AA rating using WCAG 2.1 criteria and can achieve this by incorporating these considerations early within the design process rather than trying to “tack it on” later. If you’re not sure where your website currently falls, there are several tools available online to help you check.

Implement Web Accessibility Early in the Design Process

Because of the nature of accessibility standards involving both design and content decisions, it is important to have these conversations at the beginning of a project. For instance, if selling a product that comes in a variety of colors, consider how those colors may be perceived by an individual who is colorblind. Ensure appropriate labels or display options and alt text are built-in on these pages. Similarly, those who have low vision may rely on screen readers that provide information aurally. For these to work properly, alternative text descriptions should be added thoughtfully to describe images in detail.

By being mindful of users with disabilities early in the process and establishing internal policies and standard practices, designers can avoid feeling overwhelmed by conformance rules — rather, they can feel empowered to move forward on a design that they know works well for more people regardless of their ability.


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