Web Accessibility: removing barriers, designing a web for everyone

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As part of our technical standards work, we identify key areas that help ensure there is one Web for all humanity, and that it is safe for its users. There are four such areas that we call “horizontals” because they shape every W3C work package. They are Web accessibility, internationalization, security and privacy.

In this blog post I want to focus on accessibility, which is essential to creating a single platform for all humanity. Did you know that it was the horizontal area with which the Web Consortium started, by launching the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) in 1997? 

Why does Web accessibility matter?

The Web is an increasingly important resource in many aspects of life: education, employment, government, commerce, health care, recreation, and more. It is essential that the Web be accessible in order to provide equal access and equal opportunity to people with diverse abilities. Access to information and communications technologies, including the Web, is defined as a basic human right in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD).

According to WHO: “An estimated 1.3 billion people experience significant disability. This represents 16% of the world’s population, or 1 in 6 of us.” (and 1 in 4 Americans per the Centers for Disease Control) “This number is growing because of an increase in noncommunicable diseases and people living longer. Persons with disabilities are a diverse group,” “Persons with disabilities…experience more limitations in everyday functioning than others.” (WHO)

This means that every single one of us likely knows someone with a disability, although we might not even be aware of it. Some folks, such as myself, have disabilities that are not immediately visible or obvious to others yet still have an impact on how we interact with the world, in real life or on the web.

“Accessibility is essential for some, and useful for all.” 
~ Shawn Lawton Henry, W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Program Lead

Making the Web work, for everyone

The Web is one of the greatest advancements in connecting humanity, yet without focus on making sure there is one web for all, many of us will be left behind. W3C has been at the forefront of defining standards for making technology accessible, publishing Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0 back in 1999. Work on accessibility standards and resources to support accessibility throughout technologies and organizations remains a vital part of our mission.

Global awareness of the need and of our work has grown slowly and steadily. We continue to see more and more countries creating laws around accessibility and adopting WCAG as a national standard.

Compliance is far from the only reason to embrace accessibility; the business impact is also worth noting:

  • Digital products that fully comply with WCAG 2 are expected to have a 50% higher market performance than their non-compliant competition (Gartner)
  • Companies that prioritize accessibility are four times as likely to outperform their competitors (Accenture)
  • According 2019 research, two thirds of e-commerce transactions are abandoned by people who are blind because of lack of accessibility, and that companies without accessible sites are losing $6.9 billion a year to competitors whose sites are accessible (Nucleus Research)

More importantly, there is a positive human impact, not just business, which is crucial to building an inclusive society. Actually, as is made obvious in our own document “the business case for digital accessibility”, many innovations and business practices were initially meant to include people with disabilities and found a much broader application (e.g., text to speech, voice control, touch screens and “mobile-ready” websites.)

I have direct experience with this - I required text-to-speech software for the better part of several years in my career during periods where I was unable to type due to a chronic condition. The positive impact of Web accessibility is human first, and there is a growing understanding of the need for equal access by all people.

More work to do: include everyone

Unfortunately, even with all the progress, there is still a high number of websites that are inaccessible to people with disabilities who rely on assistive technology. Remarkably, some of the most common accessibility barriers and failures to meet WCAG are easily avoided and fixed, including missing heading markup, ambiguous link text, low contrast, and images missing alternative "alt" text description. (Please, see "Tips for getting started designing for Web Accessibility")

While remote work is creating more job opportunities for people with disabilities to be employed (Forbes), inaccessible websites or application processes could be preventing them from finding, applying to, and performing these jobs.

This further illustrates why our work to improve Web accessibility is so crucial -despite the capability of technology and how long WCAG standards have existed, some in our society who ignore web accessibility appear to be making the unfortunate choice to exclude a significant part of our population from gaining access to education, employment, government, commerce, health care, recreation, and more.

Where to start your Web accessibility journey?

In our standards, we recognize the importance of not leaving anyone out. The best time to start making your website accessible was in 1999. The second-best time is now.

Website creators need to shift from viewing accessibility simply as a compliance checkbox to prevent lawsuits and view it through the lens of true inclusion, of enabling a better society through access for all.

You can help advance accessibility in your organization, whatever your role. 

A good place to start is W3C's Introduction to Web Accessibility. To find out about current work and how you can get involved, please see "What we're working on - Accessibility activities and publications".

I encourage you to find useful accessibility resources on the W3C website and share them with others.

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