We’ve all seen the ramps on sidewalks, horizontal door handles, and other features of accessibility added to our lives in the brick-and-mortar world because of laws. As it turns out, there is an equivalent for all websites, email, and even digital PDFs.

How accessibility standards began, then evolved on the internet

In 1990, The federal government enacted The American Disabilities Act (ADA) to help businesses make their communications with the public more accessible and easier to use for people with disabilities. The law focused on accessibility improvements like sidewalk ramps, railings, and restrooms, and more.

In 1998, Congress added Section 508 (usually called “508”) to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 for businesses that do business with the federal government or its employees to follow accessibility standards for federal information and communications technology (ICT). The 508 compliance standards are informed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C®) in their Web Compliance Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The W3C® is an international community that develops standards to make the World Wide Web better.  The WCAG is internationally acceptable for all digital information. Compliance with WCAG is quickly becoming a standard practice for all websites and digital communications and the enforcement of this law is getting more attention.

In the simplest terms, the four main principles are that content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. For example, view this introduction to see how simple changes create big impacts.

In 2017, an update to Section 508 (WCAG 2.1) passed to accommodate the changes in technical communications, to keep up with and improve the requirements, and make them easier to understand. Looking forward, the newest version of WCAG 2.2 is due in fall 2020. The update aims to include all digital communication like emails and digital PDFs, and not just websites. To keep branding consistent, the full name becomes W3 Compliance Accessibility Guidelines.

Why should we care about digital accessibility?

For one, it’s the law; and second, it’s good for user experience. Also, it’s good business, and it’s the right thing to do. Let me explain. 

Communication with the world around us is essential to survival and success in our daily lives. We receive information about the world through our five senses: Sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Have you ever been sick and not been able to smell or taste? Frustrating isn’t it?

Are you a learner by seeing, touching, hearing, or a combination of these? What about any disability? Think of how you might struggle through your day with a temporary injury to one eye, a broken arm, or hearing loss. Although your injury may be temporary, it would be frustrating to learn a new way of carrying on with your daily life; there are people who must carry on with permanent impairment while using increasingly more technical tools.

This short presentation by WC3 introduces some perspectives we need as UX professionals. This fascinating video captures the experience of a woman with blindness using her iPhone.

Some notable websites that have been sued for non-compliance are Beyoncé, Burger King, Fox News Network, CVS Pharmacy, Hobby Lobby, and Harvard University. It can be a huge risk for any business. So, it’s important to understand the guidelines and how they affect the business and the users.

In conclusion, to create accessible applications and websites for the highest number of people possible with and without disabilities, we must be aware of the governance and guidelines provided.

Next time – Introduction to WCAG and the updated standards. This is really important information!

Cherri Pitts

Cherri Pitts is President of UXSA. She’s currently working for FFW Agency as a UX Researcher. Prior to FFW Agency, she held the same position at UT Health Science and iHeartMedia. Previous experience includes more than 14 years in the tech industry as a Website Producer and Director of Projects for a major financial institution and an international mobile development company. Her vision is for UXSA to help people who are interested in learning UX from a reliable source, especially in San Antonio. She’s a mother of four, grandmother of two, and doggie mom to four rescues. When she’s away from the computer, she and her husband enjoy grilling and doing hands-on renovations of their home.