In this blog, we look at the latest legislation relating to accessibility and why, regardless of any regulatory requirements, embracing best practice in this area simply makes good business sense and helps you develop better products & services.
Hot on the heels of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the Cookies Law, local digital legislation/EU copyright legislation and more, it’s time to tackle the challenges raised by the European Accessibility Act (EAA), which became law in 2019. But maybe thinking in terms of challenges and tackling is completely the wrong approach.
It’s no coincidence we called this blog Building inclusive websites and only mention EAA in the subtitle. We believe your mindset as a company has a crucial impact on the quality of what you offer your markets. And with accessibility, as with so many things, so long as you think in terms of meeting legal or other minimum requirements, you’re unlikely to achieve best practice. And certainly, never going to be best-in-class or pioneering.
Think in gateways, not fences
But if instead, you take a step back and think in terms of why the legislation has been written — in this case to include people and give them access to the things you create and want to tell them — then suddenly the EAA becomes a means to a positive end. So armed with this fresh, optimistic mindset, let’s examine more closely what the legislation actually says.
The EAA aims to improve the trade of accessible products and services between EU member states, by replacing country-specific rules with common rules for the whole EU. This will create a bigger market for companies, incentivising them to develop innovate new products and services.
The Act covers a wide range of items, including computers, smartphones, e-commerce sites, banking services and more. It also incorporates 2018 legislation that sets accessibility standards for websites and mobile applications. And the good news is that those standards are broadly based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
Reasons to believe, reasons to care
Why is that good news for anyone involved in providing digital products and services to the public? Because it means that the key part of the legislation for us wasn’t developed by faceless bureaucrats in a dark corner of some government office block. On the contrary, WCAG was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), as internationally recognised standards that have already been widely adopted by organisations and have been designed to help you ensure your digital product or service will be useful to all your potential users.
In other words, WCAG helps you solve many of the problems your websites, apps or other digital interfaces can give consumers, business partners and other stakeholders with disabilities.
So why should you care? First and foremost, because accessibility is the right thing to do. Secondly, because the best product developers think with the user, so using WCAG you’ll likely develop better products. Thirdly, because following the guidelines will also deliver ‘indirect’ benefits, such as enhancing your SEO performance and website organic search ranking. And finally, because it’s business insanity to exclude a large (estimates vary from 15-25%) and growing (due to aging populations) percentage of your potential market from using what you’re offering.
Levels of excellence
Drilling down a bit into the detail of WCAG, we find it offers 3 levels of conformance:
- A – the most basic web accessibility features
- AA – addresses the main and most common barriers for users with disabilities
- AAA – the highest level of accessibility
A is the entry-level we support for clients by default. We sometimes go beyond these A requirements, for example for the highly accessible website we developed for Deltion, a large tertiary college in Zwolle, the Netherlands. The difference between the A and AA levels isn’t that big and lies mainly in attracting more potential users. AAA is intended for government and other public sites, and technically quite difficult to achieve and maintain 100%.
When deciding which level is appropriate for your site or app, don’t ask yourself how viable or necessary that level is for your organisation. But instead how much of a barrier not achieving AAA or AA status will create for your potential users. Again, we believe it’s about the right mindset.
In many countries, there are also quality marks based on the WCAG AAA system that let you show the world the level of accessibility your site has achieved, such as Drempelvrij (‘barrier-free’) here in the Netherlands.
How can you know how well you’re doing?
Checking and monitoring the ongoing accessibility of your site isn’t complicated. At DotControl, for example, we use Lighthouse, an automated open-source tool that you can run against any webpage to continuously check how it’s doing on accessibility, SEO, performance (e.g. speed) and best practice. All shown on a user-friendly dashboard.
We’ve done this for our new websites at DotControl and RockBoost, our growth hacking agency. By deliberately focusing on improving the score and prioritising certain changes in our backlog, we managed to achieve a top score for accessibility, performance and SEO (the lower 86 for best practices is still a work in progress).
Technology is the tool, but awareness is the answer
So how can you get your site scoring 100? The knee-jerk reaction of many developers and other technically-minded folk is to look for a technical solution to each accessibility problem. But that’s really Step 2. The first, and by far the most important, step is to ensure at the designing stage that you have accessibility front-of-mind from the get-go. Good accessibility design means you avoid such issues as contrasting colours, unclear visual hierarchies and flickering. And trying to implement WCAG retrospectively is almost impossible, as developers who’ve tried will tell you.
With this in mind, we have ourselves developed the UmmersiveReader ContentApp. As many reading this blog will know, Umbraco is an open-source content management system, widely considered best-in-breed and much loved by content editors. It also has a strong focus on accessibility. The UmmersiveReader ContentApp enables developers to embed capabilities into their apps that make them more inclusive and user-friendly. Features include reading text-aloud, translation, using design to focus user attention, and much more.
Accessibility First (you heard it here first)
At DotControl, we have coined the phrase Accessibility First to describe this approach. It goes back again to our point about mindset and reminds us a bit of the early days of Mobile First design.
The switch from big to small screen thinking wasn’t just a question of, figuratively speaking, pulling your thumb and forefinger together to shrink the interface. It required organisations to put themselves in the shoes of the mobile user (who would now be viewing websites in new ways, for example, on the move, and in short bursts) and go back to first principles of what they wanted to communicate, and why.
Accessibility First design calls for a similar empathetic shift. Throwing up similar fundamental questions, as well as more specific ones, like How will a user with, say, a visual or hearing impairment experience our site? and How can we ensure our app is equally intuitive to navigate for everyone? Asking yourself such fundamental communications questions is surely a useful exercise for any organisation. So next time you’re planning to build or update a website or app, get your mindset right and embrace Accessibility First design.