Web accessibility is always a worthwhile undertaking, regardless of whether you’re preparing to launch a new project or refreshing your site in your 10th year of operation. A properly optimized website will provide a better experience for all users, and there’s never a wrong time to start making changes.
There is, however, a right time to start: as early as possible. While accessibility improvements will always yield benefits, retrofitting a website is often more difficult — and more expensive — than planning for accessibility from the start. Ask any developer; fixing a broken feature takes more time than implementing it correctly the first time.
Accessibility is, by nature, foundational. It’s not a set of pass-or-fail rules, but a mindset that affects everything from the number of on-page elements to the structure of the site’s content. Addressing existing accessibility issues can be disruptive and frustrating, particularly when a site’s design fights against the changes.
Again, that’s not to say that the changes aren’t worth making — but a proactive approach certainly helps.
Many accessibility factors are structural
Dozens of high-level factors contribute to whether or not a site is accessible. People with disabilities don’t follow a single set of rules when browsing the web, and they don’t use the same techniques when accessing sites — and that’s also true among groups with the same types of disabilities.
For instance, some people with vision disabilities use Braille displays, while others utilize screen readers (software that converts on-page text to spoken words). Some people prefer to scan headings to find content that interests them, while others read the entire page in sequence. A user with cognitive disabilities may avoid video content entirely, but another user with the same disability may prefer video. How can a developer provide the best possible experience for all of these users?
For starters, build a structurally sound website. Consider how a few accessibility practices can make browsing more intuitive:
- Using Semantic HTML - Using semantic HTML allows real users to interact with the site naturally with screen readers and other technologies. By describing the structure of each page, HTML allows software to understand the site — but markup needs to be employed consistently throughout the site.
- Creating Adaptable Content - Information should be able to be presented in different ways without losing information. For example, if a page’s layout is simplified, the user should be able to get the same information and do the same things.
- Focusing on Operability and Navigability - Users should be able to operate the site’s functionality without a mouse or with various adaptive technologies.
These practices work more effectively when they’re thoughtfully implemented early in the website development process, which is why the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) focuses on four main principles rather than a simple checklist of criteria.
Put another way, there’s no single set of tasks that can be easily assigned to a group of developers, designers, or content creators — the entire team needs to assess their contributions and treat accessibility as a priority.