There's an old proverb that says, "The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today." The same philosophy holds true when it comes to website accessibility. Although it's possible, of course, to make a site more accessible after it's published, it's much easier to incorporate accessibility into a project early on. At each stage of the website design and development process, accessibility should be a key consideration.
Any organization seeking to make its website more accessible should first familiarize itself with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which are developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The latest edition, working draft 2.1, was released in April 2017, which means that WCAG is very much a living document.
WCAG 2.0 attempts to provide a comprehensive list of criteria to make websites more accessible to people with disabilities, from writing audio captions to preventing seizures. Each of the guidelines specifies three levels of compliance, from Level A to Level AAA. These guidelines are an excellent place to start thinking about how, and in what respects, a website should be accessible. All websites should conform to the WCAG 2.0 Level AA guidelines, but some may choose to go further and adopt Level AAA.
Whatever the degree of accessibility, it should be decided well before design and development begin. These criteria should be built into the project's formal technical specifications and included as part of the budget.
Once the level of accessibility has been agreed upon, the design stage can begin. Designers have a number of accessibility factors to consider during this phase:
- The color contrast is sufficient to allow people with visual impairments to use the site.
- Photographs, charts and other graphics are clear and easily understandable, and may contain alternate text that can be processed by screen readers.
- Audiovisual content may contain captions or transcripts to assist users with hearing impairments.
- The selection of fonts and the font size are such that the text is readable.
- Page layout and navigation are straightforward.
Web developers, too, must be involved in the work of website accessibility. WCAG 2.0 contains a checklist with in-depth details about each success criterion. Developers can consult this list throughout the development process, marking each entry as completed once the given specification has been met. Common solutions for accessibility should be documented so that they can be reused and shared with other developers.
Once the development work has been completed, testing can begin. Both manual and automated testing is crucial in order to make sure that the finished product meets the established accessibility criteria. Real users with disabilities should assist with testing, offering their feedback and suggestions.
It's tempting to kick back and relax once the website has gone live, but accessibility is a journey, not a destination. Technology moves fast, and standards evolve alongside it. Websites should be evaluated at regular intervals to be sure that they remain accessible and that this accessibility won't be affected by new features or designs.