Developers and designers often think of website accessibility as a checklist of best practices. That’s partly true: The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the most widely cited international standards for digital accessibility, and WCAG is structured into checkpoints and success criteria that creators can “check off" when working.
However, it’s important to remember that accessibility is more than a list of technical specifications; your web design decisions have real-world consequences. When websites aren’t accessible, users can become frustrated or confused. Some barriers have more significant consequences than others — but in order to remediate issues, webmasters should understand how improvements can impact people with disabilities.
Accessibility barriers can make websites unusable
Severe accessibility issues can prevent users from perceiving or interacting with content. Generally but certainly not exclusively, these are covered under WCAG Level A, which is widely considered the bare minimum for accessibility. Here are a few examples of accessibility barriers that could make a website difficult or impossible to use.
Keyboard traps prevent users from moving their focus away from a component of a webpage using only a keyboard interface. Forms, media players, and other interactive elements may “trap" users, preventing them from regaining control of their browsers.
Missing alternative text
Alternative text describes the function and appearance of visual content. If a website doesn’t include alt text for important images, the images won’t appear for people who can’t visually perceive them — that includes screen reader users, braille device users, and anyone who can’t load the image
Missing form labels or instructions
Labels and instructions enable users to understand how to interact with on-page elements like form fields. Accurate labels help to improve form completions, and they’re essential for some users with neurocognitive conditions or learning disabilities.
When websites use ambiguous labels, users might not know how to provide appropriate input and complete the form. For example, if a form requires the user’s phone number, the user will need to know the acceptable formats for the phone number. If the label doesn’t provide the correct format, the user will be forced to guess.
Some people need more time to complete forms, read content, or perform other actions. When websites enforce strict time limits, some users may not be able to finish their work — regardless of how many times they attempt to complete the action.
Some websites must use time limits to ensure security or privacy. When this is the case, users should be able to turn off, adjust, or extend the time limit.
Accessibility issues may force users to change their browsing behavior
One of the goals of accessibility is to enable people to browse the web in a comfortable manner. In other words, your design choices shouldn’t force users to adopt certain practices or use specific technologies — every user should enjoy the same basic experience.
For most websites, conformance with WCAG 2.1 Level AA is a reasonable goal. Most Level AA guidelines address issues that can negatively impact the user experience without making a site completely unusable.
Here are a few examples of accessibility issues that require users to change their browsing habits:
- If content has poor color contrast ratios or poor text spacing, users with vision disabilities may need to change their browser settings to read text. See: WCAG 2.1 SC 1.4.3, “Contrast (Minimum).”
- If a mobile website loses content when the user changes their device’s orientation, they may be forced to use the default view. The user might be more comfortable with a landscape or horizontal display — but if the website isn’t accessible, they won’t have the option. See: WCAG 2.1 SC 1.3.4, “Orientation.”
- If a web page uses headings that are not descriptive, a screen reader user will need to read more of the content to determine whether it contains important information. Accurate subheadings allow users to “scan" content without reading all of the text. See: WCAG 2.1 SC 2.4.6, “Headings and Labels.”
To avoid accessibility barriers, consider the user experience first
When building your website, accessibility checklists can be enormously helpful. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility offers a free Definitive Website Accessibility Checklist, which includes guidance for avoiding WCAG conformance issues.
However, you should also think about how digital accessibility improves the real-life experiences of your users. Accessible design requires thoughtful applications of WCAG principles. By understanding why certain improvements are helpful, you can make stronger decisions — and enjoy more of the benefits of accessibility.