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Web Accessibility and Internationalization: Understanding the Link

Dec 28, 2023

 

Web accessibility is a set of best practices that make websites more useful for people with different types of abilities. Web internationalization includes practices that make content more appealing to people in different countries (and often, people who speak different languages than the primary language of the content). 

On the surface, accessibility and internationalization seem like fundamentally different concepts — but there’s quite a bit of overlap. Here’s how an accessible website helps you reach potential customers across the world. 

 

Using text alternatives makes your website translatable

 

Let’s say that your website has a large amount of video content. Video is important to your brand: It’s how you showcase the features of each product while keeping potential customers engaged. 

But if your videos are only available in one language, they’re not especially useful for reaching an international audience. You could re-record the narration in different languages, but a quicker (and potentially more effective) approach is to provide captions. After all, captions can be easily translated.

We’ve just stumbled onto one of the core concepts of web accessibility: When you provide text alternatives, people can change your content to suit their abilities and preferences. Captions are one of the most obvious examples, but here are a few more:

  • Alternative text (or alt text) image attributes describe the purpose of images for users who can’t perceive them visually. Alt text also acts as stand-in content when an image won’t load.
  • Alt text for hyperlinked icons and thumbnails can help people understand what will happen when they activate the hyperlink.
  • Transcripts for video and audio content enable users with visual disabilities to understand multimedia. Transcripts are also useful for people who can’t load video (and people who’d simply rather read than watch).  

 

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), considered the international standards for digital accessibility, require text alternatives (in fact, it’s the very first requirement in the guidelines). And as we’ll discuss, following WCAG has other benefits for international businesses.

Related: International Web Accessibility Laws: An Overview

 

Robust web design helps you accommodate global users

 

WCAG addresses four basic principles of accessibility: Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust (or POUR, for short). Read more about the POUR principles.

Robustness is especially important for internationalization. Essentially, you want your website to “play nice" with as many technologies as possible — that includes future technologies that haven’t been invented yet. 

That’s crucial for international audiences for several reasons:

  • International users may be using different types of mobile devices, operating systems, and web browsers than what’s available in the United States (or wherever your country is based). 
  • Some users have keyboards with different layouts than the standard English keyboards (the ANSI or ISO layouts). If your website requires users to enter certain characters or use specific commands, you’ll need to think about different layouts for keyboards and keyboard emulators. 
  • International users may prefer viewports with various sizes. If content isn’t truly responsive, your website might deliver a sub-par experience.
  • Web browsers may change content based on the HTML language tag. If your website is missing language tags — which are also crucial for screen reader users — your content might not work as expected.

 

To create a robust website, you’ll need to develop content with clean code and a clear structure. WCAG can help you determine whether you’re meeting the mark.

Related: WCAG 2.1 Principles Explained: Robustness

Following WCAG can help with international compliance

 

Web accessibility and web internationalization are both about improving the user experience. However, there’s another reason to make accessibility part of your approach to internationalization: digital compliance.

Many countries have laws that require businesses to provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. Those laws often apply to online content. In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires digital accessibility, but doesn’t include technical criteria (though WCAG Level AA is generally considered adequate for compliance). 

But in many other parts of the world, WCAG conformance is required. Laws that explicitly reference WCAG include:

 

At the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, we believe that the business benefits of digital accessibility are profound. Compliance shouldn’t be your primary reason for adopting an accessible mindset — but it’s still an important consideration. 

Related: How to Check WCAG Compliance: A Quick Guide

 

The principles of accessibility are universal

 

According to the World Health Organization, worldwide, over a billion people have at least one disability. That number may be a low estimate: In the United States, an estimated 25% of adults have disabilities, and that percentage is expected to rise over the next several decades.

Statistics aside, it’s important to remember that accessibility affects everyone. Whether or not you live with a disability, you’ve certainly encountered websites that work better than others — and ultimately, WCAG reinforces great web design.

By following WCAG and fixing accessibility issues, you can build a stronger approach to web internationalization. Your efforts will make your content better for all users, regardless of how they browse the web.

To learn more about WCAG, get started with our Compliance Roadmap or test your content against WCAG Level A/AA with our free automated website scan.

Use our free Website Accessibility Checker to scan your site for ADA and WCAG compliance.

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