What Are Accessibility Features of a Website?

December 18, 2019

Website accessibility features are the elements of a site designed to improve the ability of people with disabilities to independently use it. Sometimes websites include extra options specifically to enhance some people's use, but usually accessibility features are integrated into a well-coded website that is accessible by default.

Add-ons and extras

What are they and do they work?

A website might include features that aren't intended to be used by everyone but have the purpose of boosting accessibility for some. These added elements must be incorporated very thoughtfully, as they can be helpful and achieve their goal of improved accessibility, or actually interfere with the natural accessibility of a website or present other unintended consequences.

The ability of users to customize content to make it most usable to them is an important aspect of accessibility. Sometimes websites will offer functionality to help with that customization, which may include options to adjust certain styling elements like font size, type, and color. They may also offer text-only, magnification, or other customization options. Many users who require or prefer these options will already use their own software or assistive technology to customize content, but others do not and many appreciate the options.

Sometimes, extra accessibility features are added with the best of intentions, but in practice can actually cause new problems. For example, some websites or digital tools will include their own screen reading technology with the goal of providing easy access to people who are blind, have low vision, or otherwise benefit from hearing content instead of or in addition to seeing it. However, many people who need to use screen readers already use one and likely have a go-to screen reader they prefer for that particular type of content, web browser, or device. In this example, the extra screen reader might interfere with the native screen reader, or vice versa, and accessibility will have been compromised, not improved.

Another common example are keyboard shortcuts. Some websites will offer custom keystroke combinations designed to save the user time or make interaction easier, and sometimes these can be helpful. Other times, however, keyboard shortcuts might interfere with screen reader or other assistive technology commands, or with keyboard shortcuts that users who need them most already have programmed. Again, in this example, something intended to improve accessibility can make the website unusable if not done carefully.

Ask these questions before adding extra accessibility features

There are also some key questions to consider to make sure adding extra accessibility options doesn't have unintended negative consequences.

  • Does the extra feature enhance the experience or replace it with a different one? The distinction here is whether totally separate web content or in some cases separate websites are being offered instead of providing one accessible version. Separating users based on disability could be discriminatory. Related: Should you have a separate accessible website?
  • Can the extra feature be easily turned off? If a user engages an accessibility option but finds it doesn't work for their needs, either because of one of the reasons mentioned here or any reason, will they know how to return to the default presentation? Further, if they do turn them off, will the site be accessible without them (for example, will it work with their own screen reader)? If the answer to each of these isn't "yes," users may face a challenge.
  • Are people forced to reveal or assumed to have a disability to use a feature? Is that tracked somehow? Making someone reveal their disability or tracking their use preferences that assume as much might cause unintended loss of privacy and exposure to stereotypes. Related: The Problem with Not Making Websites Accessible by Default.

Important note: Sometimes by "accessibility features," people are talking about overlays or automated accessibility scans that advertise the ability to almost-instantly improve a website's accessibility for all or some users. Further reading: Use Caution with Automated Tools That Promise 100% Accessibility Compliance.

Websites that are designed and coded to be accessible

Most accessibility features fall into this category. When a website is designed with accessibility principles in mind and coded to work properly with assistive technology, like in accordance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), it is accessible to most people. So, often when people refer to accessibility features, they're referring to elements of a well-coded website, like a proper heading structure, image alt text, and full keyboard accessibility. They may also be talking about technical specifications like ARIA, intended to make content more accessible to people with disabilities.

To comply with WCAG, content must be POUR, or Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust.

How can you tell if your website is accessible?

There a number of relatively simple tests you can start doing yourself right now to get a sense of your website's accessibility. These checks aren't complete and wouldn't replace testing by an expert, but they can be revealing and can offer practical ways to get acquainted with some accessibility best practices.

Here a few accessibility tests you can give yourself immediately:

Be sure to check out 5 quick ways to self-check the accessibility of a website and free accessibility tools and assistive technology you can use today.

You can also get started with a free website accessibility scan with a graded report.

When you're ready, contact us to learn about creating a customized accessibility compliance strategy to meet your organization's needs.

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