Digital accessibility is the practice of designing and developing web content in a way that accommodates everyone, including those with disabilities. While web accessibility refers to the specific practice of improving websites (and web-based apps) to accommodate users, digital accessibility has a broader definition: Any electronic media can fall under the scope of digital accessibility.
Still, the terms are often used interchangeably, and the purpose of all digital accessibility efforts follows the same basic concepts. Since 1999, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has published and regularly updated the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which provides an effective framework for content creators.
Why Digital Accessibility is an Essential Priority
It’s important to understand that digital accessibility doesn’t target a specific group of people. Every website has users with disabilities and each consume content in a way that is appropriate for themselves. Some people with low vision use screen readers to convert text to audio; others magnify their screens. Some people with dyslexia change their web browser’s default fonts to improve readability, while others may browse the internet without making any changes.
Accessible websites should accommodate everyone. If you’re researching accessibility for the first time, that may seem like a major challenge — but by declaring accessibility as a priority and using the WCAG framework, accessibility is a reasonable (and achievable) goal.
And when handled correctly, digital accessibility has numerous benefits for both site owners and web users.
1. Digital accessibility improves the experience for all your users.
Aside from being the ethical thing to do for your users with disabilities, ensuring that your site or app is WCAG compliant — that it's perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust — will improve the experience for all users, regardless of their abilities. Many accessibility innovations are now widely used by people who don’t live with disabilities, such as dark modes, text-to-speech, and closed captions.
2. Digital accessibility broadens your reach.
If your site or app isn't accessible to those with disabilities, you may be excluding as many as 61 million potential users — and that's assuming you're only serving those in the U.S. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) approximately 1 billion people around the globe live with disabilities.
3. Digital accessibility improves your search engine optimization (SEO).
While Google doesn't currently rank accessibility comprehensively, accessibility best practices and SEO ranking factors have seen increasing overlap in the past decade, and that's a trend that's likely to continue.
The best practices of accessibility overlap with the best practices of SEO. After implementing accessible design, websites often experience growth in organic traffic channels. Accessibility may also help to future-proof your site against changes in search algorithms.
4. Digital accessibility helps organizations limit their chances of litigation.
Between 2018 and 2020, lawsuits related to websites' failure to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and various state laws like California's Unruh Act have increased 75% from approximately 2,000 in 2018 to around 3,500 in 2020, and the number of reported cases continues to rise. By ensuring that your site or app is compliant with WCAG, you can reduce the risk of accessibility-related lawsuits.
Read: Lawsuits Are On The Rise… Is Your Website At Risk?
Understanding the Principles of Digital Accessibility
WCAG contains a set of 50 accessibility checkpoints guided and categorized by four principles. These principles can help an organization develop an effective approach to digital accessibility — and find opportunities for improvement.
Principle 1: Perceivable
To be perceivable means that users are able to identify both the content and interface elements of a website or app by means of their senses.
For example, while many users primarily perceive apps and websites visually, developers should build in alternative means of perception for blind or visually impaired users, like alternative text (or alt text) for users who rely on screen readers.
Principle 2: Operable
Operability means that users are able to successfully utilize all the interactive elements of an app or website. For many, this means clicking, tapping or swiping an element of the interface which they've identified visually.
Others, however, may require voice commands or keyboard-only controls to operate the interface. Developers should ensure that these alternate methods of control are fully functional.
Principle 3: Understandable
Users are able to comprehend both the content and how to operate the interface of an app or website. Developers can enhance understandability by ensuring that the interface appears and operates in predictable ways. Content creators can write clear, concise text, which makes content more useful for every visitor.
Principle 4: Robust
Robust websites are designed to be fully compatible with a wide variety of current and future user agents (such as operating systems, web browsers, and assistive technologies like screen readers). Developers should strive to make technologies as widely-compatible as possible.
Building Your Approach to Digital Accessibility
These principles are foundational for digital accessibility. To use them effectively, however, you’ll need to test your content frequently for conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The WCAG framework specifies three levels of conformance: Level A (least strict), Level AA, and Level AAA (most strict). Sites that meet Level AA criteria can be considered reasonably accessible under most circumstances.
A WCAG 2.1 audit can identify potential areas for improvement. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility offers a free automated website scan, which provides an overview of major barriers that affect real users. However, manual testing provides a more thorough analysis; our four-point hybrid methodology leverages artificial intelligence with manual testing and expert oversight.
To see whether your website meets the standards of digital accessibility, fill out this form for a free WCAG 2.1 AA compliance summary.