White House Embraces WCAG with Accessibility Updates

January 29, 2021

President Joe Biden’s administration has revamped the official Whitehouse.gov website, implementing new features intended to improve access for people with disabilities. The redesigned site contains an accessibility statement detailing the administration’s goals.

"Our ongoing accessibility effort works towards conforming to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.1, level AA criteria," the accessibility statement reads. "These guidelines not only help make web content accessible to users with sensory, cognitive and mobility disabilities, but ultimately to all users, regardless of ability."

WCAG 2.1 contains criteria for evaluating accessibility, organized by three levels of conformance: A (lowest), AA, and AAA (highest). Sites that meet AA criteria are broadly considered to be accessible for people with disabilities.

The White House statement also notes that the administration "welcomes comments on how to improve the site’s accessibility for users with disabilities."

An overview of accessibility improvements to Whitehouse.gov

Accessibility statements help to establish that a site is making earnest efforts towards meeting the accessibility needs of individuals with disabilities. The Biden administration is not the first to publish an accessibility statement; the George W. Bush White House published the first presidential statement on web accessibility, and the Obama administration followed suit during their tenure. The archived version of the Trump administration’s Whitehouse.gov does not appear to include a web accessibility statement in a prominent position.

But while other administrations have taken important steps towards accessibility, the current WhiteHouse.gov revamp includes several important optimizations intended to meet the changing needs of internet users.

Dark mode

This setting optimizes the contrast between text and backgrounds. "Dark mode" can make text easier to read for some people with vision disabilities. Additionally, many people who use computers regularly prefer websites and apps that offer a high contrast option, since the mode limits eyestrain.

Dark mode features don’t necessarily improve accessibility for everyone — people with dyslexia, for instance, sometimes have more difficulty reading light text on a dark background. However, the feature can be a helpful accommodation for some users when implemented correctly.

Font size options

The new Whitehouse.gov allows users to change text size while preserving page layout. Larger fonts can be helpful for people with vision and cognitive disabilities, and many internet users rely on their browsers to resize fonts. WCAG 2.1 requires text to be resizable up to 200 percent without loss of content or functionality.

By offering a font size toggle — and not relying on web browsers to reorganize on-page content — the revamped Whitehouse.gov may help users access information in a simple, intuitive way.

Direct reference to WCAG 2.1

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are the most widely accepted standards for internet accessibility, and many countries have used the guidelines as a basis for legislation. In the United States, federal agencies and contractors must comply with WCAG 2.0.

By referencing WCAG 2.1 (the latest version of the guidelines), the Biden administration may be indicating a broader acceptance of the WCAG model, which could prove important if the new presidential administration prioritizes internet accessibility.

Inclusivity features

The new Whitehouse.gov also includes options for Spanish-speaking visitors, and forms on the site allow visitors to select their pronouns, including non-binary options. While inclusivity is distinct from accessibility, inclusive design shares a central goal of accessibility: providing an equal experience for all users.

Creative agency Wide Eye handled the design of the new site, and White House director of digital strategy Rob Flaherty told Fast Company that accessibility was a priority from the first day of development.

"Our whole pitch, that we assembled in about two to three days, was the idea that the White House is the people’s house," Flaherty told the publication.

No site is perfectly accessible for all users, but the Whitehouse.gov changes are a high-profile milestone in the movement towards a more accessible internet. By utilizing WCAG 2.1 and setting clear goals, the designers have set out a clear process for building a site that works for all users — regardless of how they’re accessing the site.

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