Why An Accessible Website Template Isn't Enough for Compliance

November 7, 2022

If you’re building a website on WordPress, SquareSpace, or another content management platform (CMS), an accessibility-ready template can help you provide a better experience for users with disabilities.

However, you shouldn’t assume that your template will solve every potential issue. Every change you make to your website could potentially introduce accessibility barriers, and you have a responsibility to address those barriers before they impact your users.

Below, we’ll explain how accessible web templates work — and why you’ll still need to test your content regularly to provide your users with an accessible experience. 

Why is web accessibility important?

For starters, it’s a legal necessity: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other disability rights laws prohibit discrimination in “places of public accommodation.” According to the Justice Department, websites are places of public accommodation.

And since about 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability, accessibility improvements can expand your website’s reach. In other articles, we’ve explained how web accessibility improves search engine optimization (SEO) and demonstrates your brand’s values — and those are just some of the benefits.

For more information, read: 6 Unexpected Benefits of Web Accessibility

What is an accessible website template?

Accessibility-ready templates include basic features to help content creators avoid common mistakes. Most templates follow (or claim to follow) the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the international standards for accessibility.

Common features of accessible website templates include:

  • Default color-pairs that maintain appropriate color contrast, which may make content more readable for people with vision disabilities.
  • Proper use of semantic HTML, which can make content more useful for people who use screen readers (software that converts text to audio or braille) and other assistive technologies (AT).
  • Forms with appropriate markup and default labels.
  • “Skip navigation" links, which may make navigation easier for some users.
  • Limited use of carousels, flashing visual content, and other elements that can pose problems for users with disabilities.
  • Responsive pages that can be presented on different types of screens without losing information or functionality.

It’s important to note that many templates claim to be “accessible-friendly,” but features vary greatly from one template to the next. Research your template carefully before building your website. 

Related: 4 Tips for Choosing Accessible Wordpress Plugins

All accessible-friendly templates have limitations

If you build your website with a theme that prioritizes accessibility, you can save a lot of time — but again, every decision you make when designing your website will impact the results.

For example, accessible-friendly themes usually meet WCAG’s color contrast requirements, but if you change the default text color or upload a background image, your website might not meet those standards. Likewise, if you add new features, you might unintentionally introduce keyboard accessibility issues, navigation concerns, or other barriers. 

And while accessibility-friendly themes address many WCAG issues, they can’t fix the issues that require human judgment. For example:

  • Accessibility templates can’t automatically add alternative text (also called alt text) for images, which describes the content and purpose of images for users who can’t perceive content visually.
  • Page titles need to accurately reflect the contents of each web page. Without accurate titles, users may have trouble navigating your website — and templates have generic titles like “home page" and “blog,” which aren’t especially useful.
  • Most accessibility templates have limited WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative - Accessible Rich Internet Applications) markup, which may be necessary for complex content.

Use WCAG to build a more accessible website

We don’t want to discourage creators from using accessible templates. The right template can be a tremendous starting point, especially if you have limited web development experience.

However, to provide the best possible experience for all users, you’ll need to test your content against WCAG. Some quick tips for building your testing strategy:

  • Set a goal. Most websites should aim for Level AA conformance with the latest official version of WCAG (currently, WCAG 2.1). Read more about the differences between WCAG conformance levels.
  • Start with an automated audit. Automated tools can find many common WCAG issues and provide an overview of your website’s current level of accessibility.
  • Use manual tests to find issues that require human judgment. The best practice is to work with testers who have disabilities, since experienced AT users may be more capable at finding barriers and recommending appropriate remediations.
  • Test content regularly. Accessibility isn’t a one-time project, and regular testing is vital for long-term digital compliance. For more info, read: How Often Should You Test Your Website for Accessibility?

Finally, it’s important to think about accessibility from the first stages of web design — before you introduce barriers that affect your users. As your website becomes more complex, fixing simple issues becomes more difficult (and more expensive).

For more guidance, send us a message to connect with a subject matter expert or get started with a free WCAG 2.1 Level AA website analysis.

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