Digital inclusivity: what is WCAG & why should my website be compliant?
I founded Sitback 14 years ago, and during that time I’ve seen an increase in the number of businesses that are focussed on building their websites to benefit their users and make them as accessible as possible.
Sitback works with NSW’s peak arts and disability organisation Accessible Arts and recently I was a panellist for one of their Accessing The Arts Group (ATAG) meet ups in Canberra. The topic was WCAG which is an important tool in improving digital inclusivity. For the sake of posterity, I’ve listed some of the key takeaways below.
Digital accessibility is vital
As we all know, digital technology plays a central and empowering role in our lives.
With services increasingly being delivered online (Covid-19 has seen a huge increase in digital offerings), it is more important than ever that no one gets left behind. Unfortunately, gaps continue to exist between those who are digitally included and those who are excluded, which is linked closely to social exclusion and disadvantage.
People with low levels of income, education, and employment; along with older Australians, people with disability, remote Indigenous communities and people in regional areas are more likely to be digitally excluded.
Digital inclusion is based on the premise that everyone in Australia should be able to make full use of digital technologies – to manage their health and wellbeing, access education and services, organise their finances, be entertained, and to connect with friends and family and the world beyond.
Many organisations are waking up to the fact that embracing accessibility leads to multiple benefits – reducing legal risks, strengthening brand presence, improving customer experience and colleague productivity.
Paul Smyth, Head of Digital Accessibility, Barclays
Key acronyms: DIAP & WCAG
DIAP stands for Disability Inclusion Action Plan.
Put together by organisations such as Accessible Arts, DIAPs are one of the most effective ways of improving access for and inclusion of people with disability. A DIAP is a framework that helps guide an organisation so it can meet relevant legislative requirements and best practice benchmarks. It’s like a strategic plan for accessibility.
Usually a paid service, a DIAP involves a group of people with a range of disabilities assessing physical locations – such as stadiums, galleries and theatres – to report on how those venues can improve access for people with disability.
Now wouldn’t it be great if there was something similar for websites?
Luckily, there is, and it’s called WCAG.
WCAG (short for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) lays out the strategies, standards, and resources your business should be utilising to make the web accessible for people with disability. The ‘content’ referred to in WCAG includes text, images, and sounds, as well as the code and markup that define the website’s structure or presentation.
WCAG was first outlined in 2008, so it’s not a new idea, but it is one that can seem overwhelming at first.
Why should I comply with WCAG?
There are a number of groups that benefit from websites that comply with WCAG. These groups include:
- People with lived disability experience – including visual, auditory, cognitive and physical
- Temporarily and situationally disabled people – such as someone with a broken arm or being in an environment where audio cannot be consumed
- Older Australians
- People with English as a second language
- Users accessing the internet on mobile phones, smart watches, or smart TVs
At least one billion people – 15% of the world’s population – have a recognised disability
The Australian government has committed their agencies to meeting WCAG 2.1 AA* – a high standard, in which most Australians should be able to access their websites with ease. This is made easier due to the fact that their sites are typically built with function at the core, rather than purely for visual appeal.
Increasingly, we are seeing more and more of the private sector move towards WCAG, which makes sense – making your website easier to navigate for all users brings you closer to your goal, be it engagement or conversion.
Business benefits of digital accessibility
There are a range of business benefits that accessibility brings, including:
- Driving innovation: accessibility features in products and services often solve unanticipated problems, as well as providing more access for more people
- Enhancing your brand: diversity and inclusion is so important to business success, and if prioritised, they’re often accelerated with a clear, well-integrated accessibility commitment
- Extending market reach: There is now a global market consisting of one billion people with disability, and their spending power is valued at more than $6 trillion. Additionally, accessibility often improves the online experience for all users
- Minimisation of legal risk: many countries, including Australia, have legislation relating to digital accessibility, and the issue is of increasing legal concern.
Ultimately, if you want to engage with as many people within your target audience as possible, WCAG is going to make it easier to do so. And if your business works with the Australian government in any capacity, it’s a must do activity to add to your list this year.
How do I get started?
I always suggest that businesses take a pragmatic approach to WCAG.
As websites are an ever advancing tool, and over time WCAG evolves along with changing technology, making a commitment to get started is what’s important here – completing an audit and progressively working through any needed changes, then revisiting it on a regular basis (annually is usually about right) will put you in a strong position.
There are a number of free and paid tools which you can use to review your own site. Three that I recommend are:
- WAVE web accessibility evaluation tool: free to use, this will run you through individual pages for small sites or when your focus is on fixing core pages of a larger site.
- Accessibility Insights: free to use, this tool can be added as a browser extension that runs quick reports on websites and provides details on how to fix common problems.
- Funnelback Accessibility Auditor: A paid option, this tool runs checks on many web pages simultaneously, and is an option for larger scale projects.
Keep in mind though, automated tools like these are a great starting point, but they won’t cover off some aspects such as determining video captioning or if a site can be navigated via a keyboard. Additionally, there is difference between a website that is accessible, and a website that is truly usable. The former can be achieved by remedying issues identified in a WCAG audit. The later can only be achieve with a thorough understanding of your audience, and requires UX Research and Usability Testing with representative users from a diverse range of backgrounds.
We also offer a free WCAG Audit template download if you’d like to complete an audit yourself. It’s based on the audits we run for clients and will help you capture key areas for improvement.
At Sitback, we’re well equipped to complete WCAG audits for businesses, but we also know that sometimes clients don’t have the budget to do a full-scale audit and then make the changes needed in order to become compliant. That’s why we work closely to match those businesses with a provider that can help them get started with smaller elements, such as auditing for visual impairment or focussing on key web pages, with the intention to come back and repeat an audit in more depth at a later date.
The key here is making a change, no matter how small, and then building upon it. If you genuinely care about accessibility and helping to close the gap when it comes to digital inclusivity, we’d love to help make that happen for you. Reach out today and let’s get started!
* The AA in WCAG 2.1 AA refers to its conformance level. There are three levels of conformance A, AA and AAA which each have a list of criteria that must be met. For example, when it comes to readability AA conformance requires content to be programmatically determined (with some exceptions, such as proper names), while AAA requires a mechanism for expanding abbreviations and identifying pronunciation where the meaning is ambiguous without knowing the pronunciation.
Reaching AAA conformance is not possible for many websites, given the content they contain and the strictness of the criteria, which is why we see more companies aiming to fulfill AA criteria as their goal.