Designing for web accessibility: A complete guide to WCAG

A comprehensive guide to web accessibility featuring a computer screen displaying accessible icons in bold colors.

In just two decades, the global digital revolution has made the internet an indispensable part of our daily lives. As of 2023, 5 billion individuals worldwide are active internet users, constituting an impressive 63% of the global population. Meaning web accessibility is more important than ever before. With a significant number of people with disabilities and a growing number of legal requirements to comply with, it is essential that websites are designed to be accessible to all. In this article, we will guide you through the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG), why they are vital for your business, and how to achieve them. Making it easier to be inclusive in a digital world.

Why is web accessibility vital?

In today’s world, businesses need to prioritize meeting the requirements of all website users. This means striving for complete web accessibility and inclusivity. The following are the three key reasons for ensuring your website is accessible:

1) Improve inclusiveness

Globally, approximately 1.3 billion individuals live with some form of disability. Blindness is merely one facet of a broader spectrum of daily challenges faced by millions. Hence, ensuring your website is accessible will enhance usability and customer satisfaction. Below are some further statistics to highlight the importance of web accessibility.

  • In the US, 75% of people with disabilities report using the internet every day.
  • 90% of websites are not usable by people with disabilities relying on assistive technology.
  • Over 1 billion people globally and around 86 million in the US might face difficulties with websites lacking accessibility considerations.
The number of people with disabilities is increasing globally

2) Boost your earnings

Accessible design helps you reach a broader audience, thereby increasing profits. Designing with accessibility in mind means you can reach an additional 15–20% of the population, and this portion of people have a large amount of disposable income. According to UsableNet, the global market for people with disabilities and their associates is estimated to have more than $13 trillion in annual disposable income. Other examples include:

  • In the US, the disposable income of the visually impaired alone is $175 billion.
  • Globally, the online spending power of people with disabilities exceeds AUD$2.2 trillion.
  • 38.6% of employees noted customers’ emphasis on product accessibility as a purchase motivator.

3) Avoiding possible lawsuits

Most countries in the developed world have laws to ensure equal treatment of people with disabilities. After decades of lobbying and campaigning, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990. The result? A pathway for ensuring full participation, inclusion, and integration of people with disabilities at all levels of society. 

Just in the first half of 2023, lawsuits against website owners for alleged ADA violations have surged by over 30% versus the same period the previous year. Although high-profile lawsuits like those against Target and Domino’s Pizza are in the public eye, in 2023, 77% of lawsuits are being filed against organizations with under $25 million in revenue. Showcasing that accessibility is essential for all businesses and service providers, regardless of size.

The impact on businesses is not only huge litigation costs but also a detrimental impact on brands. To ensure compliance with principles worldwide, a number of laws have been put in place. These include:

  • In Australia, Section 5 of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) explicitly deems inaccessible web content as discriminatory against individuals with disabilities.
  • In the US, federal laws, including the ADA, mandate accommodations for users with disabilities regarding web accessibility.
  • Globally, the WCAG was established to outline core principles and minimum standards for international accessibility.
The rapid rise of web accessibility lawsuits in the last five years

What is WCAG 2.0?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 were developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in collaboration with global individuals and organizations. It provides a framework of recommendations aimed at enhancing web content accessibility, particularly for individuals with disabilities. WCAG Guidelines are the cornerstone for achieving website accessibility, guaranteeing that information and features are equally accessible to all users when websites are designed, developed, and maintained with adherence to these standards.

WCAG 2.0 guidelines at a glance

WCAG has four main accessibility guiding principles called POUR – Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. Many of the technical challenges and needs faced by people with disabilities can be addressed using the POUR principles.

In order to fulfill the demands of diverse groups and situations, the WCAG 2.0 criteria are divided into three levels of conformance: A (lowest), AA (middle), and AAA (highest). Higher levels of conformity indicate lower levels of conformance. A web page, for example, meets both the A and AA conformance standards by adhering to AA. Level A establishes a bare minimum of accessibility and does not achieve broad accessibility in many instances.

Because it is not possible to achieve all Level AAA success criteria for some content, the WCAG specification does not advocate that Level AAA conformity be imposed as a general policy for whole sites. AA compliance for all web-based material is recommended.

Three levels of conformance from WCAG standards

Explaining the principles and guidelines of WCAG

Perceivable: easy to see

Information and user interface components must be presented to users in ways they can perceive.

  • Text alternative: Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms to meet people’s needs, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols, or simpler language.
  • Time-based Media: Provide alternatives for time-based media.
  • Adaptable: Create content that can be presented in different ways (for example, in a simpler layout) without losing information or structure.
  • Distinguishable: Make it easier for users to see and hear content, including separating foreground from background.

Operable: simple to use

All users can successfully operate interactive elements.

  • Keyboard Accessible: Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
  • Enough Time: Give users enough time to read and use content.
  • Seizures and Physical Reactions: Do not use content that could cause seizures or physical reactions.
  • Navigable: Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are.

Understandable: clear to understand

The content must be readable and predictable, with clear labels and instructions.

  • Readable: Make text readable and understandable.
  • Predictable: Make content appear and operate in predictable ways.
  • Input Assistance: Help users avoid and correct mistakes.

Robust: easy to interpret

Content must be robust enough so that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.

  • Compatible: Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools.

In summary

In an era marked by widespread internet usage and a growing population of individuals with disabilities, the significance of web accessibility cannot be underestimated. Incorporating accessibility into web design is crucial, serving various purposes such as enhancing the user experience, boosting earnings, and mitigating legal liabilities. When delving into web accessibility, it’s essential to adhere to the core principles outlined in WCAG 2.0: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. If you’re seeking to expand your knowledge of accessible design, you can explore our essential tips to create accessible design for everyone. Additionally, we’ve curated a concise web accessibility checklist to streamline the process of ensuring that your web design remains accessible to all.