A History of Website Accessibility – 7 Things to Watch Out For

Title A History of Website Accessibility: 7 Things to Watch Out For with InMotion Hostinglogo in corner

This article serves as an introduction to some fundamental accessibility concepts. If you’ve decided to improve your website’s accessibility, or want to become a more accessibility-minded web designer, there are a lot of concepts you need to familiarize yourself with. To help make that easier, this overview will provide a brief summary of numerous concepts, a few of the top accessibility considerations related to each one, and relevant links to accessibility content here on InMotion Hosting and from accessibility focused organizations.

One notable organization that helps to standardize accessible web design practices across the internet is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and their Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

Please keep in mind that this article is meant to serve as a general accessibility overview, not an in-depth guide to specific practices. It’s the author’s hope that this overview will save you a few hours when you are just beginning to learn about accessibility, giving you a general understanding of the big picture.

Get Your Bearings

You know you need to design for accessibility, but make sure that you’re headed in the right direction before you dive in.

Just What is Meant by Accessibility

In a relatively short amount of time, the internet has gone from a research collaboration tool for teams of elite scientists to something millions of people rely on every day. Just as physical structures and technological affordances in our living space help people get out and live life regardless of any disabilities, web accessibility focuses on designing websites that everyone can use.

Different disabilities require different accessibility affordances; there is no one single thing that we can do to a web page to make it 100% accessible. Web designers choose color combinations that make sure color blind individuals can still process information, add specialized HTML attributes so that blind and visually impaired visitors using screen readers can navigate complex web pages, and much more.

Familiarize Yourself with Accessibility Standards

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is, broadly speaking, the organization that helps keep the internet standardized. Early in its history, the W3C’s leaders realized that accessibility would be an ongoing concern as web technology developed and changed. This led to the creation of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) in the mid-90s. This advocacy and study group has helped develop tools and guidelines for web accessibility.

Over time, many governments have either adopted WAI’s standards as a requirement or used their standards as a basis. The most important of these accessibility standards are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG. The WCAG outlines broad accessibility principles, supported by pass-fail success criteria and numerous guides on how to design for accessibility. It’s regularly updated every few years, with a new major version set to be released in the next few years.

Accessibility Overview of Topics

Reading through a comprehensive web accessibility standard like the WCAG is overwhelming when you’re just trying to acquaint yourself with some basic accessibility issues. Here, we’re going to briefly touch on a few accessible design topics to give you an idea of the scope of accessible web design.

Accessible Design for Visual Impairments

The internet started with a focus on hypertext, but now uses images, video, and interactivity extensively. Lots of accessible design focuses on keeping the internet user friendly for people with some form of visual impairment.

Screen readers are the most well known example of this. By labeling images with alt text and adding specialized HTML attributes to your site code, people can navigate web pages entirely through audio feedback. Designing for visual impairment also includes designing for colorblind individuals; choosing accessible color palettes helps keep your web page easy to read regardless of color difficulties.

Accessible Design for Hearing Impairments

Online audio-video content has gone from a slow, low-resolution rarity to one of the primary communication tools on the internet. Accessible design in this case means everything from creating closed caption files on all of your instructional videos, to making sure that there are text transcriptions or written equivalents to audio instruction.

A core accessibility principle is that there should be multiple ways to access crucial information. Make sure that important information can be accessed in a variety of ways so that no one is left out.

Mobility and Keyboard Interaction

The desktop web treats a mouse as the default form of interaction, while mobile browsing relies on a touch screen interface that often demands fine motor control. Designing a website that one can interact with entirely through a keyboard — and avoiding design decisions that make this difficult — helps open a website up to people with physical disabilities. It is also important for people using screen readers, especially on desktop, as someone unable to see a screen display won’t be able to use a mouse to interact with the page. This has also grown difficult over the years, as modern highly interactive web pages often have menus buried in interactive elements that aren’t directly accessible via HTML.

Planning How to Improve Your Site

Making your site accessible involves more than meeting a given set of standards. In any given site redesign, know what you are trying to achieve and plan to continuously work towards making your site more accessible.

Determine Your Organization’s Goals

If you or your organization want to make your website more accessible, you must first have a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve. Are you planning to completely overhaul your site in preparation for a compliance audit followed by a final certification — or are you simply trying to add some improvements to your site as you go?

If you’re an individual or small business that simply wants to add accessibility functionality to an existing website, consider an all-in-one solution. For WordPress sites, popular plugins such as One Click Accessibility add a variety of user-facing accessibility tools with excellent pre-configured defaults.

An Ongoing Process

Even if you’re just trying to meet a particular legal requirement or pass an audit, it’s important that you realize accessibility is an ongoing process. You want to stay accessibility-minded for the life of your website.

Standards like the WCAG are great for helping you carry out a major overhaul, but a focus on accessibility should be integrated into your approach to web design. Accessibility must become part of your content and customer interaction workflow as long as you have a web presence.

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