What is Digital Accessibility (& Why Is It Important)?

Web and mobile app designers focus heavily on the visual impact they’re creating, ensuring it’s optimized for all devices.

That's all well and good, but digital accessibility is usually overlooked.

As a result of the pandemic, more and more people, including those with disabilities, rely on digital products and services for work, shopping, banking, entertainment, and healthcare.

But with nearly 20% of the population living with a disability, not everyone can access those services due to their inadequate design. That’s why digital accessibility is more important now than ever for any organization that provides digital products and services.
In this guide, you’ll learn:
  • What digital accessibility is.
  • The four principles of digital accessibility.
  • Why your business needs to make digital access a priority based on the international and federal regulations, guidelines, and standards.

What is Digital Accessibility?

Digital accessibility is the process of making digital products, such as websites, mobile apps, and other online tools, accessible to everyone. It is about ensuring all users can access the same information, regardless of the impairments they may have.

Whether a visually-impaired person uses a screen reader to access a webpage or someone has a cognitive disability that requires straightforward content and navigation,‌ there‌ ‌are‌ ‌many‌ ‌reasons‌ ‌to‌ ‌make‌ ‌your‌ ‌digital‌ ‌presence‌ ‌accessible.

Web Accessibility vs Digital Accessibility

Web accessibility refers to the principle that websites and the technologies associated with them should be equally accessible to everyone, regardless of their‌ ‌ disabilities.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) states,

“The Web is fundamentally designed to work for all people, whatever their hardware, software, language, location, or ability. When the Web meets this goal, it is accessible to people with a diverse range of hearing, movement, sight, and cognitive ability.”

Digital accessibility includes web accessibility plus the accessibility of anything digital such as video, audio, electronic documents, animations, kiosks, and mobile apps.

WCAG Guidelines

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is the international accessibility standard established by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

The WCAG includes technical recommendations on how to make web content more accessible for people with disabilities. The WCAG defines content as information on a web page or web application, including text, images, and sounds, as well as coding and markup that defines the ‌structure‌ ‌and‌ ‌presentation.

It’s also the standard reference for most website accessibility-related legislation, including the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) in the US and the European Web Accessibility Directive.

The WCAG has gone through several updates since it was first published in 1995.

Each iteration adds new requirements:
  • WCAG 2.0 – published 11 December 2008 – had 61 success criteria.
  • WCAG 2.1 – published on 5 June 2018 (the current W3C recommended version) – introduced 17 more success criteria to address mobile accessibility, people with low vision, and people with cognitive and learning disabilities.
  • WCAG 2.2 – not yet in effect, scheduled to be published in 2021 – will be expanding on 2.1 with nine new success criteria, plus an update to one, to make content more accessible to a wider range of users.
  • WCAG 3.0 – still in development and not expected to be finalized for the next few years.


The WCAG is categorized according to the four (POUR): perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

Each principle has testable success criteria classified by three levels – A, AA, and AAA – with the easiest being A and the most challenging being AAA.

Principles of Digital Accessibility (POUR)

There are four principles of web accessibility under the WCAG – known as POUR – which are the foundations of content produced for the web and for anyone who wants to use the web:

 

Perceivable

The information and elements of the user interface must be presented in a way that can be perceived by the senses so that nothing is ‌undetectable‌ or‌ ‌invisible. Web usability is based primarily on visuals, but for those unable to take visual cues, sound and touch are used instead.

Operable

The interactive elements of an interface, such as controls, buttons, and navigation, should be operated physically by clicking, touching, swiping, and‌ ‌rolling. Alternatively, voice commands or other assistive devices like head wands and eye trackers should be provided.

Understandable

Technology should be presented and used clearly and consistently,‌ ‌with‌ ‌predictable‌ ‌patterns‌ ‌of‌ ‌use‌‌ ‌‌and‌‌ ‌‌design. The end-user should understand the meaning and purpose of the information presented in the content while understanding the user flow and interaction‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌interface.

Robust

Content must be robust to work reliably with‌ ‌a‌ ‌wide‌ ‌variety‌ ‌of‌ ‌technologies,‌ including‌ ‌assistive‌ ‌devices.
The lack of any one of these four principles will make the web inaccessible to users with disabilities.

Common Examples of Digital Accessibility

A digitally accessible website or app must have the following minimum‌ features‌ ‌based‌ ‌on‌ ‌‌the‌‌ ‌‌business‌‌ ‌‌and‌‌ ‌‌consumer‌‌ ‌‌it‌‌ ‌‌serves:
  • Provides text and/or audio alternatives for any non-text content
  • Includes content that can be presented in different ways without losing information, context, or structure.
  • Permits all functionality from a keyboard if needed, as opposed to a cursor.
  • Is not designed in a way that is known to cause seizures.
  • Includes ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are.
  • Allows screen readers to parse a website for a user with visual impairments.
  • Includes closed-captioned videos for individuals with hearing impairments.
  • Includes “alt text” on images for individuals with visual impairments.
  • Allows navigation by keyboard (i.e. using the Tab key) for users who may not be able to operate a mouse.

Why Should Digital Accessibility Be a Business Priority?

With nearly 20% of the population living with a disability, web accessibility has become a major focus for organizations worldwide.

But digital accessibility is not only about people with disabilities using your website with ease.

While 71% of web users with a disability will simply leave a website that is not accessible, users without disabilities also find that accessibility features help them navigate your site more effectively.

When you maintain an accessible digital presence, all your visitors benefit.

Improve user experience

An accessible digital presence means people of all abilities can use your website as intended. With special attention to navigation, ease of use, text clarity, and more, accessibility best practices benefit all users.

Increase sales revenue

If your digital content isn’t accessible to everyone, you’re inadvertently excluding up to 1.3 billion potential customers. It’s frequently argued ROI is hard to measure when it comes to spending on digital accessibility modifications. However, accessible designs provide benefits that ultimately increase sales, as you can:
  • Reach a larger customer base that includes the disabled population.
  • Make it easier for everyone to use your site.
  • Make mobile access easier.
  • Improve SEO rankings.
  • Drive innovation.

The W3C presents case studies of Fortune 100 companies, including Apple and Barclays, that have seen improved search results, reduced maintenance costs, and increased audience reach stemming from accessible design.

Stay compliant and avoid costly lawsuits

In the U.S., several industries are subject to government requirements for digital accessibility as interpreted under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). And federal agencies must follow regulations contained in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Lawsuits alleging digital accessibility violations are increasing, and several high-profile companies have had to pay large settlements.

Following WCAG guidelines helps organizations stay compliant and avoid costly lawsuits.

Regulations, Guidelines, and Standards

There are several US and worldwide regulations, guidelines, and standards to protect the rights of people with disabilities. 

Federal regulations

In the US, there are three federal regulations that organizations must comply with.

ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers the equal and fair treatment of people with disabilities In five fields: Employment, State and Local Government, Public Accommodations, Telecommunications, and Miscellaneous Provisions. (These are usually referred to as Title I, II, III, IV, and V of the ADA.)

Web accessibility falls under Title III of the ADA, which states that all areas of public accommodation – including hotels, schools, restaurants, gyms, retailers, libraries, and doctors – must provide equal access to information and services for everyone.

All websites that fall under the category of ‘Public Accommodations’ – i.e. businesses that are open to the general public – will need to comply with Title III of the ADA.

Section 508

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C § 794 d) requires federal agencies in the United States to ensure that their electronic and information technology – including websites, web applications, software, and digital documents – is accessible to everyone, regardless of whether they are employees or members of the public.

Although Section 508 only applies to federal agencies and federally funded programs in the United States, many global companies and organizations aim to be Section 508 compliant, too.

CVAA

The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) became law in 2010. Its purpose is to ensure that “accessibility laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s are brought up to date with 21st-century technologies.”

Failure to comply with CVAA leaves an organization subject to disability discrimination lawsuits.

How Accessible Are Your Digital Properties?

By now, you should have a better understanding of why digital accessibility is so important for any organization with digital properties.

If you’re looking for more help to improve the user experience, increase your sales revenue, remain compliant, and avoid costly lawsuits, then check out The Essential Accessibility Handbook.