What is Website Accessibility?

When I first started learning about website accessibility, I thought of it the way most people do — assuming that it’s about making websites more usable for people with disabilities.

I quickly learned that this is only partially correct.

Hands shown taking notes.

When most of us think of people with disabilities, we think of extreme examples of Permanent Disabilities — such as someone who is completely blind, or perhaps someone who is paralyzed.

But there are other kinds of disabilities. There are Temporary Disabilities, such as an injury or perhaps a bad head cold.

There are also Invisible Disabilities, such as fibromyalgia, Crohn’s disorder, chronic pain or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. These may make it hard for someone to focus, especially if there are visual or auditory distractions (such as videos that autoplay!).

Finally, we have Situational Disabilities. This could be as simple as being at a loud party or restaurant and unable to hear a video… Or perhaps a mother holding a sick baby in one arm, trying to look up her doctor’s phone number on a website with her other arm.

So “Disabilities” actually runs along a broad spectrum — it’s not always just the extreme cases.

Additionally, as we age, our ability to figure out and use new web interfaces diminishes by about 1% a year with each year after the age of 25. In other words, we’re all going to be disabled to a degree at some point.

John Brownlee, a tech journalist who writes about tech and disabilities, said it best: “On a long enough timeline, accessibility becomes important to everyone.

Ultimately, this means that “Accessibility” is simply “Usability for Everyone.”

hands typing while using a computer

The WCAG Principles of Accessibility

So, how do we make websites usable for everyone? The most commonly accepted set of accessibility standards is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

This lays out the specific ways a site can become accessible, and it also has different levels of compliance: A, AA and AAA.

For most sites, to be considered “fully accessible,” the site should meet level AA requirements. (AAA is extremely difficult to achieve, and typically only needed for very specialized audiences.)

WCAG breaks it down into four categories. For a website to be considered accessible, it must be:

  1. Perceivable — The content cannot be invisible to a user’s senses.
  2. Operable — The user must be able to operate the interface.
  3. Understandable — The user must be able to understand the information, and how to operate the interface.
  4. Robust — The website must work on a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies. And as technology evolves, the website should continue to work.

women typing on a laptop next to a cup of coffee

A lot of the guidelines can be met with sitewide changes — which are usually handled by your designer, or are (hopefully) built-in to your website’s theme. In the WordPress Theme repository, you can search for themes that are “accessibility ready”

(Mediavine note: Our WordPress framework Trellis is built to score a 100 on Lighthouse accessibility.)

Pro-tip: If you hire a developer to redesign your site, put it in your contract that their design must meet WCAG 2.1 AA guidelines.

Other guidelines are more content-based — and that’s where it’s most important for you, as a content creator, to learn how to make sure all the great content your adding is accessible.

So to help you with that, in my next post I’ll go over six ways to make your website more accessible for everyone.

More Resources

I hope you’re now motivated to make continual accessibility improvements to your site!

As you continue learning more and improving your site, here are some resources I’ve found helpful:

WCAG 2.1 Quick Reference Guide

The A11Y Project — A community-driven effort to make web accessibility easier. (“a11y” is a not-very-accessible numeronym for “accessibility”)

Google’s Web Fundamentals for Accessibility

Web Aim —Web Accessibility in Mind. Contains a number of scanning tools, like their WAVE site evaluation tool, where you can easily run a free, quick accessibility test on your site, and their Color Contrast Checker.

Userway – Add a widget to your site that will give users tools to modify your site on-the-fly, to suit their needs. (This is a great “band-aid” tool to help with compliance, but it’s still better to fix any underlying issues on your site.)

WP Accessibility Tools & Alt Text Finder — A WordPress Plugin to help with compliance.

About Andrew

photo of Andrew Wilder

Andrew Wilder has been building, fixing and maintaining websites since 1998.

He is the founder of NerdPress, an agency that provides WordPress maintenance and support services to hundreds of publishers — many of whom are MVPs!