Every person has a right to a high-quality digital experience.
In the (nearly) 10 years since the W3C laid out its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG), assistive technology has become a standard feature for leading device manufacturers. The difference between usability and accessibility has become more defined with developers often leaving accessibility testing to the very last minute … if at all.
On the plus side, the WCAG guidelines have given companies an idea of what they should be doing in terms of making a website or app accessible. The underlying core of the guidelines is that all information and any user interface components must be presented in such as way that anybody can use or access that content, irrespective of individual disabilities.
WCAG 2.0 is one of the major resources available to developers and is a recognized ISO standard. In October 2016, a W3C working group announced that it would be working on an update—WWCAG 2.1—and invited comments from the public to provide targeted guidance for both hardware and software.
Why We Need Revamped Accessibility Guidelines
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group said:
WCAG remains relevant nearly a decade after finalization. Technology has, however, evolved in new directions. For instance, the widespread use of mobile devices with small screens and primarily touch-based user input methodologies has led to challenges making content that conforms to WCAG 2.0 accessible on those devices. Technology evolution makes it possible to meet the needs of more users, and users with low vision, or with cognitive, language, or learning disabilities see new benefits that should be better represented in guidelines. Further, the increasing role of the web in our lives means technologies such as digital books, payment systems, driverless vehicles, etc. now need to be addressed by web accessibility guidelines.
WCAG 2.1 is still in the draft stages. The aim is for it to build on the cornerstones of existing website accessibility guidelines— content must be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust—and make it easier for developers and publishers to migrate to the standards that are right for them.
According to a post on the W3C website, the first step will be to publish a draft document by the end of February 2017, with a final version in place by mid-2018. This timeline would fit perfectly with the U.S. Department of Justice’s final decision as to whether websites or mobile apps are places of public accommodation … also due sometime in 2018.
In the meantime, the National Law Review reported that the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board has finalized a regulation that federal agencies and contractors have to make their website comply with WCAG 2.0 Level AA within a year of the rule’s publication. This decision would indicate that the U.S. DOJ are likely to follow suit when the time comes.
For the moment, the WCAG Working Group has stressed that WCAG 2.1 will be a “dot-release.”
In an interview with cloud-based accessibility platform User1st, the WCAG Working Group said that the new guidelines will work in harmony with the technology-agnostic WCAG 2.0. This will allow developers and publishers to follow recommendations as opposed to a draconian dictate.
In addition, there will not be separate guidelines for mobile apps or the mobile Web, the WCAG Working Group said. The boundaries between these different digital access points are becoming ever more blurred, especially when you take into account the increase in gesture or voice interaction with a particular device.
How Can Companies Make Sure They Are Covered?
So the question is, what can companies do to make sure that their websites or mobile apps are accessible to everybody?
When you consider that around 92% of people who are registered disabled own at least one mobile device, then the challenge is to make sure that all bases are covered. A one-size-fits-all app or experience is not always possible, but companies should (at the very least) do the following:
- Review primary web pages to make sure that they conform to the guidelines set out by WCAG 2.0. An example of this would be to provide text alternatives for non-text content.
- Highlight accessible alternatives such as a direct line to the company or even an online chat function.
- Develop a company policy for the website or mobile app that addresses current issues in accessibility and undertake regular reviews.
- Make sure that all developers or outside contractors are aware of their accessibility responsibilities.
- Test the features of a website or app for accessibility issues that may not be obvious to a non-disabled person.
Integrating accessibility features into a customer-facing product is not rocket science. Accessibility is about removing barriers to engagement or interaction with any application or device. The ubiquitous nature of the Web ensures that companies are no longer transacting business in a purely physical space, which can be both a blessing and a curse.
Irrespective of when the U.S. DOJ decides that a website or app is deemed to be a Place of Public Accommodation, the brutal truth is that accessibility should not be seen as a grey area. Guidelines exist, manufacturers bake assistive technology into their devices and the disabled community is not going away.
Access to information and communication technology is a basic human right. As assistive technologies have improved, this has helped persons with disabilities feel less like outsiders and more part of the connected society. And any company that is waiting to see what accessibility guidelines the U.S. government will impose before acting are leaving themselves open on every level.