The advent of the Internet in the last decades has totally revolutionized the way we communicate, work and share information.
The removal of space and time barriers, however, has not been matched to date by the removal of digital architectural barriers for users with some form of disability – 87 million people in the European Union alone and 1.3 billion people worldwide, 16% of the world's entire population.
According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), Web site accessibility is the ability of a site to be enjoyed effectively, in its interface and content, by every user.
Making one's Web site accessible means extending access to information to as many people as possible: not only, as already mentioned, to those with physical and cognitive disabilities, but also to those with, for example, limited hardware and software tools.
For this reason, over the past decades, guidelines have been defined and solutions designed to ensure in theory and practice that precise accessibility standards are met for Web sites in the public and private sectors.
Web Accessibility from the birth of the Internet to today
Web accessibility legislation can be seen as a natural spin-off of anti-discrimination legislation already in place in various areas of the world.
In the United States, for example, of vital importance is the inclusion within the American Disabilities Act of 1990 of places of public accomodation (Title III), that is, spaces, both virtual and real, where there are services for the public.
The need to make digital environments accessible has been apparent since the early years of the World Wide Web's existence, even before its innovative reach spread globally as we know it today.
As early as 1996, in fact, Tim Berners-Lee, the very inventor of the World Wide Web, laid out in a newsletter entitled precisely "Disabilities and the Web" the need to establish a W3C operational area dedicated to promoting a high level of usability for people with disabilities using the Web.
It was precisely at the turn of the 1990s and early 2000s that Microsoft and Apple had begun to introduce, within their respective operating systems, the first accessibility options, which included the ability to change display color gamut and enable assisted navigation, via keyboard and later via text-to-speech.
In 1999 the first version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) saw the light of day: as we will elaborate in the dedicated section, these guidelines provide a standard for evaluating web accessibility according to three progressive levels of compliance (A, AA, and AAA).
The challenge of responsive Web design
Over time, the evolution of the Web and its coding standards has led to the creation of platforms that are increasingly articulated in their interfaces and functionality. In fact, the introduction of new formats, such as mobile, coupled with the possibility of designing sites with increasingly complex and visually appealing designs, has greatly complicated the Web accessibility landscape.
Some of the most frequent problems include:
- Low contrast or brightness levels that make it difficult to read and decode content;
- Links without descriptions, or with descriptions that are not meaningful when read automatically;
- Unresponsive content on different types of displays, operating systems, and technologies used to experience the site;
- Unclear information architecture, where it is difficult or impossible to locate specific content;
- Absent or incorrectly used alternative text for images.
According to WebAIM statistics, as many as 97 percent of the one million most visited websites do not meet WCAG accessibility standards: this is a worrying statistic, which makes the need to bring web accessibility back in focus when programming and designing user interfaces all the more urgent.
Accessibility, usability and inclusion
The concepts of accessibility, usability, and inclusion, although not exactly synonymous, are closely related aspects with wide areas of overlap in website design.
Web accessibility focuses on the needs of people with different types of disabilities, both congenital and temporary; at the same time, however, accessibility solutions help to improve usability for anyone-regardless of their physical condition-who is in a situation of limited use.
The presence of captioned video content, for example, is useful not only for users with hearing impairments or attention disorders, but also for those in a noisy environment where it is difficult to best understand speech.
Similarly, applying usability standards to a form or landing page, making instructions and user journey steps clear, not only helps increase conversions but also provides valuable help to users with cognitive and learning disabilities.
These best practices contribute to the design of inclusive websites, that is, websites that engage all users, whatever their condition, to the greatest extent possible.
Web accessibility legal requirements
Worldwide: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a set of technical standards drafted by the World Wide Web Congress, the international consortium that drafts recommendations and sets standards for the Web.
The goal of WCAG is to make the Internet more inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities consistent with the development of new technologies.
Over time, WCAG has become an industry standard for accessibility testing, to the point that it became the basis for most Web accessibility standards and guidelines around the world.
Principles and Guidelines
The WCAG guidelines are now up to version 2.1, published as a W3C Recommendation in June 2018. Starting from version 2.0, the full text of these guidelines is divided into four principles, which are understood to be the necessary basis for access and use of the Internet.
In order to be considered accessible, a Web site – which is a set of information and user interface components – must be:
- Perceivable regardless of the inhibition of one or more senses or motor skills;
- Usable even through assistive tools or alternative browsers;
- Understandable to all in its content and operation;
- Consistent and capable of being reliably interpreted by a wide range of user-agents.
For an initial accessibility check of a Web page, the Web Accessibility Initiative also makes available a list broken down into practical points, the so-called "Easy Checks," which allows one to get an immediate idea of the areas to be worked on:
- Page title
- Image text alternatives ("alt text") (pictures, illustrations, charts, etc.)
- Contrast ratio ("color contrast")
- Resize Text
- Keyboard access and visual focus
- Forms, labels, and errors (including Search fields)
- Moving, Flashing, or Blinking Content
- Multimedia (video, audio) alternatives
- Basic Structure Check
European Union: Web Accessibility Directive
Entering into force in 2016, the Web Accessibility Directive (EU Directive 2016/2102) regulates Web accessibility for websites and mobile applications of public sector entities in European Union member states.
The legislation stipulates that public sector websites must be "perceivable, operable, understandable and robust"-in essence, fully usable by everyone, including citizens with disabilities.
The minimum technical requirements, dictated in EN 301 549 V3.2.1 (2021-03), correspond to the WCAG 2.1 level AA standard established by the World Wide Web Congress. In addition, Web sites covered by this directive will also have to publish an Accessibility Statement.
Member states must verify the WAD compliance of affected Web sites by identifying any deficiencies by means of automated, manual and usability audits. Every three years they will also have to submit a report to the Commission on the results of the monitoring.
Artificial Intelligence and Accessibility
More than three decades after the advent of the World Wide Web, the spotlight is now on the evolution of Artificial Intelligence: thanks to the varied applications of increasingly advanced algorithms to different areas of the Web, we can say that we are on the verge of another revolution in the way we relate to technology.
Artificial Intelligence can make a valuable contribution in generating assistive content. In recent years, solutions are being developed that can:
- Automatically subtitle video content;
- Recognize the content of images using advanced neural networks and provide an alternative description;
- Identify the key points of a text content and summarize it thanks to Natural Language Processing;
- Read lips;
- Recognize and decode even irregular speech.
Nowadays, however, Artificial Intelligence is mainly used to perform web accessibility testing, which can identify problems and missing features at the level of user interface and layout as well as coding.
Although the best results are obtained in combination with user testing procedures by professionals in the field, automated testing is an excellent first step to get an overview of the general accessibility of a website and to plan possible operational interventions in this field.
OpenAble: your Web, accessible
Ensuring the accessibility of digital products and services is as important as ensuring the accessibility of transportation, education, and health care.
The potential of new technologies, including Artificial Intelligence, makes it even easier to provide users with unique and personalized experiences. To raise digital architectural barriers in the name of aesthetics, while neglecting usability and functionality, is to squander this tremendous opportunity.
In Neosperience we are aware of the need to offer all web users, no one excluded, an inclusive, personalized and empathetic experience.
This is why we designed OpenAble, the first 100% Italian solution to overcome digital architectural barriers.
OpenAble is a dedicated ready-to-use Web Accessibility tool: it is scalable and perfectly adapts to the needs of companies of any size and traffic, from millions of visits/month, to a few hundred.
OpenAble can transform your site into a welcoming and inclusive environment, empowering every visitor to enjoy the digital experience as they see fit.
Try OpenAble on our site and visit openable.it/en!