An Introduction to Web Accessibility

Part 1

For many of us, the Internet has become so integral to our lives, that it’s hard to imagine a life where that content were inaccessible or severely limited due to accessibility issues. Meanwhile, 3.8 million working-age Canadians (aged 15-64) self-identified as disabled in 2012. That’s 13.7% of us – or nearly one in ten working-age Canadians. For many of those users, the Internet can be a frustrating place – built for those with full vision, hearing and mobility and unaccommodating for anyone else.

The first step to making websites accessible for those with different limitations is to understand what we can do to improve their user experience, and making a commitment to improving it. Most web and content inaccessibility is simply the result of a lack of awareness rather than malice and, generally speaking, everyone benefits from the proper organization of content, clear navigation and captions/transcripts to video and audio content, not to mention the SEO benefits.

Categorizing Disability

Visually Impaired

Those who are visually impaired range from the colour blind to fully blind. Screen readers accommodate these users by scanning through and reading the website aloud to them, as users toggle through navigation using the tab,shift-tab and other keyboard commands. Without text descriptions or alternative text there is no information for a screen reader to read and a visually impaired user can’t know what the content represents.

Hearing Impaired

Those with hearing disabilities have no way of accessing information that is communicated through audio. Providing alternatives such as a text-based transcripts or captions in the case of video, or images that support the audio content can substitute for audio information.

Physical Disability

For those with mobility limitations who can’t use a mouse or track pad, care must be taken when creating navigation and form submission/inputs so they can be accessed using only the keyboard without becoming stranded or lost.

Cognitive and Neurological Disabilities

Complex and dense information can be difficult to navigate for the most able of us. Overly complex sites, inconsistent navigation, distractions, and repetitive information can make some websites complicated to the point of being inaccessible for those with cognitive and neurological disabilities.

Web Accessibility Mobile Apps and Web Applications

Benefits to Improving Accessibility

Aside from creating a more inclusive web, accessibility initiatives benefit those in situations where the full experience of the web would otherwise be limited, such as low bandwidth, kiosks, noisy areas, those without access to speakers, in areas of reduced visibility, etc. With lifespans and the average age of many countries increasing, vision and hearing issues as well as dexterity and memory decline are all reasons to focus on making the web a more inclusive environment. Not to mention, from a business standpoint, being inaccessible could mean alienating a substantial percentage of your would-be customers.

It’s the law.

Not only are there ethical and commercial justifications, accessibility is a legal issue too. Depending on your location, you could be sued for discrimination unless your website meets a certain standard.

In Canada, The Standard on Web Accessibility came into full effect on July 31, 2013 and follows the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA. It is legally required for organizations in the public sector as well as private or non-profit organizations with 50+ employees to meet the Level of AA web accessibility.

Web Accessibility Initiatives

The W3C’s Web Accessibility initiative (WAI) is an effort to improve the accessibility of the web. It has produced guidelines and technical reports such as:

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) – Specifically for making web content more accessible to persons with disabilities

Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) – For users authoring web content (ie. HTML editors, content management systems, social media).

User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG) – For user agent developers (ie. Web Browsers and Media Players)

The one that we are going to focus on here is WCAG, released in December of 2008, specially geared toward web-content. It consists of twelve guidelines organized under 4 principles. Each guideline has testable success criteria (61 in all) but more on that later.


Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.

Guideline 1.1: Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language.

Guideline 1.2: Time-based media: Provide alternatives for time-based media.

Guideline 1.3: Create content that can be presented in different ways (for example simpler layout) without losing information or structure.

Guideline 1.4: Make it easier for users to see and hear content including separating foreground from background.


User interface components and navigation must be operable.

Guideline 2.1: Make all functionality available from a keyboard.

Guideline 2.2: Provide users enough time to read and use content.

Guideline 2.3: Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures.

Guideline 2.4: Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are.


Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.

Guideline 3.1: Make text content readable and understandable.

Guideline 3.2: Make web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.

Guideline 3.3: Help users avoid and correct mistakes.


Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.

Guideline 4.1: Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.

Levels of Conformance

WCAG 2.0 uses three levels of conformance (A, AA, AAA) as it did with its previous version WCAG 1.0, but has redefined them. Each principle has guidelines, and each guideline has testable success criteria at level A, AA, or AAA . The basis for determining conformance to the WCAG 2.0 is the success criteria.

For the full list of success criteria and how to implement these changes to your website, stay tuned for Part 2 of this accessibility series, where we cover implementing the accessibility success criteria to achieve a level AA accessibility rating.


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