WCAG 2.1: A Year On, a Year Won

Girl wearing headphones and using laptop

Topics: Customer Experience

How much leverage can a non-government set of accessibility standards exact on legal actions taken by consumers? Quite a bit. And the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 (WCAG 2.1) only gains momentum as lawsuits continue to escalate as the need for accessibility increases. But fear of legal actions only offers a glimpse of the impact accessibility has on websites and how web development needs this crucial component of user experience.

Whether designing a video game startup or redesigning a site for buyers, the need for inclusion becomes more and more apparent as new technologies develop and the increasing likelihood that noncompliance will have serious impacts on your visibility on the web in the future. Fundamentally, the WCAG 2.1 seeks to build customer relationships — a goal in any smart marketing effort.

What is the WCAG 2.1?

The WCAG 2.1 is the latest in accessibility standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The mission of the updated standards remains the same as 2.0, but the degree to which the standards have undergone revision for mobile and different technologies has changed. Notably, additional recommendations have expanded to include greater accessibility for users impaired by low vision for mobile devices, and greater cognitive and learning disability standards for compliance have also been added.

The benchmarks by which the WCAG 2.0 encouraged developers to design for inclusion still stand: The standards can be clearly implemented, tech. neutral attitudes still characterize WCAG 2.1, and objective and universal application spans across the added recommendations set by the W3C (among other design considerations.) A rundown of the new additions to the WCAG can be found here.

The Ethos of Inclusion

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was one of the first significant offerings in the advancements in inclusive design for the disabled. It granted the disabled the opportunity to take advantage of vocational rehabilitation services, enabling many to attend college. And, the act allowed impaired people fair use of government buildings, unhindered by obstacles that might prevent them from gaining necessary aid, as remembered here by Bob Williams, Director of the Independent Living Administration. The sit-ins that partly led to the bill’s passing gained national attention and brought conditions for the disabled to the forefront of American consciousness.

Likewise, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed on July 26, 1990, expanded the ethos of The Rehabilitation Act to include access to public accommodations (or commercial and retail stores) in addition to federal and state services. No longer can a person with a disability be refused employment without reasonable accommodation. And, no business offering services to the public can deny the disabled access to store facilities.

As technology has evolved, these pieces of legislation have expanded to include fair access to government websites and the websites of institutions that receive government funding. And with the ADA, there is now the opportunity for the disabled to include public accommodations in their digital lives as well as their daily lives, in some cases. Some controversy about how these laws should be applied to the web remains, but the WCAG has been the designated standard in many determined legal breaches for the disabled.

Past Efforts to Legislate and the Difficulty of Accessibility

Strongly pushed efforts to define federal standards for web accessibility have appeared since the early 2000s. But even a very promising push in 2016 to finally set standards for web accessibility fell short after the complex nature of enforcing standards across the web became apparent.

In a forum for concerned parties to pose questions to lawmakers, matters like the difficulty in updating myriad archived and dated materials to meet compliance were suggested roadblocks. And, the problem of web technologies that cannot currently meet accessibility were cited as difficulties. In the proceedings, even the overseeing officials could not agree on a method for determining the costs for businesses and benefits for those needing assistance. The proposed law and public comments were shelved and archived, a summary of which can be reviewed here for those curious about the complications of accessibility initiatives.

Past and Ethics Considered, Where are the Legal Lines Drawn Today?

Some favorability for people needing assistance in accessing the web has an apparent base in the eyes of the law in interpreting Title II and III of the ADA and Section 508 of The Rehabilitation Act.

As The Banking Law Journal reports, federal courts who tend to sympathize with businesses have drawn the line between the online vs. the in-store experience. These courts, who have traditionally taken the staunch position that public accommodations apply only to physical stores, have still sided with plaintiffs who had trouble accessing a closely tied online and offline shopping experience (including website information such as store location, store hours, prescription refill options, coupon offers, etc.)

Other courts have taken a more liberal interpretation of Title III of the ADA to include its intent, rather than precise language, and have drawn no separation between companies who operate solely online and those who have brick-and-mortar stores. Luckily, even courts who tend to sympathize with plaintiffs have reasonably allowed a sufficient adaptation period to give businesses time to improve the accessibility of their sites before similar legal actions can be brought against them again in the future.

Accessibility, Gaming, and Happy Coincidences

Video games are commonly played over the internet. As such, the application of the WCAG has touched the gaming world, as reported by Variety. Communications in games played over the internet presented an obvious need for assistive technologies to allow hearing impaired players, or players with low vision impairments, to equally enjoy the communications in the gaming world. And not only has gaming met the needs of some players requiring assistance, technologies designed strictly as novel features in gaming have opened the door to entirely new assistive technologies for impaired users by happenstance.

NPR writes about a game developer named Oded Ben Dov who included an eye-tracking technology as an integral part of playing a game he developed and demonstrated on Israeli TV. A man with a mobility impairment then contacted Ben Dov and asked if he could design an eye-tracking technology to help him navigate the web. Ben Dov gladly accepted the challenge, and the result is a new technology that allows mobility impaired users to enjoy full use of the web via an eye-tracking cursor on screen: A shining example of when technology serves people online regardless of impairment.

When Accessibility and User Experience Overlap

Accessibility and solid web development aren’t at odds. Accessible websites can increase traffic, increase sales, and decrease bounce rates. Moreover, SEO can be enhanced by optimizing for accessibility. Title tags can easily include keywords and informative text that allows both impaired users and users without impairment to quickly determine the relevancy of a page. Keyword stuffing is bad form, even in page titles, and relevant keywords can be used in addition to informative page text for both impaired and non-impaired users. Think “Laundry detergent for sale at Walmart” rather than “Laundry detergent, laundry soap, fabric softener | Walmart.” Search engines can use alt-text in links and images to help index a page, and users requiring screen readers also benefit from this informative text. Alt text in links helps them know where they will land when they click a link and alt text in images will help give them a description of the images on the page .

At Axis41, A Merkle Company, we believe accessibility is an opportunity for building enhanced customer relationships. And, as always, people are our central focus for delivering marketing services. Compliance bolsters branding and reputation — and it offers equal access to a customer base that can often be overlooked (and whose buying power is significant.) An estimated 25% of the United States population has some form of disability that may require assistance in accessing the web.

Contact us today to begin developing a compliance strategy that will ensure users with impairments can access your website as fairly as possible.