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Understanding digital accessibility

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Use this page to find out if you're doing everything you should be to make sure your websites and digital services are accessible. Learn how to meet accessibility standards and where to find testing tools.

Why digital accessibility matters

The internet is meant to be usable by everyone. When websites and web tools are properly designed and coded, it makes the user experience better for everyone by ensuring accessibility needs are met. Assistive technology – tools such as screen readers and voice recognition software – are used by many and rely on websites being well designed to work correctly.

The problem is that the people that commission and create new websites and tools don’t always build them well. This creates barriers that didn’t need to be there.

14.1 million people in the UK are disabled (Department for Work and Pensions, 2019). This is a significant proportion of the population. Their experience of your organisation can be changed entirely by how much effort you have put into accessible design. Good accessible design requires conscious thought.

Not enough of us prioritise time, budget and finding the right skills to do this well. It won’t happen by accident.

If you want people to engage with you and benefit from what you do you need to make accessibility a priority.

It isn’t only about disability.

At some point nearly everyone will struggle to use technology if it hasn’t been designed with digital accessibility in mind.

Microsoft use this model to help train people to think about how improving digital accessibility makes a difference. It considers how all of us may experience permanent, temporary or situational effects.

  • Permanent – when people have a long-term impairment such as loss of limb, sight, hearing or speech. Or when people experience the world differently, for example being autistic or neurodivergent.
  • Temporary – when a person has a short-term injury such as a broken limb or a scratched eyeball. Or when chronic conditions have fluctuating symptoms.
  • Situational – when something about your environment changes what you can do. For example beside a busy road people can’t hear well or someone holding a baby can only use one hand.

These labels are useful to help us think about the differences we can make for everyone.

Meeting web accessibility guidelines (WCAG)

There are many different aspects to accessibility. The Web accessibility guidelines exist to help you make sure that you have covered as many different angles as possible. They aim for you to make your website and other digital tools accessible in the following ways.

  • Perceivable. This is about being able to get the information from the page. It includes things like colour contrast and text that changes size when the browser asks it to. It also includes things like text captions for images and video and notifications and feedback that are visual and audible.
  • Operable. This is all about how you do things. Are button sizes large enough? Can you navigate the page with a keyboard? Can sections that need input handle voice recognition?
  • Understandable. This is about comprehension. It includes readability. That means plain English, with a reading age of lower secondary school grade. It also includes layout that makes reading possible for both humans and technology like screen readers. That means things like clear design and layouts and logical order of different parts.
  • Robust. This focuses on how good your solutions are. Are they future proofed? Will they work on different devices?

The formal name for these guidelines is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. They exist at three levels: A, AA and AAA.

Everyone should be aiming for at least single A standard.

Most groups or organisations should be aiming for a minimum of AA standard, particularly if you receive any funding from government or public sources such as the national lottery.

It's worth aiming to reach AAA standard when you can. This is particularly important if you know you're supporting people who will benefit from a particular improvement. It's also a worthwhile goal to reach the standard in some areas even if you can’t reach it in others.

Here are some of the simple things that people often forget to do. You should check whether you have any of these problems on your website, or in digital tools you ask people to use.

  • Have you got images with text in? Screen readers won’t be able to read it.
  • Have you run all your writing through a readability age checker? Most of these read on an American system so go for Grade seven to nine (completed primary school level education).
  • Have you put alt text on your images? Any image that adds meaning needs good descriptive text in the 'alt text' field when you upload it.
  • Does your website show where the currently active area of the screen is? This is called focus. It is particularly important on forms or menus.
  • If someone is using 'tab' to move round your website and no mouse, can they get to everywhere, in a sensible order?
  • Is the contrast between text and page high enough? The smaller the font the higher the contrast needs to be.
  • Have you added subtitles to your videos or turned on auto subtitles if your YouTube presence has them?
  • Have you used only colour to indicate something? You should always use a symbol or words as well so people can work out what to do when they have any form of colour blindness.

Some of these are things that you'll easily be able to notice yourselves and can fix every time you create a new image or page. Some of them you'll need help to check and may need help from the person who built the website or tool to fix.

More guidance on WCAG and standards you should apply

Using a quick reference to look up the rules

The full list is technical and can look scary at first but you can make it manageable.

If you’re working with an agency or developer make sure they know about it. Ask them to discuss with you which standard or level you should be aiming for. Talk to them about checking that standards are embedded well by doing some usability testing. If you don’t have technical support, skim the list to find points that make sense to you, and work on improving those first. You can tackle others with technical help later.

Use the guide to WCAG 2.

Use blogs and articles to help you apply the rules. Search WebAIM for the area you are working on.

Using government guidance written for public sector bodies

If your group or organisation gets funding from a government department then you should read the accessibility requirements for public sector bodies guidance. Some local authority contracts or services may also expect organisations they fund to follow everything in here. It may become a legal obligation for all charities soon.

It also includes useful information to help you convince others in your organisation.

Understanding accessibility requirements for public sector bodies.

Tools you can use to help you test your web accessibility

Readability checkers

You need to use a readability checker for all writing.

A good readability checker will show you how to make your writing clearer as well as telling you what grade level it meets. Blog platforms like WordPress have readability plugins you can use if you are generating new content all the time. If your platform doesn’t have one built in, copy and paste to an online tool.

Try the Hemingway app, a free-to-use online readability checker.

WCAG 2 accessibility checkers

When you build a website or tool, using an accessibility checker will help you work out the first things you can improve. Make sure you or your agency or developers use one as a regular part of building software.

Don’t forget to test with real people as well. The checkers can make your work easier, not point out every possible issue.

One example is the Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool (WAVE).

A wider approach to digital accessibility

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are just one part of what you can do to make sure you're making your website, tools and software fully accessible. To get it right you need to take a holistic approach and think about accessibility from the beginning to end of every project. You want to join up your digital accessibility with your approach to accessibility right across your group or organisation.

Here are some measures you can take.

  • When you're planning research or testing make sure you include disabled people with a range of access needs and experiences. Make sure you design that research or testing so it's accessible.
  • Raise awareness of disability and the social model of disability across your group or organisation.
  • Invest in disability inclusion and accessibility training sessions run by disabled people.
  • Assess or audit how well you're doing or ask an accessibility organisation to audit for you.
  • Make sure you ask all partners, agencies and collaborators about their accessibility standards and approach.

More guidance on taking a wider approach

NCVO worked with consultant Zara Todd on this guidance.

Last reviewed: 18 March 2021

Help us improve this content

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 18 March 2021

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