What is web content accessibility?

Attending to web content accessibility guidelines ensures inclusivity

Web content accessibility is a worldwide initiative to improve access to internet content for people with a disability. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 covers a wide range of recommendations for making web content more accessible. In doing so, there are clear advantages for everyone, all users.

Technology is accessible if people with disabilities can use it as effectively as  people without a disability.

Young vision-impaired woman using a computer with assistive technology.

An accessible website has been developed to assist anyone who is:

  • blind or vision impaired, or anyone who relies on a screen reader, to find out information that is on a website.

  • deaf or hard at hearing by providing captions or transcripts on audio and video files

  • limited by mobility difficulties and relies on assistive technology to find and understand internet content.

Older man using a laptop.

With our ageing population, the number of vision- or hearing-impaired people is likely to increase — another good reason to develop accessible websites as a standard.

Web content accessibility is about inclusivity. There is no reason why people should be marginalised because they cannot access important information or entertainment from the internet because of their disability. It's good for society, it's good for business.

Interestingly, it's evident that by following web accessibility guidelines, web content is more usable for all users.

Website content accessibility is good practice

Whereas it’s mandatory for Australian Government agency websites to address web accessibility under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, it’s good business practice for all websites to have complied with at least some of the guidelines listed below.

WCAG 2.0 is based on four main guiding principles of accessibility often referred to by the acronym ‘POUR’:

  • Perceivable — your content should be easily located, or findable, on your site via logical navigation and supporting links.

  • Operable — can all users use the user-interface components, navigate your content, with full functionality (e.g. online forms set up to be completed easily on all devices; an element that requires only a hover interaction can’t be operated by someone who can’t use a mouse or touch screen. Understandable — does your content make sense to all users?

  • Understandable — Can users understand the content? Can users understand the interface and is it consistent enough to avoid confusion?

  • Robust — Can your content be consumed on all mobile devices and in all browsers? Does your site work with assistive technology?

Key web content accessibility principles developed into websites meet all users’ needs by:

  • increasing general usability

  • contributing to a well-structured website — which search engines will notice and reward

  • contributing to a thoughtful design and colour palette used throughout the site.

Some basic web content accessibility guidelines

Images — ALT tags and ID tags

As a primary web design principle, images on your site are best when they are contextually relevant to your content.

By including image ALT tags and ID tags to your site, screen readers can describe the image to anyone who cannot clearly see it.

Don’t embed important text in images. Screen readers will not be able to read the text. Neither will search engines, so you’ll be losing out on SEO juice. If you have to use an image that includes embedded text, include this text in the ALT tag.

Tables — correctly formatted

Table indicating a weekly weather forecast using images to indicate the climate. Note the image ID tag that indicates a textual reference reference for the rain graphic.

Table indicating a weekly weather forecast using images to indicate the climate. Note the image ID tag that indicates a textual reference reference for the rain graphic.

Tables on a website should be used only for tabulated data. Accessible tables need HTML markup that indicates header cells and data cells to define their relationship. Screen readers can then relate the content logically so the user can make sense of it.

Tables should be correctly formatted so they are responsive, meaning that the data or information in the tables can easily be read or used. 

Image of website table, some with the ALT tag obvious even though the image is missing to indicate the weather-type. Note that the weather for Wednesday is not known because there is no ALT tag for that missing image.

Image of website table, some with the ALT tag obvious even though the image is missing to indicate the weather-type. Note that the weather for Wednesday is not known because there is no ALT tag for that missing image.

Day Mon Tues Wed Thur Fri
Outlook sunny partly cloudy
thunder/rain rain snow
High (℃) 25℃ 20℃ 15℃ 10℃ 5℃
Low (℃) 15℃ 10℃ 5℃ 0℃ -5℃

Above is a website table built using HTML. This information is clearly read out by screen readers to indicate the outlook and temperature ranges for each day, Monday to Friday.

Tables also need to be responsive so they display well on mobile devices. 

All website users benefit. Tables with clearly indicated HTML header and data cells offers everyone context to the information contained within the table. It also makes editing the table in the backend much easier.

Captions or transcripts for audio files

Captions provide text for people who are deaf or have difficulty hearing an audio track, such as people speaking and other important sounds. For example, [up-beat music] can be added to captions to indicate the ambience or emotion that an audio track provides to a podcast’s audio track.

Search engines can't index the content of audio files. However, when you provide the captions or a text transcript, the information is available to search engines. Also, users can more easily find information in a text transcript, rather than trying to locate it in an audio file; for example, a reporter looking for a quote from a speech can search through a transcript.

Sometimes the quality of an audio track can be poor: no one can clearly hear what is being stated when the audio is muffled or the volume recording is too low. Offering captions or a transcript can make the difference for all users.

Write for clarity and structure your content

Write your content clearly and concisely, without using difficult words. It's not dumbing down. Writing with clarity will engage all members of your audience. You can write intelligently without having to sound authoritative by using difficult words. Of course there are some contexts where this might not be possible.

Structure your page content with headings that indicate the content that follows. Put important content at the top of the page. Write your content to be contextually relevant to the page title.

Your site’s structure should be logical. Navigation to related content should make sense. For example, if you have a page titled ‘Our Services’, subsequent pages about your specific services should sit on the next level down, not elsewhere on your site.

Colour palette and site styles

Make sure your text, linked text, and headings are dark enough in tone and colour. Using light-coloured text will be difficult for anyone to see. Also, make sure your body text is not too small.

Accessible web content is good for business

There are lots of reasons for including accessibility into your business plans; accessible web sites are good for business. With accessible sites you have the opportunity for more customers and visitors.

Accessibility is the right thing to do. With our ageing population, more and more people will be benefit from websites that are developed using accessibility guidelines.

In addition, your site will likely work better on a range of devices and result in better indexing by search engines.

SEO benefits from web content accessibility

Alt tags provide a great opportunity to include relevant keywords to your site. Don’t cram in keywords to ALT tags … no, no, … nor use keywords in ALT tags if they don’t make sense to the image description.  Search engines are far too sophisticated to be fooled by that. Instead, a short, meaningful description of the image and the opportunity to include a keyword that is relevant to your content is the way to go.

Mobile friendly sites

Responsive sites have been set up to be mobile friendly. This means that the information on your site is easy to use on mobile devices with smaller screens than desktop computers. Responsive sites are given the tick of approval by search engines. Google ranks responsive sites higher if comparing the attributes of two sites: one that is responsive and one that is not responsive.

[Top image from the American Foundation for the Blind]

[Table graphics from Understanding Web Accessibility]