What is Web Accessibility?

Web accessibility is… a large multidisciplinary topic. First and foremost, accessibility in all forms is a commitment to building and maintaining equal access: something that is for everyone, not just for some. Accessibility is rewarding ongoing work that requires both vigilance and diligence. Accessibility requires empathy.

Good, compliant, accessible sites and applications require designers, copywriters, developers, SEO specialists, and PPC specialists. To make the greatest impact, everyone has to be aware and involved.

Web accessibility is also a legal concern. It is potentially lost revenue. It is an aspect of your online reputation, both good and bad.

After all of that, you may now be saying that accessibility for the web is also overwhelming. That’s fair; there are moments of that. However, accessibility can also be so much easier than you might think.

Section 508, ADA, and WCAG: What’s the Difference?

All three of these standards were established with a shared purpose: to make electronic communication and information technology accessible to people with disabilities in as comparable a way possible to the access available to others. However, they are not the same thing.

Section 508 is a federal law that requires U.S. Governmental information and communications technology to be effectively accessed (by both federal employees and the public) regardless of ability. Is your business a government agency? Are you a federally-funded not-for-profit? If the answer to either of those questions is “yes,” then Section 508 applies to you. Head over to the U.S. Access Board’s site for more information on Section 508 compliance.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Schools, public spaces, transportation services, etc., are required to be ADA compliant, and this can include a website. If you do business with the public, then it is required that all reasonable accommodations are made for all people to access your services. Learn more about ADA requirements here. One thing to note, ADA is the American law for accessibility; numerous other laws exist around the world and have their own requirements.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a collection of guidelines specifically for making web content accessible. WCAG is a system of checks, that when followed, seeks to make HTML as accessible to as many people as possible. Meeting WCAG criteria could be used to support Section 508 compliance, but it is not officially recognized as a requirement. Additionally, WCAG is not (yet) mandated as the American standard for online accessibility; however, if you were taken to court for an ADA complaint, being able to prove WCAG compliance would be in your favor.

Who Makes the Web Accessibility Rules?

Accessibility rules are defined as the policies and laws that a particular government or country deems as necessary. As a result, rules will be different based on where a company conducts business; the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) maintains a list of accessibility policies based on country.

Within W3C’s rules are a set of standards, or a collection of success criteria that your site will either pass or fail. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a standard maintained by the W3C. WCAG has three compliance levels; currently, if your company operates within the United States, WCAG 2.0 AA is the target standard to meet 508 and CVAA compliance. It is also important to mention that WCAG is all or nothing; to be compliant, you must meet all the criteria within a compliance level to qualify.

Please note: the information provided here on Portent.com is not legal advice. Please consult a legal authority for specific questions around compliance.


WCAG has two current versions. Version 2.0 is what is expected from nearly all government policies around accessibility. 2.1 expands on 2.0 by adding additional criteria for modern accessibility needs. The spec is also backward compatible; if a site complies with 2.1, it also complies with the previous version 2.0. Version 2.2 is expected sometime in 2021 and will bring some changes to the way criteria is ranked and grouped.

A, AA, and AAA

The three “A” levels of compliance for WCAG can be confusing. They do not refer to levels of quality; rather, they are a set of criteria. Generally, the levels break down like this:

  • A – Absolute minimum requirements. Usually simple, fundamental needs.
  • AA – Baseline. AA is the level that most government compliances require.
  • AAA – Enhanced or Alternate criteria.

And like WCAG versions, these levels are also backward compatible. If a website is AA compliant, it will have met all A and AA criteria in the spec as well.

And, we’ll say it again: WCAG is all or nothing. For example, in order to be AA compliant, your site must meet all AA criteria, not just a certain percentage.

Bronze, Silver, Gold

While not fully decided on, the expectation is that rankings for criteria in WCAG 2.2 will change rather dramatically and for the better. The ranking system will move from A ranks to a quality score of Bronze, Silver, and Gold, and this system change should make it easier to set goals around compliance. To transition from the previous version, sites that meet WCAG 2.1 AA compliance will retain that compliance level in the bronze tier. Single A level compliance will drop off, and AAA compliance will be considered Silver level.

Why is Creating Accessible Web Content Important?

Accessibility on the web is not only about the blind or the deaf. Accessibility is about cognition, motor skills, differences in vision, and varying forms of input.

The first reason for accessible content is easy: to maintain an internet full of resources and services that are available to the broadest range of people, regardless of their methods of access. The second reason: more business. Maintaining an accessible website or application means the widest range of customers can get what they want from your brand.

To put it bluntly, 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. report being impacted by a disability. A poorly accessible site could be keeping close to 30 percent of America away from your products and services.

And a final reason: legal trouble. In 2019 two high-profile web accessibility suits took place: one against Beyonce.com and the other, Domino’s Pizza. While the Beyoncé case appears to have stalled, Domino’s lost. Don’t be Domino’s.

There are also side benefits to keeping accessibility on a site strong. Technical SEO, Copywriting, User experience, and user conversion concerns overlap with accessibility needs.

Components of Accessible Web Design


On the technical SEO side, search engines like solid structure and markup in the form of properly organized headers, correct semantics for markup, unique link text, and properly deployed ALT text on images.

Content is a quiet hero of accessibility. Complex text, lingo, acronyms, and non-inclusive language have an impact on how customers perceive your business, whether on your site or app, or in your social campaigns and ads. Every customer has a different vocabulary, reading ability, and personal background, which all need to be taken into consideration.

When it comes to CRO, forms and calls to action are essential for placing orders, submitting requests for quotes, or subscribing to newsletters and email lists. The whole user experience flow—end to end—has to be accessible or conversion rates suffer.

Lastly, the foundation holding everything else up is strong design and development. Design and development teams have to work hand in hand to ensure the fundamentals are in place to make a web presence open to all.

Where to Start With Web Accessibility

While tackling the subject of web accessibility may seem daunting, there are some things you can do that will have an immediate impact, and help you get started creating an accessible experience for everyone interacting with your brand. Below are some easy, high-level things you can start with today to remove some common accessibility barriers from your web page.

  • Headers. Headers should suggest the hierarchy of sections or areas of content, and not be used to meet aesthetic ends.
  • Color contrast. Color is an important part of design, of a brand, and of accessibility. Not all colors play well together, and it’s important that your color schemes consider people who do not experience color in a “normal” way.
  • Font readability. Text needs to be easily seen against its background, and it needs to be legible when zoomed upto 200% (according to WCAG guidelines).
  • ALT text. The primary function of ALT text is to supply context for users that cannot view images that inform or instruct the content around them.
  • Form fields. Forms are a vital part of information gathering. They need to be clear, concise, and communicate their needs in order to function. An inaccessible form could exclude groups of users who rely on assistive technology to access services, which is a significant legal concern.
  • Descriptive links. Read More, Click Here, Learn More… these generic links don’t clearly communicate the destination. Take the time and write clear, descriptive link text that tells your user where clicking will take them.
  • Inclusive content/language. How you say things holds equal weight to what you say. Certain words, phrases, or expressions can isolate, intimidate, and aggravate users. Write copy that is neutral, accurate, and references groups with the terms they identify with.
  • Videos. Video has some specific needs when it comes to accessibility compliance. A video needs to supply closed captions for users who cannot hear. Flashes need to be limited to three per second for photosensitive viewers. And a video should not start playing on its own, unless a user opts into that.

Additionally, W3C provides a list of web accessibility evaluation tools that can help you determine if your web content meets current accessibility guidelines.

Additional Resources

We’ve assembled a list of additional resources if you want to dive further into accessibility rules and requirements:

  • If your business is required to be 508 compliant, this site lists resources for services and tools to test for compliance.
  • WebAim is an organization focused on training and certification for web accessibility. They also publish a lot of useful research around screen reader usage and accessibility trends.
  • Here is the full WCAG 2.1 standard drafted by the W3C.
  • ARIA is great for making custom web interfaces accessible. However, it must be used cautiously as mistakes can create critical issues. Here is a useful introduction to ARIA and how it’s used.
  • The Government site for the Americans with Disabilities Act outlines the ADA law, and provides records for ADA cases and their outcomes.
  • Deque developed the current go-to accessibility scanner for browsers. In addition to the browser extension, they also offer training and some articles on the topic of accessibility.

What’s Next?

As digital connectivity only continues to grow, so does the need for making the web accessible to everyone. The suggestions provided here are far from exhaustive, but they are a great place to start if you’re interested in making your website and digital content more accessible to your users.

Check out some of our additional information below on web accessibility, and how to make it a standard part of your digital marketing strategy.

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