With so many different software accessibility standards available and almost every platform using their own standards, you may be wondering which standard is the most useful for you.
There is no easy answer. Some standards offer general guidance, while others may be useful for more specific work. The confusion, at least in America, often comes from a lack of guidance in the law. That is changing, but changes to the law will never keep pace with changes to technology.
Here are the standards we use in our own projects.
WCAG 2.1 Standards
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are designed to improve the accessibility of the web and enable more people to benefit from online technologies. These standards help developers make important decisions regarding features.
WCAG is the most popular standard in the United States, but it is not a legal mandate.
Four principles guide WCAG. According to these principles, information should be:
- Perceivable: Text alternatives should be available along with adaptable color schemes and other features that increase the perceptibility of information.
- Operable: Keyboard accessibility, adjustable timing, and functionality protecting navigation such as timing adjustments that prevent elements from expiring before users are able to act.
- Understandable: Elements should be predictable, consistent, readable, and helpful to users looking for assistance with inputting information.
- Robust: Keeping elements compatible with current and future user needs improves the usefulness of technology.
These standards are more rigorous than previous iterations of WCAG.
US Department of Education Standards
The US Department of Education encourages technology companies and other organizations to develop their websites and software according to a series of basic accessibility standards set by the Department. These standards pull heavily from Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.
These functional requirements serve as guides for developers, but they are fairly antiquated by modern standards – adhering to the latest WCAG standards will meet, or exceed, the following requirements. These are grouped according to the specific area of development they address.
Websites and online applications are required to provide certain functions and features for users, such as:
- Create web pages so that non-text, text, and color elements aren’t the only option for interaction – there should be alternatives available.
- Data tables, markups, and other important information should be clearly conveyed and labeled.
- Pages should be designed to work with screen readers.
- Electronic forms and other interactive features should be compatible with accessibility tools.
- Timed responses, if required, will show a timer so users aren’t surprised. Opportunities for getting more time will be available.
With so many of us dependent on telecommunications in our everyday lives, it makes sense to prioritize telecommunications accessibility. Here are a core requirements from the Department of Education. These guidelines are very general, almost too broad to be useful but they give a clear starting point for telecommunication accessibility.
- Controls should be adaptable to different physical and tactile abilities.
- Adjustable volumes have additional potential volume so users can increase sound levels to their own comfort levels.
- If the technology might interfere with assistive devices such as hearing aids, any interference should be minimized.
Software and Operating Systems
There are also software and operating systems requirements:
- Software should work with and not change or disrupt accessibility features and design preferences.
- Accessibility technologies that users may be leveraging to navigate the program should be available and not interfered with.
- Flashing elements shouldn’t be excessive.
- Onscreen, defined focus areas where user input is happening should be highlighted and compatible with accessible technologies. For instance, a text field that’s currently selected.
Some states, regions, and even cities have their own accessibility standards. In Canada, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) is a popular accessibility standard. The AODA is made up of five distinct standards:
- Customer Service Standard
- Information and Communication Standard
- Employment Standard
- Transportation Standard
- Design of Public Spaces Standard
Each of these areas provides distinct definitions and best practices for accessibility. It is worth noting that the AODA uses the WCAG as the backbone for legal compliance.
For some organizations and applications, this is an easy decision – government or internal corporate requirements may dictate which standard you use. If you’re reading this, however, it’s very possible you don’t have a required standard, and it’s up to you which one to implement. In that case, you may have other considerations.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Which standard does my industry prefer? If you’re in a particular industry, there may be a preferred standard. For instance, a school may choose to follow the Department of Education standards even if they aren’t specifically mandated.
- What do the users need? Based on what you know about the people using your technology, there may be specific benefits to choosing one standard over another. You may, for instance, have a website that’s used by an audience with a lot of users who prefer visual support features. Review several standards and find one with strict visual requirements.
- Which standard fits our resources and budget? There are other considerations, too. It’s prudent to choose a standard that supports the best possible user experience while also fitting your development budget.
- Which standard do we have expertise in? Your organization’s internal expertise on accessibility may guide your standards choices, too. Your partnerships with other companies and organizations may also influence your accessibility decisions.
- Which technical and design considerations apply? Finally, you likely also have development considerations. Not every part of every standard may be realistic for your application.
It’s worthwhile to compare different standards or seek out examples of accessible technology you wish to emulate. From there, you may want to consider the potential benefits and drawbacks of each one for your particular software.