What is website accessibility?

A short history of website accessibility, what it is and what's coming up

We talk a lot internally about how we make websites accessible, or more accessible, but then website development is kind of our thing. 

It feels like this discussion hasn’t yet gone mainstream, certainly not in the same way that discussion about SEO has. 

We get lots of questions from clients and requirements for SEO work in briefs but so far accessibility isn’t being talked about in the same way.

There are a lot of changes coming up in this field though and an understanding of what this means is vital. So, we thought we’d take a look back at the history of accessibility in the online world and then set out the changes coming through. 

First off, what do we mean by accessibility when it comes to websites?

In the same way that there are certain adjustments that are sometimes required to make physical places accessible to people with certain disabilities; there are particular features or issues with websites, either in design or functionality that, if unaddressed, can make a website inaccessible.

For example, not providing alternative text ‘alt text’ on images or bad keyboard accessibility. 

There is comprehensive guidance available which sets out all the standards which need to be met in order to achieve accessibility and we’re going to be exploring this in more detail in future articles. 

Before we do so – what’s being going on in this area to date? And, what more still needs to be done? 

Website accessibility: how we got here

Back in the day (pre 2000)

Pre 2000, before the days of Facebook and when Google was only a baby, there was little by way of formal guidelines for website accessibility or legislation that had to be abided by. 

In 1998 however, two lawsuits were filed against two big names in the US – Taco Bell and Blockbuster – for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by having inaccessible websites. Neither case went to court, but they helped raise awareness of the need for accessible websites and laid the groundwork for future legal action.

The days of formal guidance (post 2000)

In 2002, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0 were released by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). WCAG 1.0 consisted of 14 guidelines that covered a range of accessibility issues like content structure, navigation, and multimedia captions and audio descriptions. These guidelines formed the basis for WCAG 2.0, which was released in 2008 and is still widely used.

In 2010, WCAG 2.0 was updated with a new set of guidelines known as WCAG 2.1. WCAG 2.1 includes four new success criteria that cover issues like low vision , lack of color perception, and limited mobility. In 2018, WCAG 2.1 became an official W3C Recommendation, which means that it is now recognised as an international standard for web accessibility.

The situation now

In the UK, the accessibility regulations came into force for public sector bodies on 23 September 2018. Under these regulations a website (including your intranet) or mobile app must be made accessible by making it ‘perceivable, operable, understandable and robust’. There is also a need for an accessibility statement on the website.

This applies to local and central government organisations as well as some charities (if financed by public funding, provide services that are essential to the public or aimed at disabled people).

Schools though are mainly exempt, except for the content people need to be able to access in order to access the service being provided. 

The full name of the accessibility regulations is the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018. And they build on existing obligations to people who have a disability under the Equality Act 2010 (or the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland).

The level an organisation covered by the regulations has to reach is WCAG 2.1 AA. However, there are circumstances whereby an organisation covered by the regulations doesn’t have to meet the full standard, eg. if the impact of compliance would be too much to cope with. 

How well have organisations been complying? 

The Central Digital and Data Office’s last accessibility monitoring report, published December 2021, found (under their simplified testing method): no accessibility issues for 8 websites, of which 5 had compliant accessibility statements. Approximately half of the websites tested had less than 5 issues, 75% of sites had less than 9 issues, and they found at most 26 issues on one site. 

The total number of issues found in each detailed test ranged from 15 to 151. The average number of issues per test was 52.

And what about private sector organisations?

While private sector companies do not need to comply with the same regulations in the same way they still need to have accessible websites so as not to fall foul of the Equality Act 2010 which states that UK goods and service providers cannot discriminate against disabled people.

What’s coming up next?

The next big thing will be the release of WCAG 2.2. which is set to be published in Q3 of 2023. What’s different? The 2.0 and 2.1 success criteria are exactly the same in 2.2 except for Parsing which is obsolete and so has been removed. What’s different are the 9 additional success criteria, click here for more information on the detail of the success criteria

It should be noted that WCAG 3 is in draft but is years away from being finalised.