Designing for everyone: the critical importance of accessible web design | Square Eye

Designing for everyone: the critical importance of accessible web design

14 May 2024

It is widely accepted that websites are as important as an organisation’s bricks-and-mortar premises, if not more so. They serve as a gateway to information, products, and services, as well as a thoroughly convenient out-of-hours stand-in. However, not everyone can access and use websites with the same ease. This is where accessible website design comes into play, ensuring that everyone, regardless of their abilities or disabilities, can enjoy a productive and satisfying online experience.

So why isn’t accessible website design top of every web design project brief? You wouldn’t refuse to talk to a blind client in a face-to-face meeting, so why wouldn’t you do everything in your power to ensure a screen reader can work effectively on your website? In this blog post, we’ll explore the numerous benefits of accessible website design and why it should be a priority for every website owner and developer.

How many people are affected by accessibility issues?

Or, to put it another way, what does the ‘accessibility market’ look like? And who does it comprise?

  • 24% of the UK population as a whole, some 16 million people, have ability impairments. Source: House of Commons Library, Research Briefing
  • 18.5% of the UK population, over 12 million people, are 65 and over; in this age group, the incidence of disability increases to 45%, in part, due to age-related conditions. Source: ONS
  • 4.5% of the UK population are colour blind. The majority of these people are men. Source: ColourBlindAwareness.org
  • 10% of the UK population have dyslexia. Source: gov.uk
  • 62% of people over the age of 40 have presbyopia (and therefore need reading glasses) and the percentage continues to increase with age. Source: Community Eye Health Journal
  • There are over 2 million people living with sight loss in the UK, 340,000 are registered as blind or partially sighted. Source: RNIB

What is accessible web design?

There are many tactics involved in making a website fully accessible, so that it can be easily used by people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities.  These can include:  the use of high contrast colour palettes;  providing properly formatted text alternatives for any non-text content like imagery and video;  subtitles and transcripts for audio and video content;  the ability to navigate a website without use of a mouse;  helpful explanations for people using speech readers; and so on.

You may assume that your website just “should be accessible” when it is first created, but there are many reasons why it may not be.  The work involved in meeting the most stringent accessibility criteria can be expensive, and some clients feel it’s not a priority for their target audience.  Sticking to high contrast colour palettes may not fit with your existing brand, or give you the design style you prefer.   A website like gov.uk is highly optimised for accessibility but won’t win any creative design awards.  And a commitment to accessibility may mean you have to forgo use of certain third-party plugins that would add very useful features to your website, but are non-compliant.  So there is often compromise involved.

Example gov.uk website

What are the benefits of accessible web design?

Inclusivity for all

One of the most significant advantages of accessible website design is inclusivity. By making your website accessible, you help open the digital world to a broader audience. People with disabilities, such as visual, auditory, motor, or cognitive impairments, can browse, interact, and engage with your content. This inclusivity not only benefits users but also extends your reach, potentially increasing your website’s traffic and engagement.

Enhanced user experience

Accessible design isn’t just about complying with regulations; it’s about creating a better user experience for everyone. When you prioritize accessibility, you simplify navigation, improve readability, and ensure that multimedia content is perceivable to all users. This results in a more user-friendly and enjoyable experience, which can lead to longer site visits, lower bounce rates, and increased customer satisfaction.

Better SEO

Search engine optimisation (SEO) is crucial for a website’s visibility. Interestingly, many accessibility practices align with SEO best practices. For instance, using descriptive alt text for images, providing clear and concise headings, and organizing content logically can improve your website’s search engine rankings. So, an accessible website isn’t just user-friendly but also search engine-friendly.

Legal compliance and risk mitigation

Web accessibility is not just a good practice; it’s also a legal requirement in many regions. Non-compliance can lead to lawsuits, fines, and damage to your reputation. By proactively implementing accessible design principles, you mitigate legal risks and demonstrate your commitment to inclusivity and equality.

Positive brand image

In a world where corporate social responsibility is increasingly important, having an accessible website sends a powerful message about your brand’s values. It shows that you care about diversity, inclusivity, and equal opportunities. Such a positive brand image can foster customer loyalty and attract socially conscious consumers.

Mobile compatibility

Accessible design often goes hand-in-hand with mobile-friendly design. As more users access websites from mobile devices, ensuring compatibility with these platforms is essential. By making your website accessible, you’re also likely making it more mobile-friendly, improving the experience for a significant portion of your audience.

Increased conversion rates

When users can easily access and navigate your website, they’re more likely to complete desired actions, such as requesting meetings and filling out forms. Accessible design streamlines these processes, reducing barriers and ultimately boosting conversion rates.

Future-proofing your website

Technology evolves rapidly, and so do web design trends and standards. By incorporating accessibility into your website design as soon as possible, you future-proof your site. This means fewer costly redesigns down the road as you adapt to new accessibility guidelines and user expectations.

EU law

Despite Brexit, organisations in the UK are still affected by EU legislation if we want to do business with EU member states. The European Accessibility Act (EAA) was passed in 2019 and will come into effect on 28th June 2025. Member states are currently implementing their own laws and detailed regulations. Examples of two versions:

Key facts about the changes to EU law from 28th June 2025

  • The legislation replaces the previous Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations and applies to both public sector bodies and private sector firms equally.
  • It applies to any business that wishes to trade in the EU (including legal and professional services), wherever they are based, as long as they employ at least 10 staff and turn over more than €2 million.
  • Penalties can include fines and prison sentences depending on the prosecuting country.

UK law

UK legislation currently affects public sector and private sector websites and web apps differently. (Websites & web apps include intranets, extranet and all other web-based interfaces, across any device).

  • Public sector
    • 23rd September 2018: digital accessibility regulations for public sector bodies came into effect. This was a consequence of the EU Web Accessibility Directive of 2016. To comply, organisations’ web apps must:
      • Meet the WCAG 2.2 AA accessibility standard (this standard was officially adopted in October 2023 and will not be assessed against until October 2024; until then, assessments will use WCAG 2.1).
      • Publish an accessibility statement that explains how accessible your website or web app is.
    • The 2018 accessibility regulations apply to:
      Central and local government organisations
      Some charities and NGOs that are predominantly government funded
  • Private sector
    • 1st October 2010: the Equality Act 2010 (often referred to as the Equalities Act 2010) came into effect.  The Act mandates that service providers, including private companies operating websites, must not discriminate against people with disabilities. It requires that service providers like website owners must make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled people.
  • There is little precedent of successful prosecution in this area. The RNIB has initiated two cases but both settled out of court.
  • British Standards code of practice for ensuring digital accessibility: BSI 8878.  While the Equality Act 2010 sets out the legal obligations for accessibility, BSI 8878 offers practical guidance on how to meet these obligations through a structured approach to integrating accessibility into web products.  Compliance with BSI 8878 is voluntary, but following its guidelines can help organisations demonstrate their commitment to accessibility and their efforts to comply with the Equality Act 2010. It serves as a benchmark for best practices in web accessibility and can be used to defend against claims of discrimination.

US law

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is an equal opportunities piece of legislation, it was first introduced in July 1990. It now governs website accessibility and specifies that any website targeted at public consumption must be readily accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities.

What level of accessibility compliance should we aim for?

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the international body concerned with digital accessibility standards. It publishes the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which have been iterated a few times;  WCAG 2.2 is the latest recommended web standard.

“WCAG provides three ‘conformance levels’. These are known as Levels A, AA and AAA. Each level has a series of checkpoints for accessibility – known as Priority 1, 2 and 3 checkpoints.

According to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), a website must satisfy Priority 1 (Level A), otherwise some users will find it impossible to access the website. If a website cannot satisfy the Priority 2 (Level AA) some users will find it difficult to access the website. Finally, a website may satisfy Priority 3 (Level AAA), otherwise some users will find it somewhat difficult to access the website.”

Source: Pinsent Masons

WCAG 3.0 is currently being drafted and commented on;  it is not expected to become a published standard for a few more years.

The WCAG 3.0 marks a complete overhaul of the guidelines, focusing on outcomes graded on a scale rather than the pass/fail set-up of the existing system. The conformance levels A, AA, AAA will be replaced by Bronze, Silver and Gold but they are not directly equivalent scales. As such new ratings should be date-stamped to show how relevant the efforts are.

All that said, a current WCAG 2.2 AA standard is said to be aligned with the new WCAG 3.0 Bronze level. So, it makes sense for WCAG 2.2 AA compliance to be the goal for your website.

What action can we take?

There is a lot involved in meeting and maintaining website accessibility compliance over time, but the initial steps are easy and shouldn’t be a barrier.  Some you can take yourselves, while others may require help from your agency partners or from specialist accessibility consultants.

1. Automated testing

There are a number of automated tools that can be used to flag the technical issues that make websites inaccessible and potentially problematic for assistive technology e.g. screen readers to work with.

Automated testing is never enough in isolation, so it is important to ensure that manual testing is employed alongside it.

2. Keyboard testing

This crucial aspect of website accessibility testing ensures users can navigate and use a website using only their keyboard. It’s important because many users with physical, visual, or motor impairments may not be able to use a mouse, and instead rely on a keyboard or other input devices that mimic keyboard functionality.

3. Screen reader testing

This component is focused on ensuring that a website is usable by people who are blind or have significant visual impairments. Screen readers are software applications that read out text on a screen to a user; they are particularly crucial for navigating and interpreting websites without visual cues.

4. User testing

Investing in real-life user testing is always the best way to fully ensure that every eventuality has been considered.

Overlay tools: pros & cons

Overlay tools like ReciteMe are plug-and-play solutions for your website to offer on-page assistance to your users.  Often they appear in the form of a toolbar with a selection of solutions designed to assist a variety of specific accessibility needs.

Some tools have a bad reputation because they purport to resolve accessibility issues. There are a number of issues with such a claim:

  • No automated tool can identify all the issues therefore they cannot resolve them. Human testing is necessary to identify some accessibility issues. E.g. being able to tab through a website; ensuring a screen reader makes sense.
  • The overlay solution can only ever be as effective as the underlying code and content they are interacting with. If elements on the page are tagged incorrectly or images aren’t labelled correctly, the tools will reveal that.
  • Some tools can actually interfere with how a person who usually uses assistive technology will access a website, so in fact, becomes a barrier to use rather than an advantage.
  • It can give the website owner a false sense of security since they believe they have done all they need to do to ensure their website is accessible when it isn’t.
  • Accessibility is one of the four pillars of Google’s Core Web Vitals metrics, so we know it must contribute to how Google interprets the value of a website and where a site will rank. If these issues are masked by overlay tools and not addressed, then the website will be at a disadvantage.

Overlay tools will work best if:

  • The website is built properly and well-maintained.
  • All new content is formatted and tagged correctly.
  • Any new plugins are reviewed for impact on the website.
  • All link anchors are unique and inform the user of what is to be expected.
  • The site is tested regularly, to catch any issues that slip through the net.

In conclusion…

Accessible website design is not only a moral imperative but also a smart business decision. It brings numerous benefits, from expanding your audience and improving user experience to enhancing SEO and reducing legal risks. Moreover, it aligns with a more inclusive and socially responsible approach to digital presence. So, whether you’re designing a new website or improving an existing one, accessibility should be a top priority. It’s a win-win situation where everyone benefits, and that’s something every website owner should aspire to achieve.

How can Square Eye help?

We offer a 60-minute website accessibility audit, which includes:

  • An automated scan using leading paid-for tools at our disposal
  • Analysis of the output
  • A manual review of key forms and embedded media (e.g. podcasts and videos)
  • Sharing an overview of the issues raised and recommendations for improvements, with tasks assigned to client, content editors, designers or developers as appropriate
  • Updating your accessibility policy with details of the audit undertaken

If you’d like us to, we can also engage in manual keyboard and screen reader testing, and/or arrange formal user testing on your behalf.  But we’d suggest starting with the automated scan and resolution of any issues it highlights in the first instance.

Next steps

If you’d like us to conduct an accessibility audit on your site, email [email protected].

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