App & Web Accessibility: Standards, WCAG, Section 508, and Accessibility Audit
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App & Web Accessibility: Standards, WCAG, Section 508, and Accessibility Audit

13 min
Apr 26 2021
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Here at Exceed Team, we often hear from our clients that they need a website or mobile app to be 508 compliant. What they want is called web accessibility, but our clients aren’t sure how to make it happen or check the results. According to statistics, 1 out of 5 people in the United States alone has some kind of disability. How do you make your digital product accessible for them? How not lose valuable users and customers? In this article, we’ll tell you what it means to be ADA or 508 compliant, and what WCAG accessibility standards include. We’ll also shed some light on the process of an accessibility audit. Interested? Let’s dive in.

What is Website Accessibility & Universal Design

When designing any product or environment, you should consider all the facets – architecture and aesthetics, industry standards, cost and timeline, engineering, safety, eco-friendliness, and maybe some other things. However, specialists usually think of the average user. Why is this approach slightly outdated now? Imagine an item of clothing sewed for a person of average height and physique. How many real people will actually fit in it? Despite many inconveniences here and there, most of us will probably be able to wear this item of clothing. But for a lot of others, the size will be too big, or small, or loose, or tight. These people will never wear these clothes to go somewhere outside. The same applies to websites, mobile apps, and other digital products. We need to make them well-designed and diverse enough to fit each user, and this is when a conception of universal design comes to mind.
Universal design (UD) means "usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation". – Center for Universal Design (CUD) at North Carolina State University, United States
All people are diverse, and we don’t have to suffer from inconveniences trying to “fit into clothes” that aren’t right for us. We should be able to find our “size” and use it. When designers and developers apply the principles of universal design and increase application or website accessibility, the product meets the needs of a potential audience with a wide range of characteristics. For example, a smartphone should have an accessible size and interface: the key operating buttons being visible and available even when a user holds their device with one hand. There also should be voice control for users who aren’t able to use their hands, constantly (due to their disability) or in particular situations (carrying heavy bags or a baby stroller, having wet hands, and so on). “Universal design” is an American term that is widely used. In the UK and some other countries, you can also hear the term “inclusive design”. They mean the same principles of web accessibility for people with permanent or temporary disabilities or simply those who use their smartphones in inconvenient situations. Now let’s find out why it matters.

Why You Should Care About Web and App Accessibility

Is universal design really that important? Perhaps there is no real need for companies to invest in another version of the app or website design, as there may be not so many users to appreciate it.
Why you need website accessibility
Reasons to care about accessibility
Let’s look at some stats proving why any big organization should be motivated to apply the web accessibility standards:
  • 12% (960 million) of the world population is left-handed and need an alternative layout of action buttons;
  • 64 million people (1 out of 5) in the United States have a disability;
  • 3.4 million American people have active epilepsy;
  • 3 million Americans have some form of vision impairment that can’t be corrected;
  • 8.5% of European ancestry people are color blind, which means your app or website shouldn’t use just red and green for buttons;
  • 1 out of 20 people has significant ear loss.
What are some other reasons to think about website accessibility? Legal risk, for example. According to a statistic report by UsableNet, the number of accessibility complaints and lawsuits has risen dramatically over the recent years: 814 lawsuits in 2017 to 2285 in 2018. These lawsuits, related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), continued to rise in 2019-2021 as more and more people use E-commerce daily. According to the experts’ prognoses, any business can lose over $500,000 if it doesn’t address web accessibility issues. On the contrary, having a website or application with an inclusive (universal) design can build up your company’s reputation and increase potential market share. Statistics say that working-age people with disabilities (64 million in the US alone) have around $490 billion of after-tax income. In addition to all these facts, website accessibility often benefits people who have a full range of physical or mental abilities. Convenient layouts, right-sized elements, contrast colors, clear button icons and names, intuitive navigation processes, voice- or gesture-driven control, predictable updates, and many other features will make the overall experience more convenient for a wide range of users. The truth is, most of us have faced some kind of temporary disability at least once. For example, if you have a twisted or broken wrist, you’re no longer able to use a mouse for navigation; flickering images and bad color contrasts are unbearable for people with migraines. On the other hand, we all can benefit from universal design. When audio or video content on a website is captioned, it becomes accessible not only to users who are deaf or have hearing problems but also to those in noisy places without headphones or when the situation doesn’t allow listening. Despite the fact that universal design is vital for many people, there are still lots of misconceptions about web accessibility. Let’s debunk the most popular ones.

Common Myths about Accessibility

One of the enduring myths about the app and web accessibility is that it’s boring and incompatible with visual aesthetics. In reality, strong color contrast looks appealing and user-friendly. An experienced UX/UI designer doesn’t have to sacrifice anything to reach the goal. WCAG rules still allow using images, videos, or JavaScript plugins – you just ensure that your website’s content remains accessible if some users aren’t able or don’t want to use these things. That requires alternative text descriptions, captions, transcripts, accessible plugins, etc. Another common myth about website accessibility standards is that they’re complicated, time-consuming, and expensive in implementation. It originates from the idea that universal design requires some sort of unique technology or programming language. That isn’t true. Everything you need to do inclusive design is more thoughtful planning with attention to detail and a qualified designer who applies best practices. Yes, rebuilding an existing website or app entirely to make it accessible might be sometimes difficult and expensive, but such an investment will pay off in the long run. Another myth is that web accessibility is optional. This isn’t really correct because the inclusive design of a website, PDF document, or native mobile app is required by law in many countries and industries. And now, as we found out why exactly you should be aware of website accessibility and universal design, it’s time to talk about web accessibility standards and compliance with them.

WCAG & Section 508: How to Be Compliant

If you’ve already heard the terms “Section 508” or “WCAG” and wondered how they’re important for your business, you’re not alone. Let's discover what these terms mean.
Accessibility compliance with section 508 and wcag
The standards to be compliant with
Section 508 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first American legislation on equal access for people with disabilities. It has undergone a number of refreshes and still remains the number one federal law for organizations receiving governmental funding. What does it mean to be 508 compliant? There are three types of federal requirements:
  • Technology: coding, software, operating system, and other elements should be compatible with assistive technologies.
  • Function: you should create a usable system of action buttons, user paths, features, etc.
  • Support: alternative information and support documents should be used effectively by people with disabilities.
WCAG or the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are widely known among those who want to adopt the web accessibility standards. WCAG are aimed at making websites and content accessible to users who have disabilities or use alternative devices like mobile phones, tablets, smartphones, etc. WCAG accessibility recommendations are often called “success criteria” for a website or mobile app. The latest version (WCAG 2.0), published in 2008, deals with the following content:
  • HTML pages;
  • SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics);
  • Flash;
  • PDF documents;
  • Silverlight apps;
  • Mobile versions of websites.
What about newer technologies like software and native mobile apps? You can apply the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines to them as well. Both standards – Section 508 and WCAG – pursue the same goal of making electronic devices and digital information accessible to people who have any kind of disability (color blindness, hearing problems, physical disability, epilepsy, autism spectrum disorder, and so on) or special characteristics (left-handedness, for instance). These people should be able to use websites or mobile apps and have a user experience as great as others. What exactly does this explanation mean to your business? How do you find out if your organization should be 508 compliant? And if it should, how to meet Section 508 or WCAG accessibility standards? Section 508 applies to the federal sector organizations, such as:
  • Public higher education institutions;
  • Public K-12 schools;
  • Federally-funded non-profits;
  • Government agencies.
The private sector organizations are not subject to 508 compliance and can follow these regulations voluntarily. Generally, it’s up to private business owners to decide whether to make a website or app WCAG or 508 compliant. To help you a bit, we’ll post a list of entities that must comply with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) regulations. These organizations include:
  1. Banks;
  2. Lawyer and accountant offices;
  3. Healthcare providers;
  4. Social service centers;
  5. Public transport system;
  6. Inns, hotels, and motels;
  7. Restaurants and bars;
  8. Bakeries and groceries;
  9. Gyms;
  10. Schools.
Therefore, if your business belongs to one of these industries, it’s a good idea to test a website or mobile app accessibility. WCAG are just recommendations for companies and have no legal power. However, countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia have adopted WCAG accessibility rules and obliged governmental websites to follow them. To sum up, here are some general answers to Section 508 and WCAG accessibility questions.
  • If you are a federal agency, you must be 508 compliant.
  • If your business is US-based, check your website or mobile app for WCAG accessibility.
  • If you’re already compliant with Section 508 rules, you must also follow website accessibility standards from WCAG 2.0 to reach the Level AA conformance.
  • If your company is international or has lots of global partnerships, it’s worth researching specifics about web accessibility standards in each country you work with.
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Principles of Universal Design (UD)

As we already know, universal design is a type of user experience and user interface design that is made accessible for everyone. UD demands from UX/UI experts to see the bigger picture of the whole application or website and its subparts. A working group of researchers and practicing specialists from the US-based Center for Universal Design (CUD) has developed seven main principles. These web accessibility standards may be used as guidance in the process of designing any digital product, content, environment, etc.
Universal Design Principles Universal Design Examples
Equitable – use and marketability for people with diverse abilities. Strong color contrast without red/green combinations so that it’s perceivable to people who have color blindness.
Flexible – adaptivity or customization for individual abilities or preferences. Users can choose to read the text or listen to it.
Customizable dashboards.
Simple and intuitive – easy to understand, regardless of experience, language, concentration level, etc. Intuitive control buttons.
The screen and menus display only the most vital information for a user.
Perceptible information – the necessary information is communicated effectively to each user, regardless of sensory abilities or outside conditions. Captioned videos. Transcriptions, subtitles, etc.
Tolerance for error – minimizing hazards and negative consequences due to a user’s accidental actions or mistakes. Form Validation to reduce submission error.
Guidance when a user does something incorrectly.
Low physical effort – efficient and comfortable use, preventing fatigue. Keyboard shortcuts to minimalize mouse usage.
Short and simple user paths on mobile apps.
Size and space for approach and use – each user can reach action buttons and manipulate the device regardless of their mobility, body size, left- or right-handedness, or posture. Mobile screens have a suitable size and the area for action buttons so that you could use one hand.
Web app design that considers the Target Area of a corresponding website.
Here is a checklist for you to remember about the critical components of application or website accessibility.
Universal design principles
UD principles
In order to reach application or website accessibility, it’s crucial to perceive universal design as a process with the following steps.
  1. The product – identify the product (website, mobile app, etc.) for which you need universal design.
  2. The users – describe your product’s audience with their diverse characteristics (age, gender, race and ethnicity, native language, abilities to see, hear, read, communicate, manage objects, etc.).
  3. The feedback – during the development stages, test the product’s usability and include people with diverse characteristics.
  4. Guidelines and standards – select WCAG accessibility recommendations or create new guidelines for your product, following the principles of universal design.
  5. Best practices – apply the chosen standards of universal design to the overall conception and to each subpart of the website or mobile application.
  6. Accommodations – address requests from individuals who need additional assistive technology (e.g., Braille display) to use the application or website.
  7. Training and support – create and deliver ongoing training to your staff members and provide technical support.
  8. Periodic evaluations – conduct web accessibility testing often to check if the product still follows the universal design principles.
Besides being perceivable, understandable, and operable, UD should also remain scalable and robust. For example, lots of mobile apps for iOS and Android are compatible with current assistive technologies (voice help, screen reader, filters, magnifier, etc.) and prepared for upgrades in the future. Let’s look closer at some examples of website accessibility in modern applications.

Examples of Universal Design from iOS & Android Apps

When it comes to web accessibility standards, you can find lots of tools on different platforms. Designers and developers can use a wide range of techniques to make an app usable for everyone, despite health conditions or any other circumstances.
Universal design examples in androis and ios apps
UD features on different platforms
Look at examples of Universal Design from iOS apps:
  1. Voice over or Text-to-speech – this function describes everything that’s happening on the screen;
  2. Voice over + Braille – translates a description to Braille display;
  3. Audio content – you hear the text read aloud, from emails to anything you touch;
  4. Making text or any object larger;
  5. Making text bold;
  6. Customizing colors in a comfortable way for you;
  7. Filters and color inversion for people with color blindness;
  8. Slowing down moving objects – for people with epilepsy;
  9. Dark theme not only reduces power usage but also makes reading comfortable;
  10. Speech-to-text – iOS devices know 30 languages;
  11. Quick action buttons;
  12. Voice assistants (Siri).
As to Android apps, they provide two accessibility tools:
  1. Voice over;
  2. Operating a smartphone with one hand.
How do you make sure that your product meets web accessibility standards like Section 508 or WCAG? You need to find a technology partner to conduct all necessary audits and testing. We’ll briefly tell you about the procedure.

Accessibility Audit

What is an accessibility audit? It’s a complex of tests, both automated and manual, done by specialists using assistive technologies. As we already know, web accessibility can apply to digital content and interfaces – for example, text documents, video, audio, webpages, websites, desktop software, or native mobile apps, voice assistants, smartphones, ATMs, kiosks, and some other devices. Anything that’s digital can go through web accessibility testing. A common starting place is a website. You need to determine several combinations for the audit:
  • browsers;
  • assistive technology;
  • OS (operating systems);
It’s also crucial to wisely choose pages and screens for the accessibility audit. If it’s your first time, you might want to test every corner of your product to get the full picture. However, this decision won’t give the best ROI. Instead, start with accessibility testing of your website’s highest traffic pages, key entry points, and core user paths. For example, one of the most important user paths for an online store is adding an item to the cart and checking out. If you carry out an accessibility audit in your crucial functionality or content, it will be much easier to fix any issues and increase the usability for all visitors and customers. What types of web accessibility testing are there? Let’s find out.
Accessibility audits
Types of accessibility testing
  1. Risk audit – helps find critical blockers to web and app accessibility. Recommendations are not included.
  2. Detailed accessibility audit – automated and manual testing according to standards chosen by a client, like Section 508, WCAG, etc. This audit provides remediation recommendations for products, content, or technologies.
  3. UX & UI design audit – testing comprehensive design aimed to follow accessibility requirements.
  4. Usability testing – reveals if the design is usable as well as accessible.
  5. Screen reader acceptance testing – it’s a type of accessibility audit for assistive technology, browsers, OS, and their combinations.
  6. Validation audit – performed on websites, native apps, and digital content previously tested for accessibility. It helps reveal new weak points or confirm everything is still alright.
  7. Level-of-effort (LOE) audit – helps estimate the scale and cost of web accessibility remediation. The report counts pages to fix and problems on them.
  8. Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) – required for procurement when selling web-based software to the US Federal Government under Section 508.
Accessibility audits must be conducted by experts in digital testing, assistive technology, and web accessibility standards.

Talking to Developers

When you approach a web development company to create an accessible product, it’s important to be prepared for some critical questions about your project requirements.
  1. Which standards do you want to adopt (Section 508, WCAG)?
  2. What is your desired conformance level (A, AA, AAA)?
  3. Are there any international accessibility guidelines that your product must follow?
  4. Are there any additional requirements for your product’s accessibility?
  5. What kind of assessment report do you need (automatically generated or written by a specialist)?
  6. Who should fix the found issues (your company, the development company, both)?
  7. Do you need a compliance certificate?
  8. Does your staff require training in web accessibility and compliance?
Well-thought answers should give the developers enough information to get a clearer idea of how they can best assist you.
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Conclusion

Accessibility for content, software, and interfaces is a critical issue nowadays. It affects not just people with disabilities but every one of us. This is the main reason why you should think about your product's accessibility today. When do you start with it? An accessibility audit is a good first step to the greatest quality of services. When choosing a technology partner, it’s important to learn the basic information and ask the right questions. Interested to find out more about universal design and accessibility testing? Feel free to contact Exceed Team.
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