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How can you be sure that your website really is accessible, if you don’t test it with a range of ‘real’ users, including people with disabilities?

It’s possible to build a website that technically meets the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and yet is inaccessible to some users.

If that statement comes as a surprise to you, read what the W3C has to say about its layers of guidance. If you find it disheartening, don’t fear. WCAG is a crucial part of the process of making a website accessible, but it should be part of a broader effort.

WCAG is a toolkit

It focuses on four key design principles – Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust – to make web content more accessible. The intent of focusing on principles, rather than technology, is to emphasise the need to think about the different ways that people interact with content.

To help us apply these principles in practice, they are broken down into guidelines (providing basic goals to aim for), success criteria (to determine whether those goals have been met), and techniques (to help people reach those goals).

This structure allows us to consistently validate whether or not our work conforms to the WCAG principles, using a combination of automated checks with tools such as axe, ARC Toolkit and WAVE, and manual testing with guidance from Accessibility Insights, for example.

Excellent – we have taken a first step towards improving accessibility!

The danger is in thinking that, with these items ticked off, we can now proclaim our website to be fully accessible. Our validation can only be as good as the understanding that we bring with us. Even with the best of intentions, we may lack the skills, knowledge, and experience to appropriately validate compliance.

People are diverse

The World Health Organisation estimates that 15% of the global population lives with some form of disability. Here in the UK, 19% of working-age adults and 46% of pension-age adults are disabled. That’s a lot of people.

Let’s not lose sight of the people behind those percentages. Let’s think beyond wheelchairs and screen readers, and remember that disabilities are complicated. Not all disabilities are visible, not all disabilities are static, and disabilities are not always singular.

The social model of disability challenges the perception of disability as a problem within a person’s body that requires some form of intervention or treatment. Instead, disability is reframed as a mismatch between a person and their social environment. In other words, it’s systemic barriers, attitudes and exclusion within society that cause the negative impacts of disability.

While we may good heartedly focus on conforming to WCAG success criteria in order to comply with legal requirements, this will not result in the absence of barriers. But we can find those barriers when we test with real people.

Working with a user testing partner

Here at Studio 24 we are a friendly and hardworking bunch of people, who care deeply about the work that we do and want to make digital experiences that are as user-friendly as possible. That said, it’s also fair to say that we are, at time of writing, a fairly typical web agency in terms of the makeup of our team.

We have talented designers, developers and project managers, but our lived experiences are not fully representative of broader society. In acknowledging this we can find ways to improve our understanding and knowledge so we can better the work that we do.

That’s why collaborating with testing partners is so important.

Studio 24 has worked with the Digital Accessibility Centre (DAC) on projects for HS2 and W3C. They employ a team of accessibility specialists, including people with disabilities and people who use assistive technologies. Their expertise is a key extension to our in-studio skills, giving us a more complete understanding of how accessible our work really is and how to address potential barriers.

Going further

I have mentioned two clients with whom we have collaborated with DAC. HS2 falls under The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018, and so has to meet compliance regulations. W3C is the organisation responsible for WCAG, so it’s natural that they should want their website to be thoroughly vetted.

In my experience, less attention is paid to accessibility outside of the public sector and non-profit organisations. I want to see private sector companies doing more to improve accessibility. After all, an inaccessible website is locking out upwards of 20% of potential customers. Setting that aside, being accessible is ultimately about showing respect and consideration for your fellow human beings. We should all be doing more of that!

And we can go further with our efforts by including user research and testing earlier in our processes, reviewing concepts, designs and wireframes, to check that we are not introducing barriers along the way – inadvertently or otherwise.