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Home » Celebrating 25 Years of WCAG Accessibility: A Reflection

Celebrating 25 Years of WCAG Accessibility: A Reflection

on May 23, 2024 at 9:52am |Updated on May 23, 2024 at 9:52am A birthday cake with the words 'Happy 25th Birthday WCAG 1.0' written on it. The cake has candles that are burnt down, bent and broken

What is WCAG Accessibility?

Twenty-five years ago, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) introduced the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0. These guidelines were established with the clear intention of helping web designers create more accessible websites. To quote directly from their abstract:

“The primary goal of these guidelines is to promote accessibility. However, following them will also make Web content more available to all users, whatever user agent they are using (e.g., desktop browser, voice browser, mobile phone, automobile-based personal computer, etc.) or constraints they may be operating under (e.g., noisy surroundings, under- or over-illuminated rooms, in a hands-free environment, etc.). Following these guidelines will also help people find information on the Web more quickly. These guidelines do not discourage content developers from using images, video, etc., but rather explain how to make multimedia content more accessible to a wide audience.”

This statement encapsulates the essence of WCAG 1.0 perfectly: how to make your website more accessible and inclusive for everyone.

Where are we now?

Despite this, a quarter of a century later, a staggering 95.9% of the top 1 million websites still fail to meet basic accessibility standards. This raises a critical question: why?

It is not that web designers and developers do not care about accessibility. On the contrary, many are passionate about creating inclusive digital experiences. However, there are myriad reasons why accessibility remains an elusive goal for so many. The fast-paced evolution of web technologies, a lack of awareness or understanding of accessibility principles, and the misconception that accessibility is too costly or complex are just a few of the factors contributing to this issue.

I believe, however, that we cannot escape the sad fact that these guidelines have had so little impact on the vast majority of websites being built today. To illustrate this, let me share a personal story.

Lived Experience

Over 30 years ago, I was involved in a horrendous car crash that resulted in life-changing injuries for all of us involved. This experience profoundly altered my perspective. Had this event not occurred, I might have been in the same position as many others: recognising that web accessibility is important but not fully grasping the urgency or taking concrete action. We would not have seen the need, not really.

The turning point for me came when I started running live audits with my team of disabled testers. We record each session, capturing the experience in all its raw, unfiltered reality. These testers are not doing anything extraordinary; they are simply trying to use the website like anyone else might. It is through their lived experiences that the need for accessible design becomes starkly apparent.

One such session stands out in my memory. We were testing an online retail site. Our tester, who is visually impaired, struggled to navigate the site using a screen reader. Links were not properly labelled, images lacked alt text, and the checkout process was a labyrinth of inaccessible forms. It was a frustrating experience that would have driven most users to abandon their purchase. Yet, this is a common scenario faced by millions of people with disabilities every day.

It is their lived experience that explains the need for accessibility. Those of us working in website accessibility are not pointing fingers or trying to make anyone feel bad. Our goal is to encourage best practices and to make the web a more accessible place for everyone.

Web accessibility is not just a technical issue; it is a human issue. When websites are designed without considering accessibility, we inadvertently exclude a significant portion of the population. This exclusion is not just unfair; it is also bad for business. Accessible websites reach a broader audience, improve user satisfaction, and can even enhance SEO performance.

Moreover, WCAG accessibility benefits everyone, not just those with disabilities. For example, captioned videos are useful in noisy environments or when watching content without sound. Similarly, websites that are easy to navigate with a keyboard benefit users with temporary injuries, those using mobile devices, and even power users who prefer keyboard shortcuts.

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of WCAG 1.0, it is a moment for reflection and renewed commitment. The progress we have made in some areas is commendable, but there is still much work to be done. We must continue to raise awareness, provide education, and advocate for the importance of accessibility in web design.

In conclusion, happy birthday, WCAG. Your guidelines have paved the way for a more inclusive web, but our journey is far from over. Let us honour this milestone by redoubling our efforts to ensure that the web is accessible to all, now and in the future.

Thank you for reading, and here’s to a more inclusive web for everyone.

If you would like to chat with us about the accessibility of your website, please do get in touch.