Introduction to accessibility standards

In this article we are discussing standards and why it matters. The aim of this article is to break down 2 most important standards for accessibility, and answer the following questions

  • what is the standard?
  • Why standards matter?
  • Why standards and accessibility are particularly important?

The aim is to introduce you to those standards, and make you aware of procedures and requirements that are essential for accessible design that works for blind or visually impaired individuals. The goal is to educate, and give you enough information, so if you ever decide to be accessibility advocate for yourself or for the organization, you have some knowledge to dig in further.

the standards we are going to explain are defined for the Web only, however the requirements and guidelines can be applied to any platform or service. Native applications at this moment as far as we are aware, do not have a clear standard for accessibility. Local software applications have guidelines that are based on other accessibility standards, and that is how accessibility is implemented in the applications that are run natively on the device.

1 thing that is important to know is that is a big difference between guidelines and standards. Guidelines are recommendations that can be followed or not, whereas standards are strict guidelines that have the necessity to be followed…

The major building block of the web is based on one language to begin with which is great for accessibility, where as software frameworks that are used in developing native applications has much bigger variety of implementations to choose from. The availability and choice of different frameworks can cause accessibility issues before development even begins.

As mentioned in previous articles, if the chosen framework for interface development is not accessible by default, there is nothing the developer can do to fix the issues that arise after the product is developed. That said, by simply knowing even the small amount of information about accessibility and usability issues from blind or visually impaired individuals’ perspective makes it possible to avoid the big accessibility disaster…

What is standard

the purpose of the standard is to clearly define requirements and procedures to comply to achieve satisfactory result, that may be in software, hardware or actual processes themselves.

The standards do matter, because they offer consistency and thus allows to get the output that we expect to get. Another way to look at it is basically: standards are rules that are described in comprehensive manner, with the goal to describe as much as possible and as clearly as possible.

When we are talking about accessibility standards in particular, we want them to be as clear and precise as possible, furthermore we want many companies to implement such standards, otherwise there is no reason to have them if the implementation is lacking behind.

2 most important standards that blind and visually impaired individuals should be aware of are WCAG and WAI-ARIA, and we look at each of them more intently in this article.

Why companies are choosing to support standards

Accessibility is education. Accessibility is a fundamental right. Not doing it violates the principle of consumer equality. Not doing it or doing it partly or incorrectly can attract lawsuits, penalty and even loss of finances and life in worst cases. Accessibility can permanently malign manufacturer’s public image and loss of consumer loyalty. To avoid all these, technology corporations commit to standards like W3C and ARIA. These standards also guarantee identical level of accessibility quality across all the brands.

WCAG

WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. This international quality standard was set up in the year 1995. WCAG is brainchild of W3C or World Wide Web Consortium. W3C is primary international organization for internet quality. It ensures that the Internet maintains a certain level of quality standard as long as it operates. For example, every website works exactly the same in your Safari and Chrome Browsers, thanks to W3C. In this write-up, we discuss explorations and purposes of WCAG and ARIA, extensions of W3C, which are concerned about accessibility standards over the Internet.

To begin with, we live in the age of digital devices. Technology is the essence of our lifestyle and business. Internet has reached nearly half of 7 billion users, and continues to grow every day. About 3% of world population are people living with disability, who may require accessibility. No one can be left behind – is global motto of all world organizations, almost all governments, banks and technology corporations. This falls inline with essentiality of mainstreaming the disability. Accessibility, thus, becomes education and fundamental right.  

WCAG and ARIA

WCAG is also approved by the ISO. It recommends developers to develop their websites, applications and software usable for individuals with disability. Individuals with no disabilities can use the apps and services using both mouse and the keyboard, whereas visually impaired or blind individuals may use the keyboard alone to navigate the interface. WCAG clearly contains recommendation and guidelines that describes to the developers why and when to implement the guidelines. It also suggests as a benefit for the keyboard users to include keyboard shortcuts, this allows programmers to remember the inclusion, who otherwise may never identify the need to do it. WCAG versions have been refined to exactly suit specific requirements for different types of disabilities, – blind, deaf, CP, and so on.

The underlying principles of WCAG are simple. WCAG 2.0 states that user interface must be Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust. That can be explained as “POUR”.

  • Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
  • Operable: User interface components and navigation must be operable.
  • Understandable: Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.
  • Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.


WAI-ARIA is abbreviation for Web Accessibility Initiative – Accessible Rich Internet Applications. As internet technology advances, software programming becomes complex. ARIA contains sets of rules that defines how the Internet applications should be constructed in such a way that is easier for screen reader users. This standard is created for blind and visually impaired individuals, and it is used by developers when developing their apps and services. WAI-ARIA is managed by creating and describing roles, states and properties, the purpose of such requirements is to inform the users what is happening on the screen and thus inform the users about what’s displayed and actions required.

WAI-ARIA

WAI-ARIA is developed for the languages that are used to render the apps and services on the browser, however the requirements of such standard is also implemented in the traditional software applications because it provides clear guidelines what is the accessible interface, this standard is maintained by using HTML, Javascript and related web development technologies.

What are ARIA roles, properties and states?

At UI code level, ARIA defines semantics for user interface elements, with these divided into roles, (defining type of user interface element) states and properties, that are supported by a role. UI designers have to assign appropriate states and properties to an element during its lifecycle, unless they are already in place.

Roles have following types:

  • Widget Roles: Identify UI regions. Example button, option, checkbox and so on.
  • Composite Roles: Identify UI regions that have child element. Example combo box, menu, table list and so on.
  • Document Structure Roles: Defines document structure at UI code level.
  • Landmark roles: Programmatically identify sections of page. Example banner, form, region and so on.
  • Live Region roles: Identify regions of page where live information is displayed. Example alert, status, timer and so on.
  • Window roles

States and Properties: These have following types:

  • Widget Attributes: Identify states of widgets. Example aria-autocomplete, aria-checked and so on.
  • Live region attributes: Identify states of live region. Example aria-live, aria-busy and so on.
  • Drag and drop attributes: Identify drag and drop attributes of widget elements. Example aria-drop effect, aria-dragged and so on.
  • Relationship attributes: Identify relation between widgets at UI code level. Example aria-row count (sets the number of rows), aria-col index (retrieves column number) and so on.

Summary

the content above indicates that standards are very important, and they are significant part of any design. As mentioned in many other articles to get accessibility, we need to educate, and accessibility standards are the pieces to the puzzle in solving accessibility issues and improving it.

You don’t have to memorize the requirements, or procedures, you just have to know the primary goals and what are the key requirements. The reason the standards is simply So you can understand it yourself, explain to others, and thus educate, because only by knowing and understanding it we can solve the rising or existing problems.