Guide

A Beginner’s Guide to Web Accessibility

By Nat Davis
Last updated on April 6, 2022

Web accessibility describes the work to remove digital barriers that prevent users with disabilities from operating and connecting with websites and online platforms. When designing and building with web accessibility, auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, visual, and speech abilities must be considered.

In the same way that a building must comply with ADA standards, websites should be as thoughtful about their users by offering images with text equivalents, accessible-formatted documents, intentionality with colors and font sizes, and videos and other accessible multimedia.

The Rise of Web Accessibility

Web accessibility has been important since digital technology emerged, but it’s being prioritized differently now, as more of our daily lives operate online and inclusivity comes to the foreground. The growing popularity of technology in the 1990s excluded people with disabilities, prompting a group of community members in Austin, Texas to encourage techies to build accessible websites. That group is now known as Knowbility, a fun and challenging space to expand accessibility networks and knowledge through AIR (Accessibility Internet Rally), where developers, designers, and project managers compete to build the most accessible website. 

As Knowbility became nationally recognized and awarded, this effort expanded to other cities and eventually prompted them to create AccessU, a training conference for businesses and state agencies to learn how to be digitally inclusive. Of the AIR conference, LearningFuze alum Alicia says, “It's a fun way to get free training on how to make things accessible. You do want to come to it with some experience, either in web development or design, because they can teach you the accessibility, but they can't teach you the rest of it. If you're right out of a bootcamp, it's a good time to get together with some friends and take on that challenge.”

Knowbility is not the only company dedicated to improving the digital user experience. TPGi is a globally-recognized accessibility solutions provider of management software and services to ensure digital usability for people with different abilities. Incorporated in 2002, TPGi partners with brands to accomplish end-to-end accessibility, in industries such as banking & finance, retail & eCommerce, government, publishing, and higher education. 

The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) supports accessibility solutions by developing technical specs, guidelines, techniques, and other resources, which are considered international standards for web accessibility. 

Web Accessibility Tools

In order to make the web accessible, several components must work together – from browsers to authorizing tools to the websites themselves. We asked Alicia, a LearningFuze graduate who now works as a Web Accessibility Engineer, which tools to learn and focus on: 

“The number one thing that you need to know really well is valid semantic HTML because so much of accessibility and inaccessibility stems from that first layer. You also want to know CSS and JavaScript. A language called ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) is another layer built on top of HTML to communicate different things that aren't communicated within the HTML, like state changes. There's not exactly an HTML element for an accordion, but someone who is not visually looking at the screen would need to also know whether content in an accordion is expanded or collapsed, so ARIA helps with things like that. ARIA is the very last step, so once you feel confident in the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, then you would add on ARIA.”

W3C WAI offers a wealth of web accessibility resources for anyone wanting to dive deeper. Evaluate accessibility early and often during the development process to identify problem areas while they are easily addressable. 

Web Accessibility Jobs in Design and Engineering

While all teams working on a tech product can and should consider web accessibility, Web Designers and Software Engineers have the heaviest hands in its application. 

  • Web accessibility designers are looking for user experience details like: use of colors, visuals, sounds, and clear labeling. 
  • Web accessibility engineers and developers are aware of details like: adaptable code for user technologies, avoiding CAPTCHA, making keyboard accessible elements, and using tools to convey meaning and structure. 

We asked Meade, a UX Designer and UX Design Instructor at BrainStation, why accessibility is an important part of her job. Meade says, “If we apply accessibility principles in all aspects of UX, we create universal design that is better for everyone…We have to consider that 20% of the world is considered disabled and at any time anyone can become partially disabled, through an accident, injury, or something as simple as a new mom holding a baby and now only has one hand with which to operate a device.” User consideration is crucial to the expansion of technologies and our dependence on the internet. 

Web Accessibility Engineer & LearningFuze grad Alicia says that, “Working in this field today promises job security and the ability to negotiate offers, since the demand has increased but the amount of accessibility professionals hasn't. Once you get your foot in the door, the world is open to you.”

Web Accessibility Engineer Salaries

Web Accessibility Specialists make an average of $95k annually in the US as of March 2022, while the national average salary of Web Accessibility Developers is $130k! 

“Now as an Accessibility Engineer, I'm earning three times the salary that I made before I was a software developer! When I set out on this career path, I wanted flexible hours and the ability to work remotely, and I've been able to do both.” - LearningFuze grad Alicia 

Designing for Web Accessibility

In order to meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) requirements, some concepts to consider and practice while designing for web accessibility include: 

  • Use sufficient contrast between background and foreground 
  • Use other elements to convey information besides color solely
  • Provide easily-identifiable interactive elements
  • Ensure clear and consistent navigation options
  • Clearly label form elements
  • Group related content with headings and spacing 
  • Design alternative media and images 
  • Offer automatic content controls

Developing for Web Accessibility

Alicia has worked on several sides of web accessibility, both as a specialist for a business that does not focus on web accessibility, and as an engineer for a company that is solely focused on web accessibility. “The hiring manager at FormulaFolios was looking for someone who could learn web accessibility to ensure they were making accessible products for their clients. This was my epiphany moment when I realized all the nonprofit work I'd been doing leading up to this career change was coming together!” Alicia says of her first foray into web accessibility as a career. Thanks to the versatility of web development, there are so many applicable ways to improve web accessibility for any company in any industry. 

Best practices for complying with web accessibility standards while developing accessible web content include:

  • Avoiding CAPTCHA when possible 
  • Making interactive elements accessible by keyboard
  • Writing code that adapts to the user’s technology
  • For non-standard interactive elements, offer an explanation 
  • Reflecting the reading order in the code order 
  • Pairing a label with every form control 
  • Offering alternative text for images
  • Identifying language changes
  • Conveying meaning and structure using mark-up
  • Assisting users in avoiding and correcting mistakes

(Learn more about W3C Web Accessibility Standards and guidelines.) 

How to Become a Web Accessibility Specialist

Alicia, who graduated from LearningFuze, recommends first working as a web developer or UX professional before pivoting into web accessibility, to get used to the work environment and platforms used. “It definitely helps to work as a web developer or a UX professional first. Wherever you are, start pushing for accessibility and start learning about it and practicing it there,” Alicia says. Alicia also recommends the A11Y Slack channel, her favorite Slack workspace for web accessibility.

You may be able to learn basic web accessibility design principles at a bootcamp like BrainStation. UX Design Instructor Meade says BrainStation’s UX Design bootcamp has a robust accessibility component to their curriculum that is continually being reiterated… As an instructor, accessibility is deeply woven into every aspect of my teaching.” 

If you’re interested in web accessibility, start talking about it at your current workplace and urging them to invest in making it a priority. If you’re interested in joining pre-existing web accessibility spaces, consider attending a WordPress Accessibility MeetUp

On top of the AIR competition, Knowbility also offers free webinar series, a training conference, online learning, plus staff training, design workshops, and usability testing. Become a board member to raise awareness and funds for community programs!

About The Author

Nat has been a writer and copyeditor for Course Report since 2020, on topics including guides to bootcamps, tech skills, and career outcomes. Nat leverages their own experience in online learning to relate to readers considering alternative learning paths. 

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