When it comes to website accessibility, there's a great amount of debate over what standard to try to live up to - should it be WCAG A, AA or AAA?
As part of our ongoing work to redesign Disability Rights UK's website, we have conducted extensive research into the topic. Today we want to share our experiences and help you decide which level of accessibility is right for your site build.
Accessibility and guidelines
Before we continue further, let's take a moment to reacquaint ourselves with what an 'accessible' website actually is. At its core, accessibility is how easy it is for any user to interact with your site. Frequently this is particularly applied to how usable your website is to people with various disabilities.
When it comes to assessing your own site's accessibility, the general guidelines followed are WCAG from W3C. WCAG has three different levels of testable success criteria: A, AA & AAA. With AAA being the most comprehensive, these levels assess how thorough a web page’s approach to accessibility is against clearly defined criteria.
AAA - the gold standard?
If you're looking to build a website prioritising accessibility then the obvious thought is to look to achieve AAA. The highest standard should be the goal right?
There's certainly some truth here in aiming high. It's probably an obvious point, but aiming for AAA will require the most resource investment. So depending on your resource capacity and budget, this might not be completely realistic. Resource cost to one side, it should be pointed out, by W3C's own admission, that ‘even content that conforms at the highest level (AAA) will not be accessible to individuals with all types, degrees, or combinations of disability’. If your ambition is 100% coverage, then even AAA will not be enough.
It’s also worth mentioning that AAA isn't even possible for some content types, to the extent that W3C themselves don’t recommend it be adopted as ‘a general policy for entire sites’.
In summary, it would seem that a strict devotion to achieving AAA is not necessarily the optimal solution it may seem at first glance.
Technical accessibility vs content accessibility
As hinted at in the previous section, one key distinction that recurred repeatedly as we were working on this project was that there are two ways a website can be made accessible: by backend technical changes and through front end content tailoring. The two of these can sometimes be interlinked, with features sometimes needing to be implemented to allow for accessible content.
To explain this in a clearer way we’ll use the example of a prerecorded video with audio content. From an AAA accessibility perspective, transcripts must be made available alongside caption support and also visual descriptions. The captions and transcripts themselves are necessary for content accessibility. Whilst the technology you use may support adding these different formats, it will be up to the content creators to actually add them. That is to say that there is a difference between the infrastructure that allows content to be accessible and the supplementary material that actually makes it accessible.
To bring the conversation back to AA vs AAA, this is perhaps where one of the clearest distinctions exists . Many of the AAA requirements raise the expectation of ‘content accessibility’. This means that there will be increased resources needed each time you want to add new content, to ensure that it is provided in a wider array of different formats to meet the needs of different types of users. As such the demands on your team will increase for each item of content you wish to add, as will the maintenance of that content as your site expands.
While website implementors, like ourselves, can put the building blocks in place for an accessible site, this is in many cases just a framework. Building to AAA for launch will require substantial work on content and a firm commitment to continued maintenance of that content. Unless you have a static site, you will need to put in a lot of work to maintain your AAA status.
Should we settle for AA over AAA?
Yes. And no.
Yes, because AA is far more sustainable than AAA across various content types. AAA can set the bar incredibly high. It is, as we’ve already discussed, sometimes simply impossible to achieve. Adhering to an AA minimum standard is an excellent way to ensure a firm stance on accessibility and to take a view on what your policy may be for audio/video content based on your audience.
On the other hand, don’t let the framework limit your ambitions. W3C themselves note that it is worthwhile to report ‘any progress toward meeting success criteria’ above your ‘achieved level’. This is a particularly useful way of viewing AAA - a gold standard aspiration. If you can make progress beyond AA and toward AAA then it is absolutely worthwhile doing so, even if you don’t get accredited at that higher level. The more accessible your website, the more people will be able to interact with your content.
While AAA may be the industry gold standard for accessibility, it's important to understand when and how to aspire towards it. It also requires a constant commitment which cannot be accomplished in the build phase alone. While AA is probably a better baseline to aim for, especially on a budget, you should look to work toward the very highest accessibility standards wherever possible. After all, sharing compelling and valuable AA content, that cannot yet meet a AAA standard, might be of greater benefit to your audience than not publishing the content at all!
If you’re planning a new website and would like advice on how to make it more accessible get in touch and we’d be happy to help!