Recent figures from the World Health Organisation reveal that 16% of the world’s population – one in six people – live with a disability. In light of this, global standards like WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) have raised awareness of the need for websites and digital experiences to be accessible to all. But, although significant progress has been made since the first version of WCAG was published in 1999, there is still a great deal of work to be done.
A recent survey found that only 21% of European companies currently comply with WCAG 2.1 standards, even though a third have made digital accessibility standards a priority. There’s clearly a disconnect between prioritising accessibility and actually taking the steps necessary to make it a reality.
With an update to WCAG 2.2 due this summer, and with the compliance deadline for the European Accessibility Act (EAA) – a new directive establishing a common set of accessibility rules for software, digital services and hardware sold in the EU – set for July 2025, companies need to focus on advancing accessibility and inclusivity for their digital products and services.
WCAG and EAA
Digital accessibility is the ability of a website, mobile app, or electronic document to be easily navigated and understood by the widest range of users, including persons with disabilities (PwD), low vision, blindness, auditory challenges or deafness, and with motor/mobility- or neurodiversity.
But, while WCAG is highly influential in highlighting the need for digital accessibility, it has no legal standing in and of itself. The EAA, on the other hand, is legally binding – private companies doing business in the EU must comply or risk financial penalties or other legal action. With the EAA compliance deadline just over a year away, Applause canvassed product engineers, software developers, and QA and UX professionals around the world to gauge attitudes and priorities toward accessibility and inclusive design.
Insights and understanding
Designing and developing products and services that are accessible to all users relies on their creators having insights into the issues PwD experiences from a digital perspective. But, when asked to rate their level of understanding, one-third of European respondents admitted they only had a basic knowledge of digital accessibility, with one in ten (9%) saying they had none.
A culture of inclusivity can help encourage these insights and understanding. But creating such a culture requires companies to make accessibility an operational priority. According to the survey, though, it was a ‘top priority’ for only a third of European organisations, significantly lower than the global average of 43%. And perhaps more concerning, one in ten said accessibility was a low priority, and 4% didn’t consider it a priority.
It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that only 15% of the European product engineers surveyed said they always wrote code with accessibility in mind. And while 38% said they sometimes did, 36% said it was rarely considered. On a more promising note, three in five product developers said they built accessibility into their design stages at the earliest stages.
But, although 62% of European respondents said digital accessibility was a higher priority for their organisation than in the previous year, clearly, not enough attention is being given to ensuring it in websites, apps, and other digital products. It’s encouraging, therefore, to see an upward trend for companies to have a dedicated person or team responsible for making sure their products are accessible – from 53% of companies in 2021 to 72% this year. It’s obvious, though, that more needs to be done.
Room for improvement
Companies need to commit to advancing their focus on accessibility and inclusivity for their digital products and experiences, particularly with the pending update to WCAG and implementation of the EAA. When questioned about their motivators for achieving WCAG conformance, the top three reasons were given as ‘improving usability for all end users’, ‘building positive public perception’, and ‘gaining and maintaining market share’.
Yet, despite this, only 21% claimed their company’s website met WCAG 2.1 standards, with a similar number (20%) saying theirs didn’t and more than half (57%) saying they didn’t know one way or the other.
The survey shows there hasn’t been much progress over the past three years. If the survey’s findings suggest there’s a disconnect between prioritising accessibility and taking the steps needed to make it a reality, then progress will be slow and challenging.
Commitment to accessibility
Digital accessibility requires an ongoing commitment to building inclusive experiences, designing products, and writing code with accessibility in mind, testing them for accessibility throughout the development process. Truly accessible digital experiences require input from disabled and non-disabled people from both a design and testing perspective.
Meaningful change requires educating developers and arming them with the expertise and guidance to create genuinely accessible digital experiences. In addition, accessibility testing should be an ongoing programme rather than a box to tick when convenient. It’s encouraging that organisations see digital accessibility as more of a priority than ever before, but much needs to be done to make it a reality.
Bob Farrell is Vice President of Solution Delivery and CX Practices for Applause