Introduction to Web Accessibility and WCAG 2.1  

Web accessibility is the inclusive practice of ensuring there are no barriers that prevent interaction with, or access to, websites on the World Wide Web by people with disabilities. When sites are correctly designed, developed and edited, generally all users have equal access to information and functionality.

Web accessibility encompasses all disabilities that affect access to the web, including: 

  • auditory 

  • cognitive 

  • neurological 

  • physical 

  • speech 

  • visual 

Why is web accessibility important? 

In the UK, 1 in 5 people have a disability. It’s estimated there are 14.1 million disabled people (2021) in the UK, which is over 20% of the population. 

To put that into perspective, 20% of the visitors to Shelter England’s and Shelter Scotland’s websites from 3 August 2020 to 3 August 2021 equates to over 3.2 million.  

More than 80% of people with impairments have decided not to trust a service provider that has barriers, poor web accessibility being one of the top reasons.

Case studies have shown that improving the accessibility of your digital services aligns with business goals and benefits your brand. The NHS underwent a massive digital overhaul to its platforms in 2016 to improve accessibility, which resulted in the average daily users increasing from 15,000 to 26,000.

Not only do Shelter England and Shelter Scotland provide housing advice for users with disabilities and health conditions, but it's imperative our digital products are accessible for all Shelter supporters, volunteers, donors, and campaigners as well. 

Legal requirements 

The accessibility of all UK websites is covered by the Equality Act 2010. This protects all individuals from unfair treatment and promotes a fair and more equal society.

Site owners are required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to make their sites accessible for people with disabilities. There is currently no legal precedent for what would constitute a reasonable adjustment. However, given that the UK Government has adopted WCAG 2.1 level AA as a suitable standard for public sector sites, any site which meets these guidelines would have a very strong defence against legal action.  

From the 23rd September 2019 new accessibility regulations came into force. These days, public sector websites will need to meet certain accessibility standards and publish a statement saying they have been met. Existing websites had until 23rd September 2020 to comply. All apps had until 23rd June 2021 to comply. 

It is not very clear who these regulations cover, but according to GOV.UK public sector bodies include: 

  • central government and local government organisations 

  • some charities and other non-government organisations 

But the following organisations are exempt: 

  • non-government organisations like charities - unless they are mostly financed by public funding, provide services that are essential to the public, or aimed at people with a disability 

  • schools or nurseries - except for the content people need in order to use their services, for example a form that lets you outline school meal preferences 

  • public sector broadcasters and their subsidiaries 

This information is from the Web Usability blog ‘What is the law on accessibility?’ 

More information is also available on the government website. 

To meet government accessibility requirements, digital services must: 

Summary of WCAG 2.1  

WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The guidelines have been in existence since 1999, when the first version ‘WCAG 1.0’ was published. WCAG 1.0 included just 14 guidelines and was created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The latest version of the guidelines WCAG 2.1 was published in June 2018 and includes 78 success criteria. The success criteria is rated from A to AAA (AAA being the highest).  

 The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are grounded on 4 principles:  

  1. Perceivable – Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive 

  2. Operable – User interface components and navigation must be operable 

  3. Understandable – Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable 

  4. Robust – Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies 

The acronym POUR covers these 4 principles. We have a detailed list of WCAG’s success criteria covering POUR and other principles.

Shortened WCAG 2.1 

1.1 Text Alternatives - Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language. 

1.2 Time-based Media - Provide alternatives for time-based media (video and audio). 

1.3 Adaptable - Create content that can be presented in different ways (for example, a simpler layout) without losing information or structure. 

1.4 Distinguishable - Make it easier for users to see and hear content including separating foreground from background. 

2.1 Keyboard Accessible – Make all functionality available from a keyboard. 

2.2 Enough Time – Provide users enough time to read and use content. 

2.3 Seizures and Physical Reactions – Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures or physical reactions. 

2.4 Navigable – Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are.  

2.5 Input Modalities - Make it easier for users to operate functionality through various inputs beyond keyboard. 

3.1 Readable – Make text content readable and understandable.  

3.2 Predictable - Make web pages appear and operate in predictable ways. 

3.3 Input Assistance – Help users avoid and correct mistakes. 

4.1 Compatible - Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies. 

The entirety of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 can be viewed here: https://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG21 

Roadmap to improving accessibility  

As an organisation, we strive to ensure that the digital products and services we produce are accessible to anyone who requires them. Shelter's Web Accessibility Statement emphasises our commitment towards complying to WCAG 2.1 ‘AA’ standards. Shelter’s site currently (July 2021) exceeds WCAG 2.1 single 'A', but more is needed to be done to improve accessibility and usability before we fully conform to ‘AA’ standards. 

Accessibility is everyone’s responsibility 

As awareness and knowledge of accessibility is increasing, we want Shelter staff and external partners to consider accessibility from the start of a project, but also feel empowered and equipped to raise existing accessibility issues. Accessibility is not the responsibility of one person - everyone involved with Shelter’s digital services and products, internally and externally, is responsible for making our services accessible.

It’s important that each person understand how to avoid accidentally making things inaccessible. This includes developers, content designers, service designers, content producers and interaction designers. User researchers and testers can help find accessibility problems so the rest of a team (including agency partners) can remove them. Product and delivery managers should understand accessibility too, so they can ensure it’s considered from the start and built into the service efficiently.

How to flag existing accessibility issues and suggest improvements 

If you come across an existing accessibility issue or would like to suggest an improvement, then we recommend emailing us with the following information:

  • Title of the issue

  • Description of the issue

  • WCAG guideline it relates to*

  • URL it relates to*

*Not required

Red route usability: testing key user journeys internally 

Introduced in London in 1991, red routes are major roads on which vehicles are not permitted to stop. Their goal is to allow high traffic volumes to flow freely without obstruction. When applied to design, these red routes are the critical and frequent paths that users take to complete their tasks.

This concept has been adopted to improve usability of digital products, where red routes are the critical tasks that deliver the most value to your users. These routes are the foundational user journeys that make your product valuable and typically capture 90% or more of your user’s actions. 

Red routes are: 

  • Critical. Without these routes, your product would not deliver any value. 

  • End-to-end tasks with multiple steps or actions, not single events. For example, clicking a ‘Sign Up’ button is an action, not a route. However, user registration from beginning to end would be a route. 

  • Frequently utilised.  

  • Built for scale. They are high volume user journeys that funnel a majority of your product traffic. 

  • Key value drivers. They drive your key business metrics. 

  • Objectively successful. You should be able to clearly define what success looks like. 

  • Tied to critical product metrics. Your red routes directly impact your bottom line and have a substantial impact on user experience. 

Here's an example of a red route matrix, based on user frequency and volume, using a cat supplies website:

Always

Subscribe to newsletter

Visit About us page

Visit multiple product sections

Search product categories

Frequently

Read shipping policy

Check cart before purchasing

Visit store on mobile

Add product to cart

Occasionally

Scroll homepage carousel

Socially share a product

Complete purchase

View product videos

Rarely

Leave reviews

Email the store

Read eco-policy

Click site banner

By few

By some

By many

By everyone

Improving a website’s accessibility is usually a large-scale endeavour. Applying the red route method helps you:

  • prioritise user needs and facilitate alignment amongst stakeholders 

  • build and optimize product features that deliver the most value to users and drive key metrics 

Key journeys to test internally using red route analysis:

  • Get help journey  

  • Donate journey  

  • Top housing advice journeys 

  • Search 

External accessibility audit 

It’s always good practice to have a qualified third party organisation audit and report on site’s accessibility. The most recent audit of Shelter’s sites was in April 2021 by RNIB. Download below to read their report.

If your team would like to commission your own third-party accessibility audit, we suggest:

Standard rate: £567 a day (dependent on how many days ranges £400-£800) 

Other accessibility guides

Writing for accessibility

Editorial skills play a big part in removing barriers for users with disabilities. They include writing in plain language, using accessibility best practice for headings, links, and non-text content, and much more. Read our guide to writing for accessibility.

Social media guidance

Shelter’s social channels are vital to our ability to reach people facing homelessness or experiencing bad housing, as well as appeal to people hoping to support our work. It’s crucial that our social content is accessible, and this guide explains the best practices.

Accessibility success criteria

This comprehensive list covers the criteria for meeting Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards.


Read our other content guides

Read our brand guidelines


Contact us

Have a question or comment about accessibility or other digital topic? Found a bug? Or maybe you’d like to contribute to the framework? Use our contact form to get in touch.