21. November 2022 By Kristof Kreimeyer
Accessibility on the Internet – does it have to be this way? What do you need to consider when it comes to inclusion on the Internet?
Being able to use the Internet easily
A large number of people go about their daily lives without realising that they have the privilege of not encountering any barriers. This applies to both physical world as well as the digital one. Being impaired also means that you cannot use the Internet with all its advantages in the same way as people without impairments. This often involves things that non-impaired people do as a matter of course: visit websites, fill out forms, watch exciting or funny videos and generally get information on everything.
Who benefits from an accessible Internet?
It is important to note right away that Internet accessibility is not exclusively about people with disabilities. Accessibility affects a much greater number of people – including people with a physical or mental disability. In Germany, 7.9 million people have a severe disability (as of 2021), in other words a ‘degree of disability’ of over 50 per cent, which equates to a share of 9.4 per cent of the population. There are also 2.7 million people with a ‘degree of disability’ below 50 per cent. Together, these two groups make up a share of about 12.65 per cent of Germany’s population.
Many impairments that make it difficult to surf the Internet without help develop in old age – your vision deteriorates, your hearing gets worse or you are unable to move as well as you used to. The graph above shows the distribution of age groups (as of 31 December 2021) in Germany, and it is clear that demographic change is reflected in the distribution. At 18.44 million people, the 65+ group makes up a share of around 22.15 per cent, meaning both groups together make up a share of around 34.8 per cent – a good third of the population.
What does accessibility actually mean?
Something is accessible if it...
‘[...] can be found, accessed and used without particular difficulty and, in principle, without external assistance. The use of disability-related aids is permissible in this context.’
Source: Section 4 German Disability Equality Act (Behindertengleichstellungsgesetz, BGG), 2002
Accessibility therefore means that everyone, whether they have an impairment or not, can use the Internet, for example, without the help of other people.
Is there a standard for accessibility on the web?
Germany currently has the ‘Accessible Information Technology Ordinance 2.0’ (Barrierefreie Informationstechnik-Verordnung 2.0, BITV 2.0), which specifies how websites must be created and operated in a way that makes them accessible. The basis of the ordinance is the German Disability Equality Act (Behindertengleichstellungsgesetz, BGG). The Accessible Information Technology Ordinance 2.0 stipulates that videos must generally have closed captions. Images, buttons and graphics must have alternative text. In addition, there must be no flashing or flickering elements visible on the page and the contrast between the foreground colour and the background colour must be sufficiently high for text and font graphics. However, the ordinance, which has been in force since 2002 and has gone through several revisions, has been subject to major criticism because it only applies to public bodies and thus excludes the private sector.
There is light at the end of the tunnel
The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, but the EU has finally recognised the problem and introduced the European Accessibility Act, an ordinance that is attempting to close this gap. Member states have until 2025 to enshrine this regulation into national law, and Germany has already done so and introduced a law to this effect. The German Accessibility Act (Barrierefreiheitsstärkungsgesetz, BFSG) will come into force on 28 June 2025. The associated ordinance (Section 12(2a–h) of the German Ordinance on the Accessibility Requirements for Products and Services Pursuant to the Accessibility Act (Verordnung über die Barrierefreiheitsanforderungen für Produkte und Dienstleistungen nach dem Barrierefreiheitsstärkungsgesetz, BFSGV) defines when a website is considered to be accessible:
- a) Information is provided via more than one sensory channel
- b) Consumers can find it
- c) It is presented in an understandable way
- d) It is presented to consumers in a way that they can perceive
- e) The information content is provided in text formats that are suitable for the consumer to generate alternative assistive formats that can be presented in different ways and that can be perceived through more than one sensory channel
- f) It is presented in a font of appropriate size and shape, taking into account the existing contrast and sufficient spacing between letters, lines and paragraphs.
- g) An alternative representation of the content is offered if elements of non-textual content are included
- h) The digital information required for the delivery of the service is provided in a consistent and appropriate manner by making it perceptible, operable, understandable and robust
Who is the German Accessibility Act for?
Telecommunication services, banking services and all online commerce (services in electronic payment transactions) are affected, as are manufacturers of products such as ticket machines, cash machines, self-service terminals and e-book readers. But of course there are exceptions and loopholes in the law. Microenterprises with fewer than ten employees and an annual turnover of €2 million are exempt, as are enterprises that are disproportionately burdened by implementing accessibility requirements. However, the latter must be proven to the competent market supervisory authority at least every five years.
What can you do to make your website accessible?
The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) launched the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) back in 1997. The initiative then began to draw up guidelines. These guidelines are known as WCAG or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The first version was published in 1999. The latest version is version 2.1, which was published in June 2018. If you would like to find out more about the topic, then visit the WCAG website, where you will learn how to deal with images on your site or what to consider when choosing colours in bitesize chunks. As the name suggests, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are not applicable law, but a set guidelines on the subject. However, many laws in Europe and the US are based on the WCAG, so it cannot hurt to go through the guidelines.
What are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines?
There are a total of four principles with 13 guidelines and over 60 test criteria.
The four principles are:
- Perceivable (such as closed captions for videos for the deaf)
- Operable (such as it being possible to use the website with just a keyboard)
- Understandable (simple language)
- Robust (the website must work with a wide range of devices and technologies)
Is the structure of your website important?
The answer to this question is a resounding yes. People with a wide range of impairments can benefit from a good structure in the code:
- People with cognitive impairments or learning disabilities can find and prioritise content better
- Screen reader users can skip unimportant passages
- Keyboard users can navigate the site more efficiently
- People with visual impairments have better orientation
In addition, users on mobile devices also benefit if your website supports a ‘reading’ or ‘reader’ mode. In this mode, only the main contents are displayed if the mark-up is correct.
Does that mean I should be working to get more websites designed and implemented to be accessible?
The most obvious argument for this is also the most human: you do something good for other people and enable them to live with more independence and freedom.
But beyond that, there are also economic factors that need to be taken into account. Accessible content and a well-structured website always have an impact on its SEO ranking and ensure that the website is more discoverable by search engines, which means that it tends to be found and clicked on sooner, thus increasing the traffic on the website.
In the end, we all grow old and want to get through life and the Internet without barriers.
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