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New Web Accessibility Guidelines Focus on Handheld Devices

June 25, 2018 • Zach DiSchiano


A lot’s changed since 2008—Apple was still working on its third version of the iPhone, Netflix’s streaming service was in its infancy, and Instagram was still two years away from launching.

While technology has evolved abundantly since then, guidance for making websites more accessible to users with disabilities hasn’t kept pace. The last update to the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) was an even decade ago, so it should come as no surprise the organization’s newest update emphasized one particular platform—the smartphone.

WCAG 2.1 added 17 new success criteria that primarily address issues related to handheld devices, but also include new guidance on catering to users with cognitive disabilities and visual impairments.

You can read the full update at the WC3 website, but I’ve paraphrased a few of the relatively substantial takeaways below:

  • Text spacing: Style properties that follow the proceeding instructions will not lose value or functionality, so organizations should try to implement them where possible:
    • Line height (line spacing) should be at least 1.5 times the font size
    • Spacing following paragraphs should be at least 2 times the font size
    • Letter spacing (tracking) should be at least 0.12 times the font size
    • Word spacing should be at least 0.16 times the font size
  • Orientation: Content shouldn’t restrict its view and operability to just one orientation. Basically, don’t limit how users can view your content to just portrait mode or landscape mode on smartphones. Web pages should be responsive and accessible across all devices. Often times, websites work perfectly fine on a desktop, but when accessed through a mobile device, the content can appear fundamentally different on a smartphone or only part of it is legible. Responsiveness is paramount in making web pages accessible for users with disabilities.
  • Timeouts: Users should always be warned of the duration of inactivity that would cause data loss. The use of timed events can present significant barriers for users with cognitive disabilities because they may require more time to read content or to perform functions, such as completing an online form. Informing users of timeouts will better allow those with cognitive disabilities more time to prepare for their session.
  • Target size: This criterion ensures target (button) sizes are large enough for users to easily activate them, even if the user is accessing content on a small handheld touch screen device, has limited dexterity, or has trouble clicking small buttons for other reasons.The size of the target for pointer inputs (mouse clicks) should be at least 44 by 44 Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) pixels except when:
    • The target is available through an equivalent link or control on the same page that is at least 44 by 44 CSS pixels
    • The target is in a sentence or block of text
    • The size of the target is determined by the user and is not modified by the author
    • A particular presentation of the target is essential to the information being conveyed

It wouldn't be a stretch to say the accessibility guidelines can get confusing and the vernacular certainly takes time to understand, but the WC3 website has a glossary that may help those new to the practice. The organization also offers a variety of free online courses to help IT personnel, web developers, and communications specialists better comprehend and implement accessibility standards.

Keep in mind, improving website accessibility for individuals with disabilities is not only a good district practice, but a requirement under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. It’s important for organizations to start discussions on issues related to website accessibility to avoid and resolve complaints as quickly as possible.

Tagged: ADA, "Americans with Disabilities Act"