This blog post focuses on the “gray areas” of interpreting the WCAG 2.0 guidelines, and help explain the degrees of disability that website owners and developers should be aware of when approaching an accessibility solution.

Google the term, “degrees of disability”. Over 100 million results? That’s more than a few, isn’t it? From government agencies to higher education institutions, everyone has their own guide to help them determine levels of disability. What does this tell us? That it’s pretty challenging to determine or define a disability. We might have medical and government-recognized definitions that tell us what makes a disability, but day-to-day life isn’t so straightforward. People experience varying degrees of countless different conditions, and often one or more conditions at a time.

Defining a disability

When your organization tries to define a disability, your broadest definition should include:

  • Disabilities with different sensitivities
  • Visible as well as non-invisible disabilities
  • Disabilities that have effects which may come and go over time
  • Temporary disabilities

Range of disabilities

Let’s consider hearing loss. It’s clear even from this simplified scale that there are many grey areas between full hearing and total deafness:

Full Hearing > Mild > Moderate > Moderate/Severe > Severe > Profound > Totally Deaf

With eyesight, there is an enormous range of conditions with various effects and limitations. Among them:

  • Astigmatism
  • Cataracts
  • Color Blindness
  • Farsightedness
  • Glaucoma
  • Macular Degeneration
  • Nearsightedness
  • Presbyopia
  • Retinal Detachment

It’s also important to note that some of these conditions are not permanent, and that these conditions may be degenerative, gradually becoming more noticeable or severe over time. As we age, we’re all likely to go through different levels of visual, auditory, motor and cognitive impairments.

Environmental factors

There are certain impairments that aren’t necessarily related to the user. Environmental factors can have an effect on people, too. Some of those factors include:

  • Low or limited bandwidth
  • Too bright or too dark environment
  • Noisy environments, like a coffee shop
  • Mobile devices, game consoles or other devices
  • Old browsers or operating systems

Interpreting the criteria

What does this have to do with web accessibility? Why is it so hard to interpret the WCAG 2.0 guidelines? Let’s face it—web accessibility is really a series of judgment calls. Is this color combination acceptable? It meets color contrast guidelines, but it doesn’t meet my organization’s color style guide. Is this “alt” okay? Did I organize my page headings properly?

To create an effective, accessible web page, you will need to understand a combination of WCAG 2.0 guidelines, semantic markup techniques, your organization’s rules (style guide), the perspectives of your users, and an almost unlimited number of other variables including logic, empathy, reasoning, and other interpretive skills. It sounds daunting, but with a little knowledge and training, creating accessible websites can become a natural process for digital marketers.

Doing accessibility well is a balance of accessibility principles, your site’s content, and your user’s needs. As a website professional, your task is to find that balance. Many times you will be better off considering usability principles over strictly following the WCAG 2.0 guidelines. While the guidelines are a great resource for learning, and give us a solid base to work from, remember that they are just that—guidelines.

In this month’s web accessibility webinar, we’ll go into a little more detail on some of these gray areas. We’ll also go over a few examples that will help you see how you may want to work through some of these problems with your team. Examples will include:

  • best practices;
  • “alt” attributes;
  • color contrast;
  • headings;
  • and much more!

Watch the Webinar: "50 Shades of Gray in Web Accessibility".