Web accessibility also benefits sustainability

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Sustainability and accessibility are absolutely interconnected. Recent sustainability guidelines, although still in draft version, are quite often referring to accessibility, so I wanted to expose parts where accessibility is beneficial to sustainability.

I just stumbled upon freshly published Web Sustainability Guidelines (WSG) 1.0 (opens in new window) and wanted to point out how sustainability and accessibility work together. Or better said how accessibility benefits sustainability.

Write with purpose, in an accessible, easy to understand way

Making content understandable, accessible, with writing clearly, delivering formatted content with clear document structure is also positively impacting sustainability as you can read in part 2.14 of WSG (opens in new window).

Finding things quickly saves time and resources besides obvious benefits for people with cognitive disabilities and actually everybody. WSG defines this part as low impact and low effort.

Sustainable approach to media assets

Images currently represent the largest part of website weight and traffic, so it’s not surprising that they need to be assessed more before we use them. Considering accessibility we need to make sure to provide alternative texts for informative or functional images but sometimes we need to really ask ourselves if that image is really required. Part 2.15 of WSG (opens in new window) covers multiple other considerations but our accessibility point of view is clear – deliver images in ways that are meaningful and improve access to information.

Another part is normally video and audio and it is covered in similar ways under part 2.16 of WSG (opens in new window).

Animation has also potentially big impact on accessibility and same goes for sustainability. Part 2.17 of WSG (opens in new window) is dedicated to animation and accessibility consideration is to prevent seizure conditions and avoiding hazards.

Offering documents in HTML is best practice for accessibility and part 2.19 of WSG (opens in new window) recommends it as well. Proprietary file formats offered in HTML are not only better for accessibility but also ensure being available in the future. Fonts, alternative text, audio and video alternatives are also spanning from accessibility to sustainability.

When we consider multiple CSS preferences and media queries that can go beyond dark and light mode, we need to take into account part 3.13 of WSG (opens in new window), where multiple user preferences are beneficial for accessibility and sustainability.

Accessible, usable, minimal web forms

Web forms can be the source of many usability and accessibility problems and making them accessible, usable and minimal obviously benefits sustainability.

Part 2.20 of WSG (opens in new window) mentions specifically keeping required fields to an absolute minimum as it makes things faster for the user to fill out and also minimizes possible privacy issues like General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Preventing errors, proper labeling, proper instructions, enabling autocomplete where possible are all good usability and accessibility measures that also benefit sustainability saving time and resources. WSG part 3.11 (opens in new window) is dedicated to this.

Semantics enables non-graphic interaction and is key for accessibility and sustainability

Semantic code with HTML and ARIA where needed enables better accessibility, but also enables non-graphic interaction possible. Voice access, speech agents and similar non-graphic interaction enablers rely on semantics and make interaction possible even when we can’t or don’t want to see the interface. Part 2.21 of WSG (opens in new window) defines success criteria that refers to non-graphic interfaces.

Live areas are especially needed for proper notifications to screen-reader users and WSG part 2.22 (opens in new window) is dedicated to giving useful notifications that improve visitor’s journey. Semantics and ARIA are key to enabling this and yet another obvious synergy of accessibility and sustainability.

Part 3.8 of WSG (opens in new window) concentrates on correct HTML usage that is key for accessibility, usability, performance and sustainability.

Code-based navigation and way finding mechanisms like skip to content links are not only beneficial for accessibility but also sustainability, read more about them in part 3.10 of WSG (opens in new window).

Regular testing and auditing and compliance

As products evolve, and as it’s quite normal to have multiple daily releases, we need to make sure we release features that are accessible and sustainable. Regular auditing and testing can help us to achieve that, so not surprisingly part 2.25 of WSG (opens in new window) discusses them in detail.

Automatic testing is mentioned, automatic accessibility testing is a part of it, but I would also like to add testing with people with disabilities that isn’t mentioned explicitly in this part but should in my opinion be a part of accessibility testing. Visitor feedback from people with disabilities is mentioned in part 2.28 of WSG (opens in new window), though.

Part 2.26 of WSG (opens in new window) is dedicated to compliance and again a point where accessibility compliance benefits sustainability.

Part 2.28 of WSG mentions also mobile friendly design that is again an example where accessibility benefits sustainability. Robustness, shift-left, valid and semantic code are also mentioned and key to accessible and obviously also sustainable web. Part 3.14 of WSG (opens in new window) is dedicated to mobile first layout and also important for both accessibility and sustainability.

Being sustainable is also about being accessible

Best practices and compliance to accessibility laws is also a part of sustainability and ensuring accessible solutions has a dedicated part 3.5 of WSG (opens in new window). Besides accessibility carbon aware design techniques occur as success criterion, which also mean that less bloated websites are more accessible and more performant.

As we can read in part 3.6 of WSG (opens in new window) redundancy is the enemy of sustainability and duplicate code must be avoided. Duplicate code can often present accessibility issues especially with WCAG 2.0 and WCAG 2.1 with duplicate ID attribute values and where screen-reader users need to navigate through duplicate content because it was only hidden visually, for example.

Use third parties with care

Third parties are often introducing performance and accessibility problems so no surprises here – they can also negatively impact sustainability. Part 3.7 of WSG (opens in new window) is dedicated to third parties and a must read.

Other interesting points

Assigning a sustainability representative that can also watch over accessibility, performance and other parts is mentioned in part 5.2 of WSG (opens in new window) and makes total sense for organizations that want to be dedicated and don’t have such representatives from before.

Guidelines even mention business certification like Certified Professional in Web Accessibility (CPWA) in part 5.7 of WSG (opens in new window) that can fill the gaps left by incomplete sustainability legislation which I find interesting.

Some parts also mention compression, use of non-deprecated code and more technical and program management details that are also important for accessibility and I invite you to research the whole guidelines when they will move beyond draft state.

Conclusion – accessibility enables also sustainability

Although still in draft state I found the guidelines useful and I look forward to their official release. I am quite certain such guidelines have a potential to become legally required in the future, at least parts of them, especially when we consider the future technologies that will run on the web. If you recently opened a WebGL powered website (the three dimensional or even augmented or virtual reality powered websites), then you probably understand that they consume even more resources than typical websites.

Such sustainability guidelines will for sure make even more sense when resource demanding web will grow even more.

Author: Bogdan Cerovac

I am IAAP certified Web Accessibility Specialist (from 2020) and was Google certified Mobile Web Specialist.

Work as Agency co-owner web developer and accessibility lead.

Sole entrepreneur behind IDEA-lab Cerovac (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility lab) after work.

Living and working in Norway (🇳🇴), originally from Slovenia (🇸🇮), loves exploring the globe (🌐).

Nurturing the web from 1999, this blog from 2019.

More about me and how to contact me:

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