Designing for Accessibility

The ADA (American Disabilities Act) has led to better inclusion in physical spaces and to the creation of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), supporting inclusion in the digital world and web accessibility for all.

The World Health Organization states about 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability, and 2–4% experience significant difficulties in functioning. While over one billion people experience permanent disability in some form, not all disabilities are permanent. Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Toolkit – PDF download outlines 3 disability types:

  1. Permanent disabilities — Lifelong physical or neurological disabilities developed genetically, at birth, or acquired due to an accident or other medical condition. (Ex. Brain injuries, Epilepsy, Cerebral Palsy, Cystic Fibrosis, Multiple Sclerosis, Spina Bifida, Prader-Willi Syndrome, etc.)
  2. Temporary disabilities - Short-term disabilities due to injury that eventually heal themselves. (Ex. Broken bones, eye injury, laryngitis, etc.)
  3. Situational disabilities - Temporary disabilities caused by environmental circumstances that are immediately resolved by alleviating the situation. (Ex. New baby, loud concerts, bright sunlight, darkness, etc.)

Designing with accessibility in mind creates better experiences for everyone. If you open a restaurant with stairs as the only mode of entry, you’re excluding an entire portion of the population that experiences permanent or temporary disabilities and missing out on a lot of potential customers. Including a ramp not only eliminates the barrier to entry for folks with disabilities, but also accommodates for the aging population who may have limited mobility, parents with young children in strollers, and service workers making deliveries.

By applying this mentality to the web, we can start to think of ways to create inclusive user experiences designed for people with a wide range of abilities. The following inclusive design tips can be applied to any digital format including website, digital ad, email, or app design.

Color contrast AA & AAA test compares low contrast example with high contrast example

Maximize color contrast

Color contrast is the difference in perceived brightness between two colors, expressed as a ratio ranging from 1:1 (white text on a white background) to 21:1 (black text on a white background). Level AA of the WCAG requires a contrast ratio of 3:1 or higher for large text and 4.5:1 or higher for normal text, while Level AAA requires a contrast ratio of 4.5:1 or higher for large text and 7:1 or higher for normal text.

We know black text on a white background has the highest amount of contrast, just like we know white on white has the lowest. The in-between can be tricky, and is easier to determine using contrast checker apps like Contrast for Mac or WebAIM’s online contrast checker tool. Maximizing color contrast creates better interactions for those who experience color blindness and those viewing your content in extremely bright or low light.

Typography before and after comparison. Before: A heading using a decorative script font is followed by a paragraph with a small font size and condensed line height. After: A heading using a modern slab serif font is followed by a paragraph using a larger font size with increased line height for better readability.

Ensure text is readable

Color contrast is a great way to ensure your content is easily readable. Here are a few other ways to increase readability across various screen sizes:

Old Navy and Lowes homepage screenshots to exhibit inaccessible and difficult to read images of text

Avoid using images of text

Many big box stores resort to using images of text, since it’s often easier and more affordable than custom development. While it’s best practice to use live text whenever possible, sometimes it’s necessary to superimpose text on an image to get something finished quickly.

If it’s necessary to use images of text, here are a few tips to follow:

Visual cue examples. Example 1: Light caption text with a dark background overlays an image. Example 2: Buttons in various colors with relevant icons next to the button text. Example 3: A bar graph with various colors and patterns to distinguish information.

Provide multiple visual cues

A big part of making the web accessible is making your content easy to understand. It’s important to provide multiple visual cues to help people who experience low visual acuity and/or colorblindness to understand your content. A simple example of this could be a bank that wants their online banking “login” button to appear in a different color than all the others, making it easier for employees to tell their customers where to go. While this will help some customers, those with visual impairments will need additional indicators, such as patterns, icons, shape or size.


  1. Accessible design is universal – Designing with accessibility in mind creates better experiences for everyone. Stairs are only accessible to those who are able to climb them, while ramps are accessible to all; the same principle applies to the web.
  2. Be an advocate – Don’t depend on agencies, web designers or developers to comply with ADA requirements and best practices by default. Take advantage of all the resources out there and learn as much as you can so you can talk to your team about ADA compliance.
  3. Iterate fearlessly – The goal is to make your website more accessible than it was yesterday, it doesn’t need to be perfect before you push anything live. Small, consistent changes can make a huge impact over time.

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