Accessible Web Design: Levels of Maturity

David Denedo

David Denedo

Updated on .

Table of Content

Introduction

Accessible web design isn’t just a nice extra; it is essential for ensuring everyone, including those with disabilities, can access the information they need from our websites. I recently watched a video from the WordPress Web Accessibility Meetup where Nick Croft outlined the six levels of accessibility maturity. His insights resonated with my journey, so here’s a summary of what I learned.

The six levels demystified

1. The absent stage

We all start here. I’ve often seen web designers in online forums, like the Elementor Facebook community, dismiss the importance of accessibility. They say things like, “Accessibility isn’t a priority right now,” “We don’t have the budget,” or “My clients don’t have users with accessibility needs”. This stage is marked by ignorance or misplaced confidence in our (lack of) knowledge.

Some developers claim that since no one has complained, everything must be fine. But here’s the thing: when people with disabilities encounter inaccessible websites, they don’t complain – they simply leave! As someone living with a disability, I can tell you that I won’t hesitate to abandon a site that doesn’t cater to my needs.

You’ll probably only ever receive accessibility complaints when your website seems like the only place to get the information they need or when the clients have a personal relationship with you. For example, if you run an online course, your students facing difficulties may feel inclined to point out the issues. But that may not be the case for a total stranger.

As web designers, we need to change our mindset. The first step to growth is acknowledging the issue and committing to learning and making improvements.

2. The limited phase

In this phase, we’ve heard of accessibility and may have even run a few automated tests with tools like Lighthouse or Page Speed Insights. But we lack the know-how to manually test or truly understand the issues. We get excited when we get a 100% accessibility score on Google PSI. However, an automated auditing tool can only test for a limited scope of WCAG criteria and Google PSI uses an even smaller scope for testing.

In this phase, we tell ourselves we’ll fix it later… which often means never.

Screenshot of Google PageSpeed Insights with excellent scores: 97% performance, 100% in accessibility, best practices and SEO.

3. The emergent phase

In this phase, something sparks a change – maybe it’s attending an accessibility workshop or hearing a personal story. Suddenly, we’re passionate accessibility advocates, eager to learn more. We might start using more advanced tools like Wave or Axe DevTools, but we still struggle with manual testing.

The trouble with this phase is that it’s only a single individual who’s excited about accessibility. The rest of your team may not seem interested. This can feel isolating, like it’s you against the world. But remember, every movement starts with a single person. Keep learning, keep advocating – you’re not alone!

4. Structured phase

At this stage, we’ve managed to get more people on board, even forming a dedicated accessibility team. Yet, different teams (design, development, content) still work independently, each prioritising their own goals. This tends to lead to a disconnect. Accessibility often becomes an afterthought, tackled only at the end of a project when it’s harder (and costlier) to fix.

5. Integrated

In this phase, accessibility is baked into every step of the web design process. Content creators prioritise readability, designers choose inclusive colours and fonts, and developers integrate accessibility testing into their workflow. Both automated and manual testing are carried out extensively.

Real-user testing with people with diverse disabilities is standard practice. We consult with a team of internal or external accessibility testers consisting of native screen reader users, users with hearing deficiencies, users with learning disabilities, users with motor skills difficulties, and so on.

Tools like the Equalize Digital accessibility checker become indispensable for catching issues early on. This is the level all agencies should aim for – where accessibility is simply part of how we do business.

6. Accessibility-driven

At this stage, accessibility no longer feels like a chore, it becomes a lifestyle for each team member and is seen in every facet of the business operation, from design and development to business practices.

At this stage, accessibility becomes a source of pride. Each team member gains genuine empathy for people living with disabilities. The collective team are constantly thinking about how they can make their websites accessible, not just to tick off some WCAG boxes, but to genuinely help everyone involved access the information they need.

Summary

The path to accessibility is a journey of growth. It begins with acknowledging our blind spots and a willingness to learn. Don’t be discouraged by the challenges; each step forward makes a real difference in the lives of countless users.

I encourage you to keep pushing for accessibility within your teams. It demonstrates empathy for people with disabilities, improves usability, and can even boost revenue.

If you enjoy this type of summary content, please let me know in the comments. I’m always looking for ways to improve, so feel free to offer any suggestions.

Here are some recommended resources to learn about accessibility, particularly for WordPress:

  1. Accessibility Weekly on The Admin Bar
  2. WebAIM
  3. Mozilla Developer Network (MDN) documentation
  4. WP Web Accessibility Facebook Group
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