In today’s dynamic landscape of mobile app development, it’s all too easy to get swept up in crafting innovative features and sleek designs. However, have you ever stopped to consider that when you create an app, it’s not just the functionality and aesthetics that matter? Your app’s accessibility is a critical aspect, and its significance extends well beyond your local borders. In a global context, different countries have varying accessibility laws, and understanding and adhering to these requirements is crucial for your app’s international success.

The True Significance of App Accessibility

The term “accessibility” can be misleading for some, as it’s often misunderstood as merely referring to the ease with which anyone can access your app. In reality, app accessibility is about making your app usable for people with disabilities. Consider the statistics: in England and Wales, an estimated 10.4 million individuals have disabilities, and in the United States, that number rises to a staggering 42.5 million people. Now, picture this: all of these individuals own smartphones, and every single one of them desires to download and use your app. Some of them may be visually impaired, deaf, or illiterate, while others might have autism or other conditions that affect how they interact with technology. Furthermore, there are those with physical disabilities, such as limited mobility or the need for assistive technologies. The question is, can your app be used confidently and effectively by this diverse group of users? If not, you could be excluding a substantial demographic, and in some cases, you might even be in violation of the law without even realising it.

Understanding Global Accessibility Laws

Accessibility laws differ from country to country, and navigating this legal landscape can be a complex endeavour. However, a significant number of these laws are based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, commonly referred to as WCAG. The WCAG framework was initially published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in 1999, and it remains the consensus standard for digital accessibility today. What’s noteworthy is that many countries opt to require adherence to a recent version of WCAG, instead of crafting their own intricate laws with highly technical specifications. This approach streamlines the process of achieving compliance and makes it less intimidating for app developers and businesses alike.

The key to WCAG compliance lies in its classification system, which separates conformance into three levels: Level A (the least strict), Level AA, and Level AAA (the most stringent). For many countries, achieving Level AA compliance is the common expectation.

Legal Implications and Consequences

It’s essential to comprehend the legal implications and potential consequences of app accessibility non-compliance. In several countries, including Australia, the European Union, Ireland, Israel, South Korea, the UK, Canada, and Ontario, there are specific laws that mandate WCAG 2.0 Level A/AA compliance for apps and websites. Non-compliance can result in a range of repercussions, including the removal of apps or websites and the possibility of fines.

For example, in Ontario, Canada, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) requires businesses to meet specific accessibility standards, including digital accessibility. Failure to do so can result in financial penalties and potentially significant damage to a company’s reputation.

Other countries, such as the United States, Japan, and India, may not explicitly require WCAG conformance, but they emphasise the importance of accessibility. In the U.S., Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn’t demand WCAG conformance but frequently references WCAG in ADA-related complaints. In Japan, the Elimination of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities Act requires digital accessibility, although it doesn’t explicitly mention WCAG. Instead, the Japanese Industrial Standards (JIS) X 8341-3 includes similar principles and success criteria as WCAG 2.0 Level AA. In India, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016 mandates “reasonable accommodations” for digital content, although it doesn’t specifically cite WCAG.

The consequences of non-compliance can vary widely from one country to another. For instance, in India, there are relatively aggressive enforcement mechanisms in place, including fines for individual decision-makers within non-compliant organisations. In contrast, the United States can enforce substantial fines of $55,000 to $75,000 for the first violation and $150,000 for each subsequent violation. Considering these penalties, it’s certainly worthwhile to assess your product’s target market and determine the specific laws and WCAG levels that apply to your app.

Benefits of WCAG Conformance

In both app stores Dark Mode is currently heavily encouraged but not mandatory.

It inverts the traditional dark text on a bright background, placing light-coloured text on darker backgrounds. This can be easier to see, save battery on some screens, and make it easier for anyone to use a device in a low-light environment.

Embracing WCAG guidelines provides the clearest path to accessibility compliance. Accessibility laws and industry-specific regulations often demand WCAG conformance because the WCAG framework is based on straightforward principles. WCAG’s framework is built on the POUR principles: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. These principles serve as a roadmap for accessibility, outlining the key areas that need to be addressed for full compliance. Each principle has a checklist of requirements corresponding to the level of conformance you aim to achieve, from A (basic) to AA (commonly requested) to AAA (most stringent). This approach makes the process of achieving accessibility more transparent and accessible to all involved in your product’s development, from design and content to development.

When done correctly, adhering to the WCAG guidelines should be a seamless and nearly invisible part of your product’s design and development process. While some aspects, such as certain graphics or sections of content, may require adjustment, incorporating accessibility into your app from the very beginning can be a breeze. However, for established products with long-time users, the process may be more challenging, as user bases tend to be set in their ways. Nevertheless, it’s essential to recognize that accessibility compliance not only safeguards your company from legal repercussions but also enhances your product, making it more inclusive and appealing to a broader audience. Moreover, being WCAG compliant offers additional advantages, including improved search engine rankings and higher user retention rates.

In conclusion, app accessibility compliance isn’t just a legal requirement; it’s a commitment to inclusivity and user-friendliness. Ensuring that your app is accessible to individuals with disabilities is not only ethically responsible but also a smart business move. An accessible product isn’t just for the minority; it’s for everyone.