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What Does WCAG 2.1 Mean for Your Healthcare Organization?

5 min read

While healthcare organizations need to make a profit, they exist primarily to support the health and well being of both individuals and communities. Because they play such a critical role, healthcare companies are ethically obligated to ensure sure that all individuals can access the information and care they need. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), healthcare organizations that accept funding from the government must not discriminate based on an individual’s disability status (among other factors). And that mandate extends to the manner in which healthcare organizations along the continuum of care offer digital experiences and present information online.

Since 2016, the ACA has enforced its nondiscrimination standard with the Meaningful Access Rule, which delineates the accessibility requirements for healthcare companies’ digital content. As part of that, healthcare organizations that participate in Medicaid, CHIP, and other federally funded programs must meet the AA standard of something called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 (WCAG 2.1).

So what exactly are the WCAG 2.1 accessibility guidelines? And what do they mean for your healthcare company? We have answers.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats: Accessibility Improvements Equal a Better User Experience for Everyone

Before we get into the nitty gritty of WCAG 2.1, consider this: Accessibility issues should be much more than a pesky to-do item to tick off your list as quickly as possible. Yes, it’s a box that must be checked. But don’t make the mistake of viewing it as nothing more than a cumbersome cost of doing business.

Accessibility is a growing ethical imperative in digital spaces. And that’s especially true in healthcare, where each patient’s unique differences must be taken into consideration. Inclusive thinking resonates with consumers. If you handle it the right way, accessibility can become a point of pride and even differentiation for your healthcare company. It can demonstrate to your disabled customers that you care about their experience, too.

But here’s the other thing. Taking accessibility seriously is a surefire way to make your product better for all of your users, not just those with disabilities. That’s because WCAG 2.1’s accessibility requirements are fully in keeping with UX best practices. And those best practices yield a more seamless and intuitive experience for every user. Consider WCAG 2.1 part of your UX roadmap, and you can’t go wrong.

What is WCAG 2.1?

WCAG 2.1 is a set of international standards intended to make web content more accessible and usable for people with a range of disabilities. These include vision impairments, hearing loss, speech limitations, cognitive impairments, learning disabilities, and other physical limitations. The guidelines apply to a payer’s website and member portal as well as any electronic interaction technology (EIT) used to communicate with the public.
The WCAG 2.1 guidelines begin with four foundational principles. Within each principle, there are multiple practices. And each practice has its own set of guidelines and success criteria.

The 4 Foundational Principles of WCAG 2.1

To begin, let’s look at the four principles from which all the more specific recommendations are derived. Each of the principles includes a mix of design and technical implications. According to WCAG 2.1, accessible web content must be:

  • Perceivable: Your target audience must be able to perceive your healthcare company’s website content. Perceivability simply refers to your audience’s ability to consume your content, which is a necessary precursor to actually understanding it. For example, your web content must be accessible by screen readers in order for individuals with vision loss to perceive it. Is the level of contrast between text and background colors high enough? Do you provide captions for video content? These and other considerations fall under the domain of perceivability.
  • Operable: Operability refers to a user’s ability to control their interface, meaning that they can navigate, scroll, and find their way around the structure of a website, portal, or app. In order to make your web content operable, you must consider your information architecture and other navigational elements, such as breadcrumbs. In addition, you must ensure that your content is keyboard accessible (for users who can’t operate a mouse).
  • Understandable: In order for your content to be truly accessible, users with a broad range of abilities must be able to understand it. In order for your content to be understandable, it must be written in simple enough language that most users will be able to understand it. Any unusual terms must be defined (with definitions appearing as a hover state, for example). In addition, the templates governing each page’s information architecture must be predictable. This means, for example, that you would structure the information on pages within a single content type in a similar way so as to avoid disorienting readers.
  • Robust: The robustness of your web content refers to how accessible it is to assistive technologies, such as screen readers and web crawlers. In order to achieve this, you must include the right metadata on each piece of content to guide assistive technologies in making sense of the information. In addition, you must make sure that you meet the requirements of the latest assistive technologies, including any necessary integrations.

WCAG 2.1 offers three levels of compliance: A, AA, and AAA. In order to get federal funding, healthcare companies must at least achieve the AA level of compliance. For some organizations, AAA compliance may be a worthy goal as a differentiator. Just be prepared that it’s exponentially harder to go from AA to AAA than it is to go from A to AA.

Getting Started with WCAG 2.1 AA Compliance

Becoming WCAG 2.1 AA-compliant all in one fell swoop is a pretty heavy lift. For one thing, many healthcare companies struggle to understand and apply all of the solutions required. To begin, start small by making the following changes, which cover important areas of the standard.

  • Provide text alternatives to non-text content, such as images, videos, and slideshows
  • Provide captions for time-based content, such as videos, podcasts, and training audio and video
  • Provide a clear page structure to orient and guide the user or assistive technologies (AT)
  • Provide short definitions of words or phrases used in a specific or unusual way

The rest, which can be added to your product roadmap, will naturally start to fall into place once you build this initial foundation.

WCAG 2.1 compliance isn’t just an opportunity to support your full range of healthcare customers. It’s an opportunity to improve your UX and create a stronger customer experience across the board.

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