Achieving Web Accessibility

Movie theater with "Restricted Access" on screen and signs with disabilities over audience members

What is Web Accessibility?

The phrase “web accessibility” has been buzzing lately. But what does it mean exactly? And how can you and your visitors benefit from it? Let’s dive in to define it, clear up misconceptions, and guide you with recommendations and tools on how you can test for and fix potential accessibility issues related to your business website.

Web accessibility is the practice of ensuring access to digital content and functionality of websites by people with physical disabilities, situational challenges, temporary constraints, language barriers, and technological limitations.

The big takeaway from this definition is that accessibility is not just limited to people with physical disabilities. Making your website accessible improves the overall user experience for all your visitors. I encourage you to watch this short 8-minute Web Accessibility Perspectives video to truly understand the various ways that accessibility helps everyone.

Like investments in marketing, accessibility can put you ahead of your competition and reward you with a bigger slice of your demographic pie. But most businesses ignore it due to a myriad of reasons. Besides not being aware of it, here are some other rationales businesses may come up with.

Myth #1: I’m a small business. It doesn’t apply to me.

The Internet is a great equalizer. You can be found from anywhere in the world, whether it’s an angry customer or a hungry lawyer. And it could cost you thousands of dollars as most small businesses tend to settle out of court making them easy targets. Plus, you’ll still be on the hook to fix your site, so might as well upgrade it preemptively and enjoy the benefits of an accessible website. And even if you’re exempt from ADA laws, you can potentially gain more customers with some relatively easy fixes.

Myth #2: Web accessibility is only for a tiny fraction of web users.

Over 41 million Americans have impairments that can impact the accessibility of websites and online applications.1 Over 1 billion people globally or 15% of the world’s population have disabilities.2 With such a big demographic, no business can afford to ignore the accessibility needs of its visitors.

Myth #3: Web accessibility only deals with physical disabilities.

Web accessibility is not limited to just people with physical disabilities, nor to people already equipped with assistive technologies such as speech readers. It also benefits those with cognitive disabilities (dyslexia for example), language barriers, situational obstacles (watching a video in a noisy environment), or temporary disabilities (such as an injured wrist). An accessible website is designed to work for all people, regardless of hardware, software, language, location, or ability.

Myth #4: Web accessibility is a trend.

Website accessibility is not a fad or another design trend. Accessibility is really an extension of user experience and often improves the online experience for all users. It has been incorporated into training for user experience specialists, and a whole market is flourishing around testing and fixing inaccessible websites. But most importantly, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) now applies to online businesses just like it does for brick-and-mortar ones so there are costly legal ramifications for not being compliant.

Myth #5: Accessibility software makes my site compliant.

This is a popular myth that suggests a quick and easy “fix”, but no automated software can make your website 100% compliant, not even close. Perhaps one day true artificial intelligence may make this a reality, but for now, humans are still needed for many subjective fixes that software just can’t judge as truly meeting accessibility criteria.

Myth #6: We hired a company a few years ago so it’s done.

Accessibility is an ongoing process, not a fix-and-forget solution. You may need an inhouse accessibility expert or an outsourced accessibility company to stay compliant. Some fixes may be done once, but there are areas that will need constant monitoring. Since a website is rarely a static entity, as content and media are uploaded your staff needs to make sure it’s keeping those elements accessible. In addition, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are always a work in progress so it’s important to keep up with news and updates related to requirements and laws.

The Truth About Accessibility

Web accessibility is more than just mechanics; it’s a mindset because striving to reach full accessibility is an endless pursuit, not a final destination. And that means convincing your company to commit to an accessibility ethos. Accessibility is something that you want to adopt into your company culture proactively, not reactively.

Closeup of face, keyboard, cube with icons, and person wearing VR headset

4 Principles of Accessibility

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines below provide a roadmap to improving your website’s accessibility to bring it inline with ADA recommendations, but remember that they are ultimately just guidelines leaving some areas open to interpretation. You’ll need automated tools as well as human intervention to create an accessible website.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are broken down into the categories below with a basic summary of what each entails.3

Perceivable

Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive. For example, provide captions for videos for people with hearing disabilities or others who just happen to be in a noisy environment.

Operable

User interface components and navigation must be operable. For example, make all functionality available from a keyboard, not just a mouse.

Understandable

Information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable. For example, make your main navigation intuitive to use and be sure buttons and icons make sense.

Robust

Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted by a wide variety of user agents. For example, make sure your website is compatible with browsers and assistive technologies.

For more in-depth information, visit the WCAG Quick Reference webpage.

Coworkers discussing work in office setting

DIY or Get Professional Help?

The good news is some fixes are simple. However, not all errors are easy to solve or even catch. And even simple fixes can take considerable time and effort. Skills and job responsibilities vary from person to person, so you will need help from your webmaster, designer, developer, content creator, and/or accessibility expert to identify and fix certain issues. If you need external accessibility help, we recommend Level Access, although you can find other companies that offer similar services. Just be wary if they offer quick fixes with automated software. As a cautionary tale, here’s a case of a well-known company that ran into trouble with advocates for the blind because their automated software (an overlay) actually caused sites to be less accessible for blind people. It bears repeating that no software (not even artificial intelligence) can substitute for human intervention on the path to accessibility.

First, Find the Issues

Have your web developer run a scan of your website to highlight accessibility issues using the free WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool, Deque’s axe Tool, or one of many online services that offer scans. Note that automated scans only test about 30% of WCAG’s criteria, so you’ll also need to manually test for other criteria. At that point, follow the W3C WAI Easy Checks instructions.

Next, Assemble Your Team

Once you have identified issues, seek help from your webmaster, designer, developer, content creator, and/or accessibility expert to tackle those problems. The following ten items are some common accessible issues and although not an exhaustive list, they are relatively easy to fix:

  1. Non-text Content: provide text alternatives. For example, all your images should have an alternative text associated with it for disabled users such as blind people. Most web applications now offer this option. Just make sure the alternative text describes what is happening in the image and includes any text that’s part of the graphic.
  2. Audio and Video: offer alternative ways to get the content from audio or video on your site. This includes captions, descriptive audio, and text transcripts. Some software can automatically create captions, but they often need refinements.
  3. Info and Relationships: make sure your content is structured logically so if, for example, stylesheets were removed it would still make sense to the user. Have a main page title. Use headings semantically, not stylistically. This helps site readers and other assistive technology understand the flow of information on a page and skip to areas of interest easily.
  4. Use of Color: don’t depend solely on color for important information such as links or graphs. Underlining links and including different patterns in graphs in addition to color helps colorblind users interpret your content. Also, be sure to have enough contrast between text and background. Tools like this contrast checker can help.
  5. Media Control: don’t play media automatically. Let the user be in control.
  6. Keyboard: all functions should be accessible by keyboard. Make sure keyboard users never get trapped in a section of your website without an escape. You can quickly test by tabbing through a webpage’s content to see if the sequence is logical and functional.
  7. Skip to Content: provide a “skip to content” link (can be hidden for regular users) so disabled users can skip sections like navigation to go directly to the content.
  8. Link Purpose: make sure all link labels make sense about their purpose and destination. Don’t use generic link labels like “click here”.
  9. Form Fields: clearly label fields and make sure they show visually when in focus (helpful when keyboard users tab through a page). Give clear instructions on what a field is for. If a user makes a mistake filling out a form, be sure an instructive error message is displayed.
  10. Consistent Navigation, Icons and Buttons: consistency in interactive elements is important for visitors to feel comfortable navigating your website.

The list above is not exhaustive, but it’ll get you far enough along to at least boost website accessibility for most of your visitors and mitigate some legal risk. But don’t rest on your laurels. At this point, unless you have inhouse accessibility experts, you may need outside help to dig deep and uncover any remaining accessibility issues. Remember, accessibility is an ongoing endeavor, but it’ll reward both you and your customers in the long run.

Finally, Broadcast Your Achievement

Congratulations! You’ve made the world more accessible which puts you in the top tier of most websites. Now let the world know by generating an accessibility statement to post on your site. An accessibility statement tells your visitors that you are committed to accessibility and provides them with information about the standard you’re trying to achieve (for example, WCAG 2.1), any known limitations, as well as contact information in case users run into issues. Don’t forget to link to the accessibility statement from your website’s global footer.

"Always keep users in mind" on a computer screen

Equipped for Success

You now have a good sense of how web accessibility casts a wide net and affects everyone and everything, including your visitors and your business. Equipped with the knowledge and tools necessary to create a more accessible website, you and your team can mitigate legal risk and attract business success. So start today by scanning for issues, fix what you can, and hire an expert to resolve what you can’t.

Achieving accessibility compliance can be daunting, but take heart in knowing that you’ll make the online world just a bit more inclusive.

Resources

Be sure to check out these helpful resources:

The Business Case for Digital Accessibility: an article examining the rationale for organizations to address accessibility. Includes tangible and intangible benefits, and the risks of not addressing accessibility adequately.

Web Accessibility Perspectives (8 minute video): learn about the impact of accessibility and the benefits for everyone in a variety of situations.

WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool and Deque’s axe Tool: online tools for scanning a webpage to identify accessibility errors.

Easy Checks – A First Review of Web Accessibility: although not comprehensive, this page helps you start to assess the accessibility of a web page with a few quick and easy items to check.

Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools List: a filterable index of software programs or online services that can help you determine if web content meets accessibility guidelines. If you’re not sure how to select an appropriate evaluation tool, read Selecting Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools.

Accessibility Statement Generator: an online tool that will help you generate an accessibility statement that you can download and further refine to put on your website.

The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) website contains a ton of useful information on:

Footnotes

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