Do websites need to be accessible by law?
According to the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) standards for accessible design, electronic media such as websites must be accessible to persons with disabilities.
Besides prohibiting discrimination against persons with disabilities in employment, transportation, communications, and government activities, the ADA has guidelines for websites.
Per the ADA, businesses must publish online content that is accessible to users who are partially or fully deaf or blind. This includes those who use screen readers, voice, or other assistive technology.
This applies to businesses that fall under Title I & Title III as per the ADA website accessibility guidelines. Namely, businesses operating for 20 weeks or more yearly with 15 or more full-time employees. Title III of the ADA relates to businesses that are under “public accommodation”. This includes restaurants, recreation facilities, and many others that are open to the public.
What does it take to have an ADA compliant website?
Website developers will quickly discover that the ADA doesn’t provide highly prescriptive techniques for creating an accessible website. This is for two main reasons – because of the complexity of web design, and the unique needs of people with disabilities.
Thinking that web content accessibility is therefore optional, too difficult, or can be taken lightly, would be a mistake.
Past cases, such as Gil vs. Winn-Dixie, show that the presence of supportive technologies in a website are considered when determining its accessibility. In this case, Gil was able to prove that Winn-Dixie’s website couldn’t be used by someone who is legally blind. It did not accommodate screen-reading software.
When it comes to identifying specific web content accessibility guidelines, many web developers and designers turn to the WCAG (Website Content Accessibility Guidelines). The guidelines are produced by a global group – the world wide web consortium (W3C). Its role is to develop open standards that ensure long-term web growth.
What are the WCAG guidelines for website accessibility?
Per the WCAG guidelines, a website needs to be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust for it to be considered accessible.
A perceivable website presents content and UI elements that are easily recognized and interpreted.
Putting this into practice, a business would offer content that can be ‘read’ using multiple mediums. For instance, instead of embedding important text into images or graphics, you should offer standard text that can be interpreted by assistive technologies. Another example would be to have UI components, such as action buttons, that have sufficient contrast between the text and the background color.
An operable website is one that is easy to use and navigate.
Such websites may have keyboard shortcuts or accommodate voice prompts that allow people with disabilities to navigate and access content easily. This includes allowing the website to be traversed using a range of input devices – not just a mouse. Think about touch screens, pointer gestures, and of course keyboard inputs.
An understandable website is one that provides an easy-to-use interface and content that is easily comprehended.
For this guideline to be met, deliberate effort must be made to ensure content is readable and is displayed in a predictable manner. For example, if a business provides content that contains jargon or abbreviations, some kind of glossary could be made available. Further, businesses should avoid disruptive page animations, popups, and UI effects that require users to re-learn how to use the website.
A robust website is one where content can be accessed using a variety of devices, technologies, platforms and screen sizes.
Robust websites are those that are built to maximize compatibility. This means they are coded correctly and adhere to the coding standards of the chosen technologies. Take HTML for example, which requires that elements are nested correctly, have start and end tags and have unique element IDs.
For a business, that’s a lot to take in. The best bet would be to engage an experienced developer to build the website following a range of equal access requirements.
What is the WCAG grading system?
WCAG guidelines have three levels, namely; A, AA, and AAA representing the most basic, average and strictest adherence to website accessibility standards.
Level A is a good start. Many government agencies use Level AA as the benchmark for their websites. This level addresses the most common issues confronting website users with disabilities.
AAA is notoriously difficult to achieve, which is why it’s considered to be more aspirational than practical. Businesses would have a very hard time meeting all of the criteria required. There are very few (if any) notable examples of AAA websites to mention here.
How to tell if your website is ADA compliant?
Websites can be manually checked or scanned by automated tools to assess whether they are ADA compliant. Manual checks by human experts are the most reliable and accurate evaluation method. You can even do this yourself when you know what to look for.
TL;DR – here’s an excellent video walkthrough from a Google developer explaining how to do an accessibility review of any website:
Website elements that are non-compliant
Flickering or blinking content: Some webpage flickering is inevitable while the page loads, but it shouldn’t be intentional or too frequent. The main concern is that it may trigger individuals who have photosensitive epilepsy. As a general rule, content shouldn’t flicker any more than 3+ times a second.
Color-reliant content: If you have content that relies solely on color to convey information, your site isn’t compliant. Using different colors as the only way to distinguish content (e.g. product categories) can pose challenges to people who are colorblind.
Color can be very useful in conveying concepts and ideas. However, it should only be used in conjunction with other methods, such as text and shapes.
Images lacking alternative text: People with vision disabilities use assistive technologies to surf websites. These technologies, such as screen readers, read text aloud to the user. Images lacking text alternatives can go unread, compromising the experience of these individuals.
Images, audio and video should always have “alt” text when embedded into an HTML page. This means that people with visual impairments can read and/or hear content they might not have been able to see visually.
Inaccessible Captchas: Captchas are an important security feature for sites. They help to identify real human visitors by presenting a visual code or challenge task. However, an image-only Captcha can make it impossible for a visually impaired individual to authenticate themselves. Accessible sites have Captchas that present audio and text options as well.
Missing transcripts for video and audio content: Websites with video and audio files should have transcripts for website visitors with hearing impairments. What’s more, the transcripts should be accurate and include descriptions of relevant background sounds (if any). YouTube content is especially useful in this regard because subtitles can be shown automatically. Furthermore, transcripts can be automatically translated into a user’s chosen language.
Missing form field validation messages: Alternatives and suggestions triggered by input errors help users navigate online forms when they are entering data. Online forms need to have clear field labels and validation error messages.
It’s common for users to be required to fill online forms. Ordering products, contacting your business, signing up for newsletters, etc. all require some kind of form input. Those forms should interact well with screen reader tools. If forms aren’t labeled properly, people with disabilities may be unable to perform critical actions on your website.
What are the benefits of an ADA compliant website?
Having a website that can be easily accessed by everyone, including those with disabilities, has several key benefits. This includes providing a better user experience, increased traffic and avoiding legal issues.
i. Better user experience
The most obvious benefit is a better UX for everyone who visits the website. Remember, this is all about removing unnecessary barriers to your online content.
Examples of common barriers include:
- problems viewing/accessing images that lack text equivalents
- problems accessing documents and files created using non-standard formats
- problems with website colors, contrast and font sizes
- problems interpreting rich media such as video and audio content
Each of these barriers will prevent people from accessing and consuming your content. This means fewer people who are able to purchase your products, submit contact forms, or become familiar with your services. As you might expect, this is a big deal for any business trying to be successful online.
ii. Increased traffic and sales
Accessible websites also stand to improve their organic traffic and sales. This is typically a result of ranking better in search engines, improved conversion rates, and increased consumer loyalty/satisfaction rates.
Google, among other top search engines, are getting better at highlighting businesses that have achieved ADA website compliance. Accessible websites rank higher than their inaccessible counterparts, which in theory should translate into more traffic.
If website users have problems completing forms and making purchases, this may result in a high exit rate. This will negatively impact a site’s ranking on search engines. Website accessibility is therefore good for SEO. It’s also good for society.
iii. Avoiding legal issues
Failing to have an ADA compliant website can open a business to legal action and a damaged reputation. Many businesses and personalities have been sued for running websites that aren’t ADA compliant.
A recent notable case was that of renowned American singer Beyonce. In 2019, her official website was subjected to an ADA compliance lawsuit.
The lawsuit filed against Parkwood Entertainment (the company that runs Beyonce.com), claimed that Beyonce’s official website violated the ADA.
According to the lawsuit, the site wasn’t accessible to blind users since its images lacked “alt” text. The site also lacked accessible dropdown menus and the ability to browse using a keyboard. This made it nearly impossible for blind users to navigate the site.
The importance of an ADA compliant website should not be underestimated.
Businesses need to think about website accessibility because it’s the socially responsible thing to do. Besides that, it exposes your business to lawsuits, risks brand damage, compromises your SEO, and potentially your bottom-line.
An ADA compliant website provides people with disabilities a fair chance to get the best out of the web. Compliance must be a priority for business owners. Investing time and money to create a new website or overhaul an existing one will pay off in the long run.