Having a website that’s accessible for users with disabilities not only brings your content and ecommerce to a new audience, but also ensures that your company or organization will not face future legal action under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In this blog, we’ll explain what it really means to have an accessible website and identify some next steps to get started with improving your user experience.
What is web accessibility?
Web accessibility is the practice of removing barriers that prevent people with disabilities from accessing the web. This can take the form of adding technology to your website that specifically supports access by people with disabilities, or by adjusting existing content and technology that make access more difficult.
The adaptations you make to help enable people with disabilities to use your website benefit everyone, not just people with disabilities. Consistent navigation, helpful illustrations, and clear language are helpful to all users, and therefore have benefits beyond accessibility. In addition, accommodations meant for people with disabilities can be used by all users. For example, captions on videos are a great solution for Deaf users and are also helpful for people in an office with no headphones who need to view your video without audio.
In order to understand accessibility fully, we first need to understand a bit about disability. What categories of disability exist, and how do they impact a person’s ability to use your website?
Categories of disability
- Visual - Blindness, low-vision, and color-blindness all impact a person’s ability to perceive details presented on your website, or make it impossible to perceive it visually at all.
- Hearing - Deafness and hearing impairment both impact the ability to perceive many types of media.
- Motor - Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and other motor disabilities can cause an inability to use a mouse, slow physical response time to stimuli, or limit fine motor control.
- Cognitive - There are a wide range of cognitive disabilities that can impact a person’s ability to use or understand your website as you intended it to be understood, such as dyslexia or other learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, or Down’s syndrome. People with cognitive disabilities may also experience symptoms such as distractibility or an inability to remember or focus on large amounts of information.
- Seizure - People with seizure disorders, such as epilepsy, experience seizures caused by strobing, flashing, or flickering visual effects.
Why create accessible content?
There are many reasons to create accessible content. Primary, though, is the simple fact that nearly 1 in 5 people in the United States have a disability. Depending on the demographics of your users, this number might fluctuate, and accommodating the needs of your user base is important to the success of your site, whether your goal is simply sharing information, generating leads, or selling products.
In addition to altruistic and business-oriented motivations for creating accessible content, lawsuits or fines caused by failing to be accessible are another major reason for making your website accessible. Recent cases leveraging the laws outlined below have begun to set a precedent that ecommerce sites must be accessible.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
This US labor law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and created accessibility requirements for public services and accommodations. The ADA doesn’t directly mention the web, but works to ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities.
The Department of Justice is currently developing regulations to address web accessibility, although several notable cases regarding the ADA have made it clear that the ADA’s authority pertains to websites, even business that are web-only.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973
This law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs run by federal agencies, programs that receive financial assistance from the federal government, in federal employment, and in the employment practices of federal contractors.
In 1998, Congress amended this act with Section 508 to require federal agencies to provide accessible electronic resources and information technology to people with disabilities. Currently, this doesn’t require private websites that don’t receive government funding to be accessible, although the law is evolving as cases go on.
How do we know if content is accessible?
Although there are several laws that are generally considered to govern web accessibility in the US, none of them actually define the specifics of how a website can be determined to be accessible. In court cases, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are used to determine if a website is compliant with the ADA and Section 508.
The WCAG was created by the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), the governing body of the web, and its current iteration was published in December of 2008. These guidelines are the basis of most web accessibility laws around the world, with some countries even formally including them in their laws.
The WCAG involves three conformance levels (A, AA, and AAA), which increase in strictness and requirements. To meet a conformance, your website must meet the requirements within that level, and those below it.
The WCAG contains four principles that encompass its many guidelines for web accessibility, each containing several guidelines.
The website is available to a user’s senses, either through the browser or other assistive technologies (such as screen readers or screen enlargers). The information content and user interface components of the website must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive. This includes such accessibility requirements as captions and alternative text for images.
Users can interact with all controls and interactive elements on the website, using either the mouse, keyboard, or an assistive device. This includes accessibility requirements such as bypass blocks, appropriate page titles, and bypass blocks.
The content and operation of the user interface on the website is clear and limits confusion and ambiguity. This includes requirements such as clear error identification and labels on forms.
A wide range of technologies (browsers, assistive technology, operating systems, etc) can be used to access the content. As part of this principle, websites must be parsable by these technologies with correctly formatted code.
I want to make sure my website is accessible! What next?
After understanding the basis for and basics of web accessibility, I encourage you to conduct an audit of your website. Accessibility is a process, and doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s a goal to work towards and, with the appropriate resources and tools, you can increase the accessibility of your website.
Here is a selection of the resources I’ve found to be the most helpful in learning about accessibility and auditing websites:
Just enter the address of your website, and this tool will output an automated audit of your website, highlighting failures and successes. Although there are many accessibility concerns that this tool isn’t able to find, it’s a great start for your audit.
For convenience, they’ve also created Chrome and Firefox extensions that are definitely worth looking at.
This organization provides plenty of learning resources and tools for improving your understanding of accessibility on the web. Be sure to check out their color contrast checker!
This community-based website creates and shares a wide variety of information about web accessibility, from basics to help with assistive technology to debunking common myths and more.
The WAI website has been my ultimate resource in learning more about web accessibility, as it contains the text of the WCAG 2.0, as well as a treasure trove of guides and techniques for improving websites.
One of our user experience designers, Ruizhi Liu, has also recorded a webinar, User Friendliness for All! Understanding the Keys to Accessible UX, highlighting some quick wins for an accessible user experience. The recording can be found at the link below.
View our accessible UX webinar now
Stephanie Marx is a web developer at Adage Technologies who specializes in front end and accessibility. She comes to the world of programming from a psychology background and is involved in a variety of organizations that work to increase diversity in the tech industry. Recently, she has spoken at Code Camp Chicago, Railsconf, and a variety of events at Dev Bootcamp Chicago.