Ensuring your website is accessible to disabled users is becoming increasingly important—in fact, non-compliance could soon mean a lawsuit. It is expected that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) will be enforcing new ADA-compliance website regulations for public and private businesses by 2018. But even now, websites and apps are beginning to be held to similar standards of accessibility as buildings and transportation. And beyond the legal requirements, it’s just the right thing to do: according to the National Federation of the Blind, over 7 million people ages 16 through 75+ were reported to have a visual disability in 2013; and according to the American Foundation for the Blind, at least 1.5 million Americans with vision loss use computers.
In order to comply with accessibility standards, websites need to be designed and built to accommodate users with disabilities including blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cognitive limitations, limited movement, speech disabilities, and photosensitivity.
Who Must Comply?
While all website owners and webmasters could choose to comply, it’s especially important for the following types of organizations to make the accessibility of their websites a priority:
- State and federal government websites
- Organizations that receive federal funding
- Financial institutions
- Healthcare institutions
- Educational institutions
- Businesses with brick-and-mortar stores or a “physical place”
- Businesses and organizations who wish to be inclusive to all website visitors
What Laws and Standards are in Place?
Part of what makes accessibility standards for websites so confusing is that there isn’t just one standard, the laws are not always clear, and the standards are continuing to evolve.
Applicable laws include:
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, includes two major sections that may apply to web accessibility:
- Title II, which states that communications with persons with disabilities must be "as effective as communications with others" [28 C.F.R. ss 35.160 (a)] and
- Title III, which deals with public accommodation of people with disabilities.
- The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, specifically Section 508: In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. The law (29 U.S.C. § 794 (d)) applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Under Section 508, agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to access available to others.
Generally-accepted standards include:
- WCAG 2.0: this standard is written by the World Wide Web Consortium, an international community that develops open standards for the Web. WCAG 2.0 provides three levels: A, AA, and AAA, with AAA being the most stringent. (Some ADA consultants believe the Department of Justice intends to make WCAG 2.0, Level AA required for virtually all business and education websites.)
What needs to be done to Make Your Site Compliant?
The website’s design and functionality must be created with users with disabilities in mind. Users may be using assistive technology to navigate the site, so special functionality needs to be put in place in order to allow this assistive technology to work correctly and to provide a positive user experience. And, making design decisions that make the site easy to read and navigate can help users who may be visually impaired but not using assistive technology (think high contrast colors, adjustable font sizes, etc.). The following are several common steps that need to be taken to help make a website compliant:
- Add “alternative text” —code embedded with graphics that makes it possible for assistive technologies to access information
- Remove time limits for activities
- Ensure keyboard control for all website functions
- Provide appropriate document structure
- Provide headers for data tables
- Ensure users can complete and submit all forms
- Ensure links make sense out of context
- Caption and/or provide transcripts for media
- Ensure accessibility of non-HTML content, including PDF files, Microsoft Word documents, PowerPoint presentations and Adobe Flash content.
- Allow users to skip repetitive elements on the page
- Do not rely on color alone to convey meaning
- Make sure content is clearly written and easy to read
If you’d like help making your website compliant with accessibility standards, AVS Group can help. We use the following process:
- Audit: We’ll begin by conducting a site audit to identify what needs to be fixed. This audit consists of two automated reports (via two different software systems), plus manual review and analysis to identify the most pertinent changes that need to be made.
- Report: We’ll provide written recommendations about what changes need to be made.
- Implement: With your approval, we’ll implement our recommended changes.
- Re-check: Following implementation, we’ll complete a second audit to ensure the most important changes were made, and to identify additional areas for improvement for more stringent compliance.
- Train: Additionally, because a significant amount of accessibility compliance stems from how content is added, we’ll provide training so as you make changes to your website, you’re doing so in a way that maintains the site’s accessibility.
- Communicate: Optionally, AVS Group will publish a page on your website outlining your “accessibility statement,” which will include your organization’s plan for making existing web content more accessible and which standards are being followed. This page will also include means for visitors to provide input on improvements.
Resources to help site owners and webmasters comply with accessibility standards abound, however, the sheer volume of information can be overwhelming, and it may be difficult for non-technical users to understand what to implement and how to implement it. The following are a few good places to start to begin to educate yourself on website accessibility guidelines:
Section508.gov: A website provided by the U.S. General Services Administration with guidance, tools, and resources for Section 508 procurements. Additionally, GSA 508 Technical Tools and Resources provides an excellent list of free testing tools for 508 compliance and other government 508 compliance resources and information.
Usability.gov: a resource for user experience (UX) best practices and guidelines, serving practitioners and students in the government and private sectors.
Webaim.org: WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind) is a non-profit organization based at the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University and provides resources and tools relating to web accessibility, such as the Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool (WAVE).
508Checker.com: A free online tool provided by FormStack to help webmasters determine whether their website meets 508 compliance and accessibility standards.
W3C.org/WAI: The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international community where Member organizations, a full-time staff, and the public work together to develop Web standards. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) develops Web accessibility guidelines, support materials to help understand and implement Web accessibility, and resources.
Cynthia Says: The Cryptzone Cynthia Says™ portal is a joint education and outreach project of Cryptzone, ICDRI, and the Internet Society Disability and Special Needs Chapter. Cynthia Says educates users in the concepts behind website accessibility and helps users identify errors in their Web content related to Section 508 standards and/or the WCAG guidelines for Web accessibility.
Tenon.io: A testing tool designed to identify 508 and WCAG 2.0 issues.
ADA.gov: Recommendations for accessibility of state and local government websites to people with disabilities, along with a toolkit.
United States Access Board: The U.S. Access Board is a federal agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities through leadership in accessible design and the development of accessibility guidelines and standards for the built environment, transportation, communication, medical diagnostic equipment, and information technology.
Disability.gov: the U.S. federal government website for information on disability programs and services nationwide.
HHS Section 508 Accessibility checklists
: the official HHS Accessibility checklists for Word, Excel, PDF, multimedia, HTML web pages, and PowerPoint.