Website accessibility is simply a new application of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the digital era. As a culture, we understand that it’s important to ensure full access to places of public accommodation (movie theatres, supermarkets, hotels, local town offices, etc.) for people living with disabilities—and now we must do the same with digital properties. For example, a person who is blind needs to have the ability to check his or her bank account online just like a sighted person can.
As much as 20% of the U.S. population has some type of disability, and many of these lead to serious barriers for web and app use. Visual, auditory and dexterity impairments can limit people from accessing web content. As such, the onus is on content publishers and website owners to make sure that our digital properties are accessible to everyone.
How to Make a Website Accessible
The tools and best practices have been around, essentially, as long as the internet itself. But as websites have developed over time and benefited in many ways from technological and graphical advances, focus on accessibility has waned. This has led to a high number (90% or more according to some studies) of sites falling well short of ADA requirements.
The good news: there is a proper way to code and publish content that allows for appropriate access to all—and it’s not very difficult to achieve. Simply by following guidelines and best practices, we can resolve accessibility issues. Adaptive (or assistive) technology takes care of the rest for us.
Groundbreaking tools like JAWS allow blind and low-vision users to hear the content of a website read to them out loud—or even utilize new Braille technology on a refreshable surface. Just as effectively, more established technologies like closed-captioning videos can help users who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. And users with dexterity impairments can utilize specialized keyboards to navigate websites instead of relying on a mouse. While businesses don’t need to provide these tools to users, they should create websites that enable the user’s tool to work properly. Obviously, a video without close-captions cannot be read aloud.
What the Law Says
Courts across the nation (Federal and state alike) have determined that the rules of the ADA apply to websites and other digital entities, and those decisions have been upheld by the highest courts. Companies used to think that a lawsuit would be thrown out for being frivolous or petty. Thankfully this mindset is becoming a thing of the past as large and small businesses have lost lawsuits and are obligated to follow the ADA. For example, Domino’s Pizza was sued because a user who was blind couldn’t fully use its website through screen-reading software. Supermarket chain Winn-Dixie suffered a similar lawsuit and also lost. But smaller firms, like the Avanti Hotel in Palm Springs, CA was forced to deactivate portions of its website due to a similar suit. In Massachusetts, bed and breakfast and small inns down the Cape have seen a slew of lawsuits.
What You Should Look For on Your Own Site
Most websites that suffer from accessibility issues have similar problems—and most of them are relatively painless. The most common issues tend to be missing ALT tags, form elements not being properly labeled, videos without captions, color contrast and font size issues, and a handful of other best practices being ignored. Forms can be particularly important, as they are often used in site searches, ecommerce, contact pages, and job applications.
Many issues seem to exist on blog posts—many, many sites have dozens or hundreds of blog posts with images missing ALT tags. Embedded iframes from YouTube, Vimeo, reservation software, and other sources are often not coded properly. The same goes for many widgets and plugins on popular websites systems like WordPress and Shopify.
Most of the issues mentioned above are “behind the scenes.” This means that when a site undergoes an ADA compliance review, the end result will look vastly the same to the majority of users, while being revolutionarily better for people living with disabilities.
What Should I Do Next?
Taking an assessment of your site is straightforward—and can lend insight into where you stand with accessibility. Tools like Google’s Lighthouse and WebAIM can provide a cursory look at your site and identify key problems. Once you know what kind of shape your site is in, you can take the appropriate steps for remediation.
Whether your take on website accessibility is CYA or that now that you’re informed you know it’s the right and smart thing to do, 2020 should be the year your firm’s site becomes ADA compliant. All you have to do to get onto this path is to contact me today and we’ll work together to make your site accessible to all.
A note to people living with disabilities. I apologize that my site is not yet ADA compliant! I am under contract with a web agency and am actively building a new site that will be fully accessible for everyone.
Co-authored with Mike McKenna from Adapatable