Accessibility. What is it, and why is it important?

Beyoncé was making headlines this past year. Her tour with husband Jay Z was a hot topic, as well as countless articles about her music and fashion. Obviously none of those things has anything to do with the subject of this post though. Beyoncé was in the news for an entirely different reason. She, or more specifically her entertainment company, was threatened with a class-action lawsuit because her website is not accessibility compliant. At a quick glance this lawsuit appears to be centered around the fact that Beyonce’s site, which is very image rich, doesn’t provide text alternatives for many of the pictures on the site.

The Queen Bey’s website is by no means the first to be the target of a lawsuit, but it definitely falls outside of the more typical corporate or large e-commerce sites that have been sued in the past. In the last few years there has been an increasing number of website accessibility lawsuits, filed by both individuals or as class actions. These claims have been brought in federal court under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and under similar state and local laws as well. From January 1, 2019 – June 30, 2019 over 5,000 ADA lawsuits were filed in federal court.

You may have heard of accessibility and ADA 508 compliance in regard to websites. But quite honestly – the information that is out there can be a bit confusing to wade into. My goal is it walk through what accessibility means, whether you need to worry about, and what it takes to be compliant?

Accessibility – where to begin.

Accessibility, in a nutshell, is making sure all individuals regardless of disability have access to the same services as others. In the eyes of the law non-accessibility equals discrimination.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was created by the Department of Justice in 1990 to address exactly this. In 2010 the ADA’s Standards for Accessible Design was created to ensure people with disabilities are able to access, among other things, websites.

The problem many are experiencing is knowing who needs to be ADA compliant, and what it takes to become compliant. The laws and the guidelines are not very clear.

So what is 508 compliance?

Section 508 is an amendment to the Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This federal law requires access to electronic and information technology provided by the Federal government. The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology.

Did you catch that? Section 508 was written for US Federal agencies. So if you’re not a government agency you don’t have to worry about it – right? Sorry, it’s not that simple.

Who needs to be ADA compliant?

ADA compliance applies to any company that does business with a federal agency. This could include private contractors, the financial industry, healthcare, legal organizations, and many others. If you work with federal agencies, or hope to, then you need to be 508 compliant.

In addition to these federal guidelines, most states have their own standards. K-12 schools, institutions of higher education, and private businesses have also been held to accessibility standards.

As the number of legal actions brought against companies continues to rise, the courts are increasingly ruling in favor of the plaintiffs due to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Let’s keep one thing in mind. Nearly 1 in 5 of all Americans having some kind of disability. And, as the population ages, that number is going to continue to grow as more people start to identify as a person with a disability.

At this point, if your business has a website, you should seriously look into achieving compliance. Aside from any legal risk, why wouldn’t you want to ensure that all potential customers have access to your products or content? Why wouldn’t you make your brand as inclusive as possible?

What does compliant mean?

The ADA compiled a set of guidelines for websites to follow to become compliant. However, there really is no law written specifically around these guidelines, so it can be hard to judge what is necessary to be 100% compliant. Super helpful – right? Definitely not.

Thankfully over the last couple years the ADA, Section 508, and many other established standards are now aligning themselves with the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

WCAG 2.0 is a set of referenceable standards created by the W3C for making web content more accessible to people with disabilities. For every standard published in 2.0, there is a testable set of requirements at varying conformance levels: A, AA, AAA.

Your website can be ADA compliant without meeting every last standard in WCAG 2.0. The WCAG 2.0 conformance level typically referenced to achieve compliance is Level AA. This includes meeting all level A and AA standards.

Quite honestly the majority of the items needed to be A & AA compliant are not that difficult to accomplish and shouldn’t require a substantial amount of time to implement on a site. On a new site build, implementing most of these items should not add significant cost to the build.

Compliance items a 10,000 ft level?

What’s listed here is a high-level view of the WCAG requirements. If you want to dig into the full set of requirements, you can do so at the WCAG quick reference.

Level A is the absolute minimum requirements needed for a page to be considered accessible.

Some of the items included at level A are:

Providing text alternatives for non-text content, such as images.
In most cases this really be a simple fix. If your website was built using WordPress, simply navigate to the Media portion of the site and make sure each image has a description of the image added the Alternate Text field. Similar capability should exist in other CMS platforms.

Providing captions for audio and video content.
Creating this content can be a time consuming process, as it requires creating a transcript for any video or audio content. Platforms such as YouTube may provide auto-generated closed captioning, but it can be error prone. There are companies that do provide this service.

Assistive technologies, such as screen readers, can determine what the content is.
Screen readers ensure individuals with visual impairments or cognitive / learning disabilities can access your content by reading aloud the pages. Utilizing specific structural elements in the way your pages are built will allow screen readers to quickly process your content.

Ensuring all functionality is accessible via the keyboard.
This is to make sure users with motor disabilities or screen readers can navigate your site using only the keyboard. To achieve this your site’s pages need to be structured in a way that a user can use the tab or arrow keys to move through elements on the page.

Confirming form elements have labels or instructions.
Again this is related to how your page is structured. If your site contains any forms, or is an e-commerce site, this should be looked into.

Level AA requirements ensure that content achieves a greater degree of accessibility.

Some of the items included at level AA are:

Text and backgrounds have a minimum level of contrast.
Colors on a website may not be something one would immediately think of in regard to accessibility. This requirement revolves around the contrast level between text and the backgrounds on which they sit. The goal here is to make sure the text stands out from it’s background, so it can be easily read by those with impaired vision.

Another thing not mentioned here, but worth considering is how your site appears to those will color blindness. Are there any items on your site that’s function is only conveyed using color, that someone with color-blindness might not be able to see?

One example would be having errors displayed in red text. Colorblind users may not be able to differentiate the red text from the other text on the screen – therefore completely missing the importance of the message. Pairing a simple icon with the error text could alleviate this issue.

Allowing users to resize text on the site.
This one sounds a bit more complicated than it actually is. As long as your site isn’t going out of its way to keep users from adjusting their browser’s zoom level – you should be okay.

Ensuring content is organized under clear headings and labels.
This is related to how your content is entered into the site. A consistent use of h1, h2, and h3 tags should be implemented to correctly organize your content and represent the content’s importance.

Providing consistent navigation throughout a website.
This is pretty straight-forward. If you’re not doing this, your site isn’t all that accessible for anybody.

Where to begin?

Obviously, if you have been sued, you should contact a lawyer. They can guide you through what your next steps can be.

As a preventative measure, there are several online tools and websites that can test your site for compliance issues. In the future I will share some of these and their features.

If have any immediate concerns about your website, please reach out. We can conduct an audit of your site, and work with you to determine what steps would be necessary to work towards compliance.

Next up – I will provide some tools that can be used to test your website for compliance.