sign set in the grass pointing to wheelchair accessible route. reads "step free route"
PHOTO: Yomex Owo

Inclusive experiences have by now become commonplace in the public infrastructure: designated parking, wheelchair ramps, Braille touchpads, etc. In the digital realm, however, inclusive experiences are far less common.

Great strides have been made in reducing this inequity. Nearly 30 years ago the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. The ADA set in place legislative regulations to ensure the one in four Americans with a disability have equal access to public accommodations and workplace opportunities.

Access to the digital world is becoming increasingly important for everyone. But for many disabled people, interacting with website elements and accessing information online can range from difficult to outright impossible. Using common website elements such as navigation bars, radio buttons, sliders and forms can be particularly challenging.

Providing Equal Digital Accessibility Is the Right Move

For the organizations that aren’t ethically compelled to provide equal access to websites and digital workspaces, additional motivators exist. In 2018, ADA lawsuit filings hit record numbers. The 30% increase in lawsuits from the previous year was comprised primarily by a jump in website accessibility claims.

All organizations, from Fortune 500 companies to mom-and-pop shops, must take action to ensure their websites provide inclusive experiences. Organizations that fail to do so, as one news story put it, are “sitting ducks” just inviting a lawsuit.

Related Article: Why Web Accessibility Is Good Policy and Good Business

Getting Started With Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

Developers seeking to incorporate inclusive design into their websites will find a wealth of guidance in the latest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Published by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), the WCAG offers information of value both for those just beginning to incorporate accessibility into their websites and for the more experienced. In fact, following the principles advocated in the WCAG will help make websites more accessible and user-friendly for everyone, not just those using assistive technology.

The WCAG is built upon the following four foundational principles of accessibility:

  • Perceivable: Information presented on a website is of no value to a visitor if it cannot be perceived by that visitor. Information that is only presented visually to a vision-impaired visitor, for example, or only auditorily to a hearing-impaired visitor is of no use. As stated in the WCAG, “Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.”
  • Operable: Website components intended to help navigate and interface with the website must be operable for all visitors. No interactions or functionalities should exist that may not be able operable by all website visitors.
  • Understandable: Have you ever been confused about the next action expected of you when you were interfacing with a website? Most of us have experienced this at some point. As the WCAG states, “… users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface (the content or operation cannot be beyond their understanding).”
  • Robust: Technology evolves rapidly — and that applies to the user agents that serve as interfaces between visitors and websites. Content presented by a website must be robust enough to remain accessible through technology advancements, and particularly through advancements in assistive technologies.

Related Article: We Need to Build Accessibility Into Our Digital Workplaces

Is Your Organization’s Digital Presence Accessible?

How can you build upon the WCAG’s four foundational principles to assure your organization’s digital footprint is accessible to everyone? The University of California Berkeley has published a top 10 list for making websites more accessible and user-friendly:

  1. Choose a CMS that supports accessibility: Not all content management systems are created equal when it comes to hosting content that supports accessibility.
  2. Use headings to organize structure of content: Using heading structures correctly can enhance the readability and usability of content.
  3. Use alt text tags: Accurate, descriptive alt text should be provided for nearly every image on a website. The only exception would be images that are purely décor, and not intended to convey a message.
  4. Create unique and descriptive navigation links: Each link should contain text that accurately describes where the link leads.
  5. Use colors carefully: Did you know that nearly one out of 10 people has trouble with a red-green color deficiency? People with learning disabilities, on the other hand, can benefit greatly from the use of colors. So it’s important to use colors, but carefully. It can also be helpful to combine the use of colors with other visual indicators.
  6. Make forms accessible: Form fields that are poorly designed in terms of layout and navigation can be a nightmare for anyone to use. And forms that contain inaccurately labeled fields may cause screen readers to convey inaccurate information, rendering the form particularly problematical for the vision-impaired to use.
  7. Use tables sparingly: Tables should be used only when necessary, and should utilize a logical and intuitive design.
  8. Ensure keyboard-only access: For people with mobility issues, using a mouse or trackpad can be difficult to impossible. That’s why it’s crucial that all content be accessible through the use of just the keyboard.
  9. Use ARIA sparingly: Accessible Rich Internet Applications can be useful, but in many cases, it is simpler to just use HTML elements.
  10. Take care with dynamic content: Assure that any dynamically updated content on your site communicates content updates using accessibility tools such as screen readers and magnification software.

The 10 tips above, along with the WCAG’s four foundational principles, provide starting points for ensuring the accessibility of your organization’s digital presence. But that accessibility should constantly be evaluated by soliciting feedback from your user community.

Which of the changes you’ve implemented to enhance accessibility have been successful? Which have been less successful? Constantly working with your user community in obtaining feedback and acting upon that feedback — including the prioritization of accessibility-related fixes in your development sprints — is a critical component of the process of achieving and maintaining true accessibility for all website users.

Related Article: Great Websites Pass the 3-Second Rule

Accessibility Serves Everyone

The definition of accessibility is ever changing. Sites considered highly accessible yesterday may be deemed less so according to today’s standards. And the accessibility standards of today will likely pale in comparison to tomorrow’s standards. But as accessibility standards evolve, one constant will be unchanging: progressive companies (like Microsoft) will continue to make accessibility a priority.

That’s because accessibility is important for everyone — not just those requiring assistive technology. As the WAI notes, a focus upon accessibility helps to:

  • Drive innovation.
  • Enhance your brand.
  • Extend market reach.
  • Minimize legal risk.

Customers and employees of companies that prioritize accessibility will experience benefits across the board, whether they’re disabled or not. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.