Today’s customers inadvertently urge businesses to transform and adapt rapidly to the ever-changing online world. Research reveals that ecommerce sales have been flourishing in previous years and that sales percentage is expected to increase by 12.4% this year, compared to 9% in 2019.
Consequently, as more people recognize the necessity of the internet, several issues have emerged too. One notable issue is that several websites are found to be inaccessible or are not in sync with the standards of web accessibility. Many also failed to pass a basic ADA compliance audit.
But what is web accessibility and what are the internationally recognized standards? And what is the ADA and why do you need to undergo a compliance audit? This article explains what you need to know about web accessibility and why it’s important.
About Web Accessibility
Web accessibility reflects the idea of inclusiveness. It aims to promote equal opportunity, access, use and interaction by everyone, particularly people with diverse conditions. Web accessibility helps in addressing any web issues encountered by people with disabilities, especially those with physical, motor, mental, cognitive and visual impairments. It embodies the four principles of good web design and features which are perceptibility, operability, understandability, and robustness.
Web accessibility is developed to make the web usable and navigable for everyone regardless of abilities or disabilities. It includes all forms of disabilities: permanent, temporary, situational or conditional disability. And this is why businesses are urged to optimize their websites, mobile apps, and other digital products. Since accessible designs are user-friendly and provide a stress-free User Experience for people with diverse conditions.
On the other hand, inaccessible websites’ prejudices people with disabilities, especially the blind who are the usual plaintiff of inaccessibility cases. There are about 2,235 web accessibility-related lawsuits to date.
What is the ADA?
The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a law that prevents any forms of discrimination against people with differing abilities. Concerning website accessibility-related issues, the court construed it as discrimination against persons with disabilities on account of public accommodation under Title III of the ADA. In other words, it does not permit the denial or exclusion of individuals with disabilities in enjoying their privileges or facilities intended for public accommodation.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently made a pronouncement, under its rulemaking authority to publish regulations, requiring businesses to comply with digital best practices and conformance to ADA Best Practices Toolkit and other internationally recognized web accessibility guidelines.
However, the good news is that private entities are given more flexibility in making their websites accessible. They don’t have to follow everything stated in web accessibility guidelines if their websites and other digital products are accessible.
What is Section 508?
Section 508 or 508 compliance orders all Federal agencies to make all electronic and information technology (EIT) easily accessible to individuals with differing abilities. It applies to federal agencies as well as any company that transacts with a federal agency including private contractors. Moreover, all digital communications created by an organization under Section 508 jurisdiction must also be compliant.
On January 18, 2018, Section 508 underwent a refresh. New updates are introduced concerning the standards for development, procurement, and maintenance of federal agencies’ information and communication technology (ICT). The new requirement uses a functional-based approach, instead of a product-based regulatory approach to determine the accessibility of ICT. This allows all people suffering from any form of disability to have easy access and use of ICT such as information kiosks, transaction machines, telecommunications equipment, multifunction office machines, and electronic documents.
Moreover, the update adds functional performance criteria, which is an outcome-based rule and applies to limited instances. For instance, when ICT features cannot be addressed by technical requirements, equivalent facilitation is needed to evaluate alternative design or technology. This is in line with the Access Board’s primary objective to incorporate and harmonize Section 508 with the current international standards provided by Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
What is WCAG?
WCAG is a series of web page accessibility guidelines developed by W3C (World Wide Web Consortium). WCAG is currently the leading internationally accepted web accessibility standards when it comes to providing structure for the creation or remediation of websites and other digital products. Countries such as Canada, the US, and the EU have incorporated WCAG, either by reference or legislation, to form part of their accessibility laws.
WCAG provides specific recommendations to make websites, mobile apps, and other digital products accessible. It operates under the four (P.O.U.R) guiding principles which are perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Also, WCAG was intended to guide content creators, developers, accessibility testers when designing and auditing for accessibility. It primarily aims to provide a better user experience for people with differing abilities, but it is, in fact, beneficial for everyone.
WCAG 2.1 introduces new standards on the level of web accessibility conformance that were not previously included in version 2.0. Compliance with WCAG 2.1 would also mean compliance with WCAG 2.0 since the two guidelines are backward compatible and complement each other.
What is VPAT?
Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) is a document prepared by the vendor, which outlines the compliance level of a product with Section 508. The template helps the procuring (federal) agencies better assess the level of conformance or accessibility features of a vendor’s product. VPAT template simply describes the features of Electronic Information Technology (EIT) like software applications, web-based internet information, telecommunication products, documentation and support of Section 508.
The VPAT templates have three main sections: the general section, summary, and detailed description. Moreover, to evaluate the accessibility of the product VPAT uses four criteria:
- Support – this emphasizes that a product passed the accessibility guidelines.
- Partially support – this emphasizes that the product passed but subject to certain conditions.
- Does not support – this means it failed to pass the accessibility guidelines
- Not applicable – it emphasizes that accessibility guidelines do not, in any way, apply to the product.
Normally, EIT providers who do business with federal agencies are obliged to submit VPAT and comply with Section 508. Similarly, the regulations apply to products used by anyone being directly or indirectly federally funded.
Why Web Accessibility is Crucial for Businesses
Web accessibility is crucial for your business since it protects it from the costly inconvenience that can affect your operations. Simply following the accessibility standards such as those mentioned in the ADA best practices toolkit and WCAG guidelines will help tremendously. You may feel overwhelmed at first, but web accessibility standards aren’t very hard to implement. It doesn’t need to be expensive too.
Many take the route to web accessibility to evade negative public perception and costly litigation. But unknown to many, bountiful advantages await businesses who choose to make their websites and digital products accessible. Here are some benefits of web accessibility:
Avoid discrimination and legal complications
By doing so, you eliminate possible discrimination towards people with disabilities. Note, however, that accessible sites also benefit even those without any form of disability. While ordinarily, most businesses have no intention to discriminate against their clients or visitors—an inaccessible site denies many users to navigate or use the web independently.
Build Positive Community-Relations
Maintaining an accessible website, mobile apps, and other digital products boost your reputation and goodwill. It improves your brand awareness and encourages users to promote you too. If visitors observed that you took the significant step in making the web usable and navigable for everyone then more people will be inclined to promote or visit your site.
Better Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Following accessibility standards are also good SEO practices. Accessible websites not only benefits people with disabilities but it also helps Search Engine bots (web crawlers and indexers). Practices such as providing an alt-text for images help bots to tag your content as relevant thereby improving rank in searches.
Improve usability for all types of users
Accessible designs also equate to a good UX design, thus improving usability for everyone. Accessible website and digital products eliminate possible online barriers making it usable and navigable for everyone regardless of abilities or disabilities. Say, for instance, an explanatory link text helps people who use a screen reader, but it’s also a good addition for normal users who want to know where the link is heading.
Broaden Your Market Penetration
An inaccessible website excludes around 15-20% of users experiencing some form of disability. This is a huge chunk of potential clients and sales. With accessible web design, you broaden your market penetration. Aiming for web accessibility increases your revenue sales and visibility on the web.
Dominos’ Pizza Case
This is an ADA-related case that was filed by a blind person, claiming that his right against discrimination on account of public accommodation has been violated. This is due to being unable to order from the Domino’s Pizza website and apps despite several attempts and with the use of an assistive device.
Domino’s Pizza adamantly defended its position that websites and apps were not included (or there’s no specific regulation) when ADA was passed in 1990. They argue that this lawsuit should be dismissed since its violative of the defendant’s due process of law. However, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the (blind) plaintiff stating that the alleged inaccessibility of Domino’s websites/apps is equivalent to a denial of goods and services offered in its physical store—a known place of public accommodation operating under the same pizza franchise. Domino’s Pizza appealed the case to the Supreme Court. The high court, however, declined to hear the case and let the lower court’s decision stand. Thus, there was an implied affirmation that the defendant’s online resources were inaccessible.
In recent years, there’s a sudden increase in cases filed in court that is like Domino’s Pizza case and other accessibility/ADA-related cases. This makes it more crucial for businesses to start considering and following accessibility guidelines.
Web Browser Accessibility
Web browsers are key software applications that are widely used today to access information on the Web. Since everyone utilizes web browsers to search or retrieve information, it needs to be accessible too. This means persons with disabilities should not encounter barriers when using or navigating it.
The most popular web browsers today are Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, and Mozilla Firefox. While well-liked by many, not all these browsers are fully navigable. Most of these browsers work well with assistive technologies.
Ideally, an accessible website should, at the very basic level, be navigable and operable by keyboard alone. If full keyboard navigation isn’t enabled, it should still work well with assistive devices such as a screen reader.
Application of Web Accessibility
Accessible web design is an inclusive design, which ultimately leads to better usability for everyone. A great place to start is to prioritize working with technology vendors that also prioritize web accessibility. Making your site accessible isn’t difficult or expensive; small changes like simple interfaces and designs that work well with assistive technologies can make a huge difference. You can start with the following application of web accessibility:
1. Use a 40×40 pt. Clickable Area for Touch Controls
A 40×40 pt. clickable area for touch controls is easier to tap or click than the smaller sizes. Doing so is primarily beneficial to persons with motor and visual impairments. This is also suitable for all finger-sizes especially those with big thumbs. Mobile device users can also benefit from this.
2. Prioritize Text Clarity
Prioritizing the clarity of text and text blocks will help users, especially the visually impaired, to easily identify the text content on your web page. Clear and legible text lessens the stress experienced by users with vision problems, as well as those using a mobile device.
3. Don’t Rely Exclusively on Color
Color is fine for those who have no vision problems. However, it’s a different story for those who have visual problems, specifically those who are color blind. If you rely exclusively on color, these certain people will have difficulties in discerning your content. A good practice instead is to add labels to explain functions or your intent.
4. Explanatory Link Text
Generally, an explanatory text link helps users distinguish one link from the others. It helps users navigate easily from link to link or skip in between when looking for a section of the website. People using assistive technologies such as a screen reader benefits from the explanatory link text feature. However, people of all abilities can also take advantage of this feature as it allows them to know where the link ultimately leads.
5. Order Content in HTML for Screen Readers
Ordering your content in HTML, particularly for screen readers, allows users to understand your content correctly and logically. This means, for developers and content creators, ensuring that your content still has a logical flow even if CSS is turned on or off.
6. Enable Keyboard Navigation for Web Design
People with disabilities, especially those with visual and motor impairments, rely heavily on keyboard navigation. Thus, enabling full keyboard navigation for your web design will make it easy for people with differing abilities.
7. Do Not Forget to Follow the Accessibility Checklist
The accessibility checklist helps you create an accessible site that is inclusive. Following all the items listed in the accessibility checklist will not only keep you away from possible lawsuits but also increase your site’s overall usability and performance.
Staying updated with web accessibility guidelines and regularly enforcing it will make the online world a friendly and valuable environment for everyone, especially for people experiencing some form of disability. Moreover, the Domino’s Pizza case serves as a precedent that non-compliance with the accessibility guidelines will make you liable. Non-compliance may also lead you to do costly remediations like retrofitting or redesigning. Finally, following the accessibility checklist will keep you away from possible legal action, improving site performance and overall usability.
David started Be Accessible because of his passion for website accessibility and ADA compliance. He spent much of his career working for financial institutions creating websites and mobile applications. He earned his Master’s in Business Administration from Salve Regina University in Rhode Island. David is an advocate for creating web interfaces usable by all people. He enjoys recording music and playing soccer with friends.