I've been hearing a lot about website accessibility and compliance recently. What does it mean for me and how can I ensure my website is compliant?
What an important question!
We'll start by saying that here at Echo&Co, we believe in a free and open Internet that is available and accessible, without interference, to all people and communities. This includes people of all abilities. You can learn more about issues related to internet freedom at Free Press, a nonprofit organization we've proudly partnered with for a number of years.
We've been helping our clients understand and implement accessible websites for many years. In recent years, website accessibility-related lawsuits have been increasing. This has raised concerns among website owners about whether their sites are compliant with accessibility standards and how to make sure they are.
We've put together this advice article as a handy guide for understanding the issue of accessibility compliance and developing your own plan.
What is accessibility and why is it important?
Imagine that you need to research some critical information online — e.g., where to fill a mail-order prescription, or how to pay an electric bill. Now imagine that you are living with a condition that impairs your ability to see. You arrive at the website where you need to fill out your prescription form or pay your bill and discover that you can't see the design because it lacks visual contrast. You then try to use a screen-reading tool to navigate the site, but the site doesn't allow it. No matter how much you need to use the site — until you get someone else to assist you, you're blocked. Now imagine you live at home and don't have access to transportation or community members to support you. You're unable to take care of the most basic things you need in order to have a healthy and secure life.
Every modern website owner should be concerned with removing these kinds of digital barriers from people's lives. Accessibility is required by law and should be of the utmost importance to anyone who designs and operates websites.
How did accessibility come about?
In July 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — civil rights legislation prohibiting discrimination against individuals who are differently abled. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four adults in the United States lives with a disability, and the Census Bureau predicts that the number of disabilities will increase over the next decade.
Although the ADA has helped improve the lives of many people since 1990, there are still many barriers to access for the differently abled, especially when it comes to life online. Some of the most critical barriers that exist today, exist online.
Does every website have to be accessible?
In short, yes. Equitable access to information is a civil right and providing universal digital accessibility is a part of upholding that right.
Before 2018, however, many website owners failed to bring their sites into compliance with minimal accessibility standards and therefore excluded differently abled people from accessing their content. There were few real consequences to owning a website that restricted access for people based upon ability.
That changed dramatically in 2018. Website users began filing complaints, and eventually lawsuits against website owners who failed to comply with website accessibility standards. This movement has continued to gain support and momentum. As a result, web owners and managers are becoming increasingly concerned with making sure their websites are compliant.
We saw a recent example of this increasing momentum when we attended the National Education Association's (NEA) Representative Assembly this past July (2019). During the annual meeting, NEA state and local delegates from around the country introduced a new business item requiring NEA to improve the accessibility of its digital content. Since earlier this year, our team has been collaborating with the NEA team on defining a new web experience and platform that better serves members, supporters, state and local affiliates, and community allies — and that puts accessibility first.
In the next year, we expect to see accessibility become a key item at board meetings, strategic planning sessions, member meetings, and more.
What is the best source for accessibility information?
With the lack of regulations at the federal level with regard to accessibility on the Internet, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) created a set of universal standards and solutions for developers. W3C designed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to empower creators in the digital sphere to improve compliance with accessibility requirements. These guidelines ensure that websites are accessible to people with visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, neurological, and other disabilities.
Perceivable - Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive and users must be able to perceive the information being presented (it can't be invisible to all of their senses).
Operable - User interface components and navigation must be operable (the interface cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform).
Understandable - Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable (the content or operation cannot be beyond their understanding).
Robust - Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies, and users must be able to access the content as technologies advance (as technologies and user agents evolve, the content should remain accessible).
For each of the guidelines, there are also three levels of testable success criteria (A, AA, and AAA). You should test your website against these criteria to ensure that differently abled users have full access to the information available on your site. Fully understanding users' needs and applying the suggested guidelines in the web content design and development process will help to increase accessibility and improve usability.
We recommend bringing your website to a minimum of AA compliance by January 2020, or as soon as possible.
I want to get started with improving my website's accessibility. How do I start?
To determine whether or not your current website is compliant, first, you should run an accessibility scan using one of the evaluation tools listed on the W3.org website, and create a checklist against the WCAG 2.0 requirements guidelines. If you have a major website upgrade, update or enhancement planned, compliance should already be part of your strategy. If it isn't, make sure to roll that into your 2020 strategy.
If you need an accessibility partner to help bring you into compliance, get in touch and we will help you get started!
As a human-centered creative digital agency, Echo&Co advocates for universal compliance with web content accessibility guidelines. We are committed to incorporating inclusive design practices within our work to achieve accessibility for everyone.
Where can I get more training on digital literacy?
If you want to learn more about how to best address digital literacy needs, our friends at NTEN are hosting a Digital Literacy and Accessibility professional certificate course. It covers three key topics under the digital literacy umbrella:
Awareness: understanding the practices and technologies to ensure digital accessibility and inclusion.
Strategy Development: develop and implement strategies for successful engagement and inclusion of people with disabilities.
Assessment: evaluating tools and spaces and identifying potential barriers.
We're very grateful to NTEN for offering this training and excited to share it with you.
Here's some further reading, if you'd like to learn more:
Disabled Americans are less likely to use technology, Pew Research Center
When Good Sites Go Bad: The Growing Risk of Website Accessibility Litigation, National Law Review
Reporters have forgotten one of the greatest civil rights advances in the past 30 years, USC Annenberg, Center for Health Journalism