Our guest blogger, co-founder of First Ascent Design Pauline Rubin, was kind enough to give a thorough overview of some web accessibility best practices.
It’s probably difficult for most of us to imagine the web without the stunning imagery and visual effects we’ve become accustomed to. Fullscreen photography, animations, and scrolling single page websites have become the norm in the past few years. But what is the web like for a person who is blind? Or has difficulty distinguishing between colors? What about someone who cannot use a mouse?
Web accessibility encompasses all disabilities that affect access to the web. The Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) created a set of web standards called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to remove barriers that prevent interaction with content online. By following the requirements set forth in the WCAG, we help those with disabilities understand and contribute to the web more efficiently.
Why should I care about web accessibility?
If you’re a busy business owner, web accessibility is probably not an issue on the forefront of your mind. However, accessibility can benefit your business in many ways.
1. If you’re not accessible, you’re hurting your business
Imagine this, five people walk into a store. Instantly, the manager tells one of them to leave. Sounds ridiculous, right? You would never turn away one-fifth of your potential customers, but your website may be doing that without you realizing it.
According to the Census Bureau, about 19% of Americans (roughly 57 million people) have a disability. That’s almost one in five people. However, your business may have a higher percentage. If you feel that is the case, moving forward with web accessibility could be an important advantage for your business.
What if your competitors’ websites are accessible and yours is not? Then they could be getting more traffic, even more repeat visitors, and thus more potential customers.
2. You may be legally required to provide accessibility
The web has provided many opportunities to provide information in government, education, transportation, and other sectors. You may not realize it, but many of these businesses are legally obligated to meet web accessibility standards.
If a business’s website is not accessible, the website owner could be sued for discrimination. Applicable laws include The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Sections 504 and Section 508). This means that an inaccessible website can not only be a PR issue or a source of negative feedback, but also a legitimate legal liability.
In 2006, Target was sued by the National Federation for the Blind (NFB). The NFB had previously warned Target that their website did not allow the disabled to make online purchases, among other issues. However, Target did not remedy these issues, and as a result, had to pay $6 million dollars as part of a class action lawsuit. The judge in the case ruled that California anti-discrimination laws were applicable to the web.
Netflix, the streaming video, TV, and movie giant, has also been sued for not providing accurate captions and impairing the accessibility of deaf users.
3. Accessibility benefits everyone
So far we’ve only addressed the benefits of web accessibility for the disabled, but it can be helpful in many other ways as well. Several of the standards set forth for web accessibility are design and usability best practices for everyone.
Minimum text size and color contrast requirements prevent eye-strain and give everyone a more pleasant experience on your website. They also can benefit the elderly who tend to have visual problems as they get older.
Some people dislike trackpads on laptops and prefer to navigate websites with the keyboard. Someone may be temporarily disabled, such as a broken arm, and can benefit from being able to navigate a website without a mouse.
Properly formatted content with headings and alternative text descriptions for images is crucial to blind users that navigate the web using screen readers. This structured data is also a boost your website’s search engine performance, and will help you be found in Google and other search engines.
I want to make my site accessible, so where do I start?
1. Educate yourself on the issue
The first step in creating an accessible website is education. Two great places to start are The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) website and WebAIM. The W3C provides the text for the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. There is also a wealth of information on web accessibility from the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative website.
The Web Accessibility In Mind organization, a non-profit based out of Utah State University, is also a great resource for keeping up with the changing landscape of web accessibility.
2. Scan your current site
There are several free resources online to help you measure the accessibility of your website and highlight areas that need improvement. These validators not only provide an error list but suggestions for how to fix the problem.
AChecker – AChecker hails itself as a “tool that checks single HTML pages for conformance with accessibility standards to ensure the content can be accessed by everyone.” It’s a web-based tool that can check any URL against accessibility standards.
WAVE – WAVE is a more interactive web-tool that again checks a single URL against web accessibility standards. This is a tool best used by your development team to guide development of a website.
For either checker, focus on the “major” or “known” problems first. Correcting all of those issues will leave your site in a much more accessible state. The lesser levels of issues should be investigated, but are not changes crucial to the website.
However, tools only provide a starting point when determining if a site meets accessibility guidelines. There are other steps you can take to fully understand how your website is accessed by a disabled person. Put yourself in the shoes of your users. For example, try navigating the site with only a keyboard. Download a text-only browser or a screen-reader, and try navigating your site with those tools instead of your normal browser.
3. Get your team on board
An awareness of the web accessibility issues your website is facing is step one. In order to solve the problems, you must be able to implement those changes on your website.
If you aren’t the person who handles the day-to-day maintenance of your website, it’s important that your team understands the importance of these issues and how to abide by the WCAG standards.
For example, if one of your staff members updates your WordPress blog, he or she should be properly using headings to format content. In addition, he or she should always be filling out the “alt text” box when adding images.
Accessibility is easily implemented if it is planned from the beginning of the website development process and if the processes in place for updating the website are designed with accessibility in mind. When you are looking for a designer or developer, ask about their experience with web accessibility.
Welcome to an accessible web
Improving the accessibility of a website does not need to be a difficult process. Following accessibility guidelines will make your website better for everyone, prevent you from alienating one-fifth of potential visitors, and protect you from legal consequences.
If you have any questions, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pauline Rubin is the co-founder of First Ascent Design, a digital marketing and design firm in Wilmington, Delaware. She is passionate about creating well-designed, functional web experiences. She is also an organizer and teacher for the Wilmington chapter of Girl Develop It, a nonprofit that provides affordable coding classes for women.