People with disabilities access websites in a variety of ways, and common website problems often create barriers for certain individuals. A common example is that a blind person may use screen-reading software which reads the text of the website out loud to the individual, but if the website has used images to convey information without adding alternative text, the screen-reading software cannot convey that information and the blind person will not be able to use the website.
So in fact, “accessibility” is relative. Because the United States has yet to implement comprehensive legislation governing accessibility, the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), is at this time the most commonly accepted voluntary set of guidelines for ensuring that websites are accessible.
Title II of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) applies to public entities, including state and local governments and public universities. Public entities are required to “take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with applicants, participants, members of the public, and companions with disabilities are as effective as communications with others.” 28 C.F.R. §35.160(a)(1). In January 2018, updated Section 508 regulations specifically adopted WCAG version 2.0 level AA as the web accessibility standard. Version 2.1 is also now adopted.
The rules for private businesses are slightly different, but the ADA guidelines has been used successfully in litigation against private and public entities who do not comply.
The WCAG is built upon four foundational principles of accessibility:
- Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
- Operable: No interactions or functionalities should exist that may not be operable by all website visitors.
- Understandable: 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: Content presented by a website must be robust enough to remain accessible through technology advancements, and particularly through advancements in assistive technologies.
The road to a fully accessible digital presence can be complicated but embracing the WCAG’s four foundational principles can go a long way in ensuring that an organization’s digital footprint is accessible to as many people as possible.
The University of California Berkeley has published a top 10 list for making websites more accessible and user-friendly:
Choose a CMS that supports accessibility: Not all content management systems are the same concerning hosting content that supports accessibility.
Use headings to organize structure of content: Using heading structures correctly can enhance the readability and usability of content.
Use alt text tags: Accurate, descriptive alt text should be provided for almost every image on a website or in a document.
Use descriptive navigation links: Every link should contain text that accurately describes where the link leads.
Use colors carefully: Nearly one out of 10 people has some type of color deficiency while some people with learning disabilities can benefit greatly from the use of color. It’s important to use colors carefully in order to include as many people as possible without disadvantaging others.
Make forms accessible: Form fields with poorly designed layout and navigation can be difficult for anyone to use, not only those who are disabled.
Use tables sparingly: Tables should be used only when necessary, and should utilize a logical and intuitive design.
Ensure keyboard-only access: For people with mobility issues, using a mouse or trackpad can be difficult or impossible. It is imperative that all content be accessible through the use of the keyboard alone.
Use ARIA sparingly: Accessible Rich Internet Applications can be useful, but it is often easier to use only HTML elements.
Make dynamic content accessible: When content updates dynamically (i.e. without a page refresh), screen readers may not be aware. These functions can easily be made accessible. Options include front-end development frameworks that specifically support accessibility.