Mar 12, 2018
By: Jason Smith
Delivering an engaging, speedy, and omnichannel customer experience is the goal of every ambitious brand. But too often, the dimension of accessibility is left out.
Not only is this a problem from an ethical perspective — after all, one in five Americans have a disability — but also, a lax approach to website accessibility is a potentially costly legal transgression.
According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), “the Web is fundamentally designed to work for all people, whatever their hardware, software, language, location, or ability. When the Web meets this goal, it is accessible to people with a diverse range of hearing, movement, sight, and cognitive ability...When websites, applications, technologies, or tools are badly designed, they can create barriers that exclude people from using the Web.”
An accessible website or application gives your audience the power to consume your content, use your services, or purchase your products, no matter their device or disability.
It means that your website can conform to the needs of the disadvantaged, leaving nobody excluded from experiencing your digital offering. Examples of the accessibility challenges that a web user might face include: visually impaired, hearing impaired, color blindness, fine motor skill challenges, and reading difficulties.
There is no unified web accessibility law in the United States. However, in 1994, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) developed the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which created a code of conduct for making web content accessible to those with disabilities or impairments. Shortly thereafter, a set of guidelines known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) was developed, which would go on to serve as the foundation for future legislation supporting improved access to web properties for individuals with disabilities.
The following legislations make up the bulk of the United States’ approach to accessibility on the web.
Section 508 applies to federal agencies and state or local entities that receive funding from the federal government. The law dictates that organizations under the purview of Section 508 must give any employees or members of the public who have recognized disabilities access to online information that is equal to that which other visitors, who are unaffected by disabilities, currently have.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.
It requires that organizations covered under its jurisdiction must provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities. Accessibility requirements on a variety of publicly accessible properties such as transportation resources, commercial facilities, and knowledge sources have also been enacted, and are most relevant when discussing compliance with accessibility case law. It’s therefore worth noting that the ADA has also been cited in lawsuits taken against companies from customers, not just employees.
HIPAA compliance is an industry buzzword that is used liberally, but often misunderstood when it comes to the true implications for corporate entities. The HIPAA act is often referred to in case law as the standard for fair and equitable treatment in the private sector.
With legislations like Section 508, ADA, and HIPAA in play, it may be difficult to ascertain where the W3C’s web content accessibility guidelines fit in. But upon closer inspection, the link between the law and the WCAG becomes clear.
For example, when a lawsuit was brought against the University of California Berkeley1 in August 2016, the Department of Justice decided that university was in violation of the ADA because their YouTube channel’s videos didn’t include captions for hearing impaired visitors. To point the institution in the right direction, the Department of Justice urged the university to seek out and follow the guidelines set out by the W3C’s WCAG guidelines2.
With that ruling in mind, organizations should pay close attention to the information laid out by the W3C, and follow their guidance when it comes to website accessibility.
The W3C has extensive guidelines on how to attain basic (and recommended) web content accessibility. We’ve taken out some of the most actionable fundamentals below, so if your website can comply with the checklist below, you’re well on your way to delivering an accessible customer experience.
Web pages must be readable by electronic “screen readers” — which are devices commonly used by the visually impaired to surf the internet.
Images must have “alt tags” (a type of metadata) which will help visually-impaired users to identify the image via text or via a screen reader. Search engine optimizers will know of alt-tags as a way to optimize images for ranking high in ‘Google Images’.
If you’re using tables on any web pages, they must also have alt-tags — similar to those used with images — to help explain each column via text. The user’s screen-reader will then read that text aloud, describing the contents of the table.
Any scripted display usage of image mapping should be accompanied by textual alternatives.
Your web pages shouldn’t need a stylesheet to display in a way that is understandable. They should be readable to screen readers, most of which cannot load style sheets.
Web forms should be usable even without a mouse, and each field should be labeled.
If your website requires a specific plugin to work correctly, you should present the link to that plugin in text form.
Your website should not contain any colors or color combinations that are either integral to the correct usage of your website, or which may confuse those with color blindness in any way pertaining to your website, products or services.
Your website shouldn’t be reliant on the usage of a mouse or touchpad. Users who wish to navigate using only keyboard keys should be able to do so.
Your website should not serve images or videos that can cause seizures.
While most websites are made up of similar elements and customer journeys, every website and application is unique. That means you can’t just apply a one-size-fits-all accessibility campaign to your web presence and expect to comply with the legislations that apply to your organization.
But with that being said, the 10 steps listed above will certainly help you on your way to a establishing a holistic website accessibility campaign.
1ADA (2016), Case Against University of Berkeley
2SearchEngineJournal (2017), ADA Compliance
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