Many people have a vague notion of what “accessibility” means and how it applies to online communications. The government has set the standard for accessible Federal websites. Now non-profit organizations and businesses are following their example by making sure their sites are open to all, including visually impaired visitors.
For many people reading an article is not an option—disabilities like blindness can make navigating the web very difficult. The digital age is rapidly incorporating accessible technology, and it’s imperative that people with disabilities are included in all advancements.
Damaging Effects of Web Inaccessibility
Put yourself in the shoes of someone with a disability and imagine the strain of using inaccessible technology. A Sitepoint article illustrates a few ways in which accessibility can affect people with disabilities:
- Fine motor skill disabilities–These users may have difficulty using a mouse or similar pointing device, may require more time to interact, and may have difficulty selecting small elements on screen.
- Visual disabilities–Users with visual disabilities may be blind, have relatively low vision, or be colorblind so that unannotated images and graphics or even low-contrast sites create problems.
- Hearing disabilities–Deaf or hard-of-hearing users will have problems interacting with video and audio content, unless some form of transcription is available.
- Cognitive disabilities–These users may have difficulty remembering information or data, may be easily distracted, and may have learning disabilities that affect how well they read text.
- Seizures–Some users may be prone to photoepileptic seizures, so that flashing, strobing, and blinking graphics are a danger.
Ways of Being Accessible Online:
Websites that blend accessibility into their functionality tremendously help people with disabilities. Here are a few examples:
|Disability||Aim & Media||Solution|
|Blindness; Cognitive Disability; Dyslexia||Read Newspaper||Audio Screen reader; Text to speech|
|Blindness||Read Article||Braille display|
|Quadriplegic||Order delivery||Shop online through voice command|
|Hearing loss/Deaf||Watch YouTube video||Subtitles, video captioning|
|Low vision or eyesight issues||Read Web page||Screen magnification, zoom tools, font enlargement|
|Unable to use a mouse||Search the Web||Speech recognition, head pointers, mouth sticks, or eye-gaze tracking systems|
Accessible websites address these issues and more.
There are many benefits to making your website accessible:
- Depending on the nature of one’s disability, accessibility might entail accessing a website without graphics, which would in turn lead to a faster loading website for people with disabilities.
- Accessible sites improve Search Engine Optimization (SEO) efforts—using tools such as alt tags to label images also sends signals to search engine bots about the nature and utility of the content, i.e., Google “knows” this content is good and boosts its rank. A video with transcription, for example, can be more readily searchable by search engines and people using the video for research or other purposes.
- Accessible websites improve usability for all groups of people, and therefore broadens your market base or audience while also increasing the chances they will use your site for its intended purposes.
- Having an accessible site can help avoid discrimination claims and other legal complications. Advocate groups have begun suing organizations, particular companies like Target that have an e-commerce component, for their lack of accessibility—and they’re winning.
- It shows that your organization takes social responsibility seriously and will garner positive public relations.
- It’s a moral issue for some. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) recognizes Web accessibility as a basic human right.
Government Requirements—Accessible Website Design & Technology
For Federal departments and agencies, accessibility is a legal obligation:
In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. The law (29 U.S.C. § 794 (d)) applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Under Section 508, agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to access available to others.
However, all laws have exceptions: if implementing an accessible website or technology poses an “undue burden” to a federal department or agency, exceptions can be made. And, in matters of national security, accessibility is not a legal obligation.People in Washington refer to the Web and tech accessibility portion of these amendments simply as “508.“ When building a website, for example, “508 compliance” is an important consideration for federal departments or agencies.
They often turn to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) for answers to their questions about 508—it has become the standard guide for web accessibility, even for the Department of Justice, which plays a key role in setting applicable standards.
Accessibility laws in the United States do not apply to the private sector. Private companies do not have a legal obligation, though the goodwill and commercial opportunities that come with accessibility are high.
However, things are changing. The DOJ is considering making WCAG 2.0 the web standard for regulating public entities and will likely grant enterprises 2-3 years to comply with the proposed new laws after a ruling is handed down. If the ruling comes through in late 2016, as expected, this would give companies until 2018-2019 to comply with accessibility laws.
Further reading on the anticipated legal ruling:
OmniStudio’s Experience with Accessibility
Our web team follows the WCAG 2.0 guidelines when building accessible websites.
We test our accessible sites using WAVE as well as other tools offered by W3 and similar groups. We also browse our sites on various devices and put ourselves in the shoes of different types of users during our testing phase.
On most government websites it’s important that downloadable documents are also 508 compatible. OmniStudio uses advanced tools that assure reading order and punctuation is read clearly. Tables can be particularly difficult for visually impaired readers to follow if they are not coded correctly for audio readers. And Adobe Acrobat, the software behind PDF technology, does not create 508 compliant 508 documents easily. It’s best to turn to professionals who know how to create and test each document.