Digital Accessibility 101: A Guide

Website Design & Development

Read Time: 9 Min

90% of websites are inaccessible to people with disabilities.

Take that in for a second.

1 in 4 American adults live with a disability.

Meaning ¼ of the population of those most likely browsing websites, are incapable of taking in and understanding the information on 90% of the websites in the world, because of us. Because of the people responsible for ensuring their website is usable for everyone.

Let’s chat about it — digital accessibility. What is it? Why is it important? Who is impacted? How can you ensure your website is accessible?

These are all questions we’ll explore in this Digital Accessibility 101 guide. Our hope is that you’ll take what you learn here and make your company’s digital experience available to all.

At AOR, we are always focused on this topic but have also made it our Thrive topic of the year. Spending time diving deeper into digital accessibility only makes us more well-rounded, more inclusive, and more ready to tackle website projects that come our way. So….

1. What is digital/web accessibility?

The concept of digital accessibility is quite simple, really.

Digital Accessibility (n.): An inclusive practice which ensures the web experience is accessible and usable for everyone, including those with disabilities.

It’s become difficult to function in our society without the internet — from online ordering to scheduling appointments, to playing video games — the world is reliant on the digital space for both function and fun. It’s why now, more than ever, it’s imperative that organizations factor in accessibility when designing and programming their digital experience.

A Brief History

1973: The Rehabilitation Act — A federal law protecting those with disabilities from discrimination on the web by companies with ties to the federal government.

1990: Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — One of the most wide-sweeping civil rights laws protecting the discrimination against individuals with disabilities.

1998: Section 508: Added protections to The Rehabilitation Act.

1999: WCAG 1.0: International standards to ensure web compliance with the ADA. (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines)

The list goes on. But it wasn’t until the 90s before there was any protection for people with disabilities from discrimination, let alone protection online.

WCAG Principles

Since 1999, the WCAG guidelines have assisted businesses by providing them with a clear starting point to build their accessible website. With the acronym P.O.U.R., these principles are meant to address every aspect of the user experience online.

Perceivable: Information on your website should be easily perceived by anyone. Examples: readable text, alt text, clear design.

Operable: An interface should not require any interaction someone with a disability can’t perform. For example: complex interactive elements, timed elements, etc.

Understandable: Simply put, the information on your site should be easily understandable by all users.

Robust: A wide variety of users should be able to dependably interpret your site even if that involves assistive technologies.

2. Who is impacted?

Not to throw another statistic your way, but yes, let’s throw another statistic your way — 15% of the world’s population has some form of disability. This includes disabilities such as:

  • Blindness/vision impairment
  • Learning disabilities
  • Cognitive disabilities
  • Deaf / Hard of Hearing
  • Speech disabilities
  • Physical disabilities

Many of these disabilities may be permanent, such as blindness, and some may be temporary, such as a broken arm. Whether someone has been living with a disability their whole life or is new to learning adaptations, digital accessibility can mean a world of difference. We should all expect the same level of care and understanding as the next person, so giving those with disabilities the space to enjoy the internet like everyone else is morally and ethically essential.

3. How do I implement it?

You may already have a website in place, maybe you’re one of the 90% of inaccessible websites — we can change that. But maybe you’re at the beginning of your journey, building something from scratch, and interested in ensuring your new website is available to everyone. Either way, there are a number of ways to keep your website on track with accessibility. In fact, there are so many, we’ll only cover a few.

Media:

  • Alt Text w/ Images: Adding alt text to images ensures that those with vision impairments can understand what the image is depicting. It allows search engine bots to understand the context of the photos and for screen readers to read.
  • Accessible Multimedia: Not only will clear audio be best for those who are visually impaired, but providing captions and audio transcripts will give users with hearing impairments the option to read the text rather than listen.

Design:

  • Color: There are guidelines for ADA-compliant color choices for the web, consult them to ensure that those who experience poor sensitivity to color contrasts can have an enjoyable to seamless viewing experience.
  • Content Structure: It’s important to keep a careful eye on page hierarchy and ensure the use of descriptive headlines to help users easily digest the content, as well as help assistive technologies navigate webpages quickly and efficiently.
  • Font Choices: Ensure you choose readable fonts and allow users to enlarge font sizes if they have low vision and can’t read easily. It can help also to automatically have important sections of your website include larger fonts such as the CTAs.

Development:

Descriptive URLs: Clear and descriptive URLs make it easier for screen readers to skip to the right content for those who are blind or visually impaired.

Navigation: Ensure your menu is simple and easy to navigate so those with cognitive disabilities can easily understand where they are trying to go — don’t bury information deep in the site either, allow for fewer clicks to get to where users need to go. If you’re able to, it’s great to also include keyboard navigation so those using Braille keyboards to browse can find what they are looking for with the tap of the keyboard.

Form Fields: Use the <label> tag to indicate how users should fill out a form. Placeholder text is often gray and hard to read, plus screen readers won’t always pick up on it.

Metadata: Metadata is a great tool for further describing web pages and accessible components of web pages for those who need extra assistance.

4. How do I check if my site is accessible and keep it that way?

It’s important to run an accessibility check every so often to ensure your website still complies with regulations and guidelines, and more importantly, that it is inclusive.

You can check manually by hiring an expert to run through navigation, forms, and the mobile interface, you can also use automated methods such as software to evaluate code for WCAG compliance, but we recommend a mixture of both.

Some Tips:

  • Hire an accessibility expert to audit your site every year or so.
  • Test your website with a focus group of users with disabilities.
  • Invest in automated software such as Monsido to scan your site every 3-6 months.
  • Keep up with regulations on your own.
  • Educate your developers, designers, and writers on ADA guidelines.
  • Allow users to submit feedback.
  • Make public your web accessibility policies, such as a statement to live on your webpage.

5. What are my legal obligations?

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) manages web and digital accessibility. They are the ones who do the work to ensure websites are keeping up with the laws and standards put into place over the years. We covered a bit in the timeline earlier, but here are the three main laws/guidelines you should be aware of.

  • WCAG: The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are international standards established to protect the disabled community and ensure equal access to the web. WCAG mainly focuses on the P.O.U.R. guidelines we mentioned above but goes into great detail about content on a web page or web application, including text, images, coding, and sounds. Most accessibility-related legislation references the WCA Guidelines, such as the ADA.
  • ADA: The Americans with Disabilities Act was put in place to protect the disabled community. It does not explicitly refer to the digital space, but the Department of Justice has recognized its scope to include web and digital platforms.
  • Section 508: This amendment to The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires federal agencies to ensure their electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities — a tad more niche but still incredibly important.

Failure to comply with the laws results in legal action, but the goal is to be inclusive and caring towards all individuals, regardless of the legal implications. Many states also have their own laws (such as HB21-1110 in Colorado) so check local and state laws near you.

6. Why is digital accessibility important?

We’ve made great strides over the last decade in the implementation of digital accessibility. More and more companies are taking their accessibility, diversity, and inclusion efforts seriously. We chat more about this and the current state of accessibility in our previous accessibility insight.

While digital accessibility does provide business benefits such as avoiding legal action, increase sales revenue, improved reputation, and increased audience reach, the most important reason for complying with digital accessibility standards is people.

It is our duty to ensure the digital space is available to all users because they matter — it’s a no-brainer.

The Key Take-Away

People come first. If you’re new here, people first is kind of our thing. Although it’s something we implement internally, we encourage our clients to consider people first as well. Digital accessibility is a huge part of putting people first, so take the time to consider how your website or digital experiences come across to everyone, not just you.

As always, feel free to reach out if you have any questions or need some help implementing digital accessibility into your web projects.

Take a look at some of our work. You should be able to see how accessibility has played a role every step of the way.

And remember, although accessibility is a standard and a law, you should do it because it’s just, fair, and because you care.

To learn more about our Thrive initiatives, check out this post..

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