If a website launches and no one can access it, did it really launch?
This refashioning of the popular Zen koan may seem silly, but it’s a serious question in a world where people increasingly congregate online.
Many businesses, bloggers and website owners spend considerable time defining their key audience, or the people they want to draw to their site. While doing so, however, some overlook more fundamental questions: Can everyone in your target audience actually access the information on the site? Can everyone buy a product, access the information in a blog post or sign up for an email list?
Websites exist for many purposes, but every site needs to be accessible to users of all abilities.
Why So Few Sites Meet Accessibility Standards
Conversations that use the term “accessibility” can muddy the waters because they don’t always clarify what the word means, says Kris Rivenburgh, an attorney and website compliance consultant. For instance, is an “accessible” website one that meets the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), one that people can actually access easily, or both?
Further complicating the confusion over terms is a pervasive belief that making a website accessible is difficult, costly or time-consuming — and current federal standards do little to dispel that myth.
In most website accessibility cases, courts use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as a standard for determining whether a website is sufficiently accessible. The WCAG, however, is full of technical language and can be more confusing than helpful for small business owners and others who seek simple, concrete steps for improving their website.
In addition, not every standard in the WCAG is a requirement for minimum accessibility. WCAG 2.1 sorts its standards into three levels of compliance: A (must comply), AA (should comply), and AAA (may comply).
“The WCAG recognizes it’s virtually impossible to build a website to be 100 percent accessible and does not recommend that level AAA conformance be required as general policy,” designer Kristen Chapline writes at Business 2 Community. “However, there are many things you can do to get it close.”
The ADA and Your Website
The Americans with Disabilities Act sets basic standards for accessibility in the U.S. Title III of the ADA requires that public accommodations are accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities.
Under the ADA, those responsible for publicly accessible spaces, such as the owner of a business, must offer “reasonable accommodations” to ensure that disabled individuals can access the same space for the same purposes as non-disabled individuals.
When it was first passed in 1990, the ADA was conceived as a law that would apply only to physical spaces, says consultant Chris Yoko. For instance, a business with stairs rising to its entrance would need to offer a ramp, lift, ground-level door or other means to enter the business for those who couldn’t use stairs.
Today, however, courts are increasingly treating virtual spaces, such as websites, as spaces to which the ADA applies. For instance, in January 2019 the Ninth Circuit stated “the ADA applies to websites and mobile apps that connect customers to the goods and services of restaurants and other places of public accommodation,” attorneys Jonathan M. Turner and Susan Kohn Ross write in the National Law Review.
In this way, a business’s website or mobile app might be seen as an extension of its physical location. For instance, imagine a pizza parlor that allows customers to browse its menu and order a pizza either at the pizza parlor itself or online. Just as this pizza parlor must make it possible for disabled individuals to physically walk in, browse the menu and order a pizza, it must also make it possible for these individuals to do so online.
From one perspective, improving business access with ADA compliance is a no-brainer. Improved access expands your potential customer pool. Businesses that offer the most easily navigated websites and virtual storefronts may even become the preferred choice of disabled customers because they offer the easiest shopping experiences.
In practice, however, relatively few businesses have embraced ADA-compliant accessibility.
First Steps for Accessibility Online
For anyone looking to make their websites more accessible, looking at contrast, text and outside evaluators is a helpful starting point.
Nearly 27 million adult Americans report that they have trouble seeing, even with corrective lenses, or that they cannot see at all, according to a research report from the American Foundation for the Blind. Yet a Google study of one million websites found that the most common accessibility issue among them was low contrast, which made the sites less readable, says Raisa Cuevas, conversion and user experience specialist at Google.
High-contrast text, such as white text on a black screen or vice versa, can help maximize readability. Sharper color contrasts in images can help users who have trouble distinguishing between hues, marketing executive Duran Inci writes at Ad Age. Use color as a highlight rather than as a means to convey information.
Images and video are popular features of online life. To ensure access, however, it’s important to supplement these features with text.
“Website content may often be made accessible to persons with disabilities, and compliant with the ADA, by adding textual material to supplement multimedia content, and by using other ‘assistive technologies,’ including website coding that allows alternative means of navigation,” says Mark Sableman, an attorney at Thompson Coburn LLP.
Why is text so versatile? First, it’s an automatically accessible alternative for users who cannot hear audio or video content. But text also makes image and video content accessible to those who cannot see it by making that content legible for screen-reading software.
For instance, imagine a pizza parlor that uploads its menu to its website as a series of images. A screen reader will simply tell the user that an image is present, but it cannot read the text in the image. The user still doesn’t know what menu items the pizza parlor offers, which means they have no information with which to place an order or decide whether to visit the restaurant.
When the menu image is supplemented with a plain text version of the menu information, however, the screen reader can read the menu to the user, allowing them to place an order or decide whether to visit the restaurant.
Alt text should accompany every image, including pull-down menus, PDF icons and functional buttons that are displayed as graphic elements, Denise Power writes for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Captions on video can also help users who are deaf, hard of hearing or who have auditory processing difficulties.
Get Your Website Tested
Finally, have your website tested for accessibility, especially if it was built from a template or stock kit.
“Low cost, pre-fab, template-driven websites are less likely to be accessible and their owners not educated on what they need to know,” website accessibility consultant Kim Krause Berg writes at Search Engine Journal. While some templates are accessibility-conscious, those who adapt the templates for their own purposes must play a role in ensuring the resulting design is accessible.
Be aware, however, that not all testing is reliable. For instance, Kris Rivenburgh warns against paying for a “compliance audit” that doesn’t involve hands-on exploration of your website. Likewise, Rivenburgh says, avoid any tool that promises to fix all your access problems at the touch of a button.
“Remember, updating your website to become ADA compliant is a process, not a flip of a switch so the best way to become compliant is to start doing what you can and not get caught in planning and procrastination mode,” he says.
ADA compliance for websites isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also a way to include more people in your online goals, whether those goals are to sell pizzas, educate the next generation or simply show off your favorite cat memes.
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