- On August 29, 2019
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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law established in 1990 designed to end discrimination towards individuals with disabilities. The law started out in the pre-internet era and was primarily focused on public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications. In more recent years, guaranteeing equal opportunity and access has become more challenging as the ADA has evolved to apply to the digital world.
Today having a website for your business is a necessity and that means that websites need to be accessible and easy to use for everyone. What was once considered a matter of morality has become a legal standard and the definition of a public place of accommodation has expanded to include many websites and other aspects of the digital universe.
What is digital accessibility?
“Digital Accessibility” is the ADA applied to the digital world. By definition, digital accessibility is the capacity of a website, mobile application or electronic document to be easily navigated and understood by a range of users, including those who have visual, auditory, motor or cognitive disabilities. The emphasis on digital accessibility is on the rise but the standards are complex and sometimes murky, leaving many of us wondering about the hows, whys and whens of choosing ADA compliant features and behaviors for our websites.
What makes a website accessible?
Website accessibility is a subsection of digital accessibility. Generally speaking, it is the practice of making your website usable to visitors who may have a variety of disabilities. Some common best practices for improving website accessibility are:
- Keyboard Control: A website should be navigable and usable via a keyboard. This is essential for visitors who can’t use a mouse due to fine motor control limitations. These visitors interact with a site using the Tab and Enter/Return keys.
- Image Alt Text: Adding alternative text (i.e. “alt text”) to image references, maps and graphs on a website helps screen readers describe in words what some visually impaired users cannot see. (Here’s an example video of Facebook’s image accessibility efforts.)
- General Usability: Making content appear and function in predictable ways. Not everyone is tech savvy, and having hard to find content or hard to use site navigation could deter visitors from accessing crucial information. For example: do the main navigation items on a website appear in a clear, logical format and does the tab order follow a parallel structure?
- Site Links: Use clear and descriptive text in hyperlinks. This is critical for site visitors using screen readers to browse a site. The descriptive text give those visitors context and helps them understand where the link goes and how it will function.
- Audio Transcripts: Provide a text transcript of any audio or video content. This transcript will provide alternative content that visitors with disabilities can read or have read to them by a screen reader.
- Forms: Label form fields clearly and provide concise instructions on how to fill in each field and which fields are required. Visitors with disabilities should be able to easily and logically tab through a form to complete and submit it.
- Contact Us: Make it easy for site visitors to access contact information and provide multiple ways for them to reach out (i.e. telephone number, direct email address, contact form, physical address, etc.). Don’t assume that every visitor can use a form or telephone.
Some common ADA/WCAG missteps:
- Moving or Animated Content without Control: Content in motion, whether a video or animation, that can’t be paused, stopped or hidden by users, is a frequent mistake. Primarily this is seen with video content that plays automatically and can’t be stopped or paused. This kind of content is disruptive and an obstacle to many visitors with disabilities. It can also be an annoyance and is a good way to entice some users to leave your site.
- If animated content is necessary for your website, offer an easy way for visitors to pause the video with with either the mouse or keyboard.
- Flashing Content: Content that flashes can be disorienting, cause nausea or in some cases seizures. If you must include flashing content on your website, make sure it doesn’t take up more than 25% of the screen. That content should also not flash more than three times per second.
- It’s important to note that people sensitive to flashing content tend to be more sensitive to red flashes than to other colors.
- Low Color Contrast: When choosing colors for use on a website, especially where text sits on a colored background, make sure to have ample contrast between the colors. The contrast between the text and background should be high enough to meet website accessibility standards. (You can test a website’s color contrast with the WebAIM tool.)
- Illegible Text: It may seem obvious but use readable typefaces at legible sizes. Illegible text can be caused by size (i.e. it’s too small) or by choosing a type that just isn’t readable on the screen (i.e. a script or very bold, condensed typeface). For body copy the ideal size for the screen is considered to be 16 pixels. (This is for both desktop and mobile devices.) Sans-serif typefaces are also easier to read than serif typefaces, especially for people with dyslexia.
Biggest Overall Complaints: Websites with too much movement, noise or bright colors.
Aren’t users with disabilities only a small portion of people online?
There are more than you think! There are so many different types of disabilities that can affect how a user interacts with your website. Statistically speaking, there are 1.5 billion people worldwide with a documented disability and, in the US, approximately 1 in 4 adults have a disability of some kind. Remember to consider people with temporary disabilities, as well. Those can range from an injury like a broken arm to other short-term impairments from surgery or medical treatments.
Additionally, websites designed with accessibility in mind benefit everyone. In other words, making a site easier to use is good for all its visitors. Think about how this is exemplified in the ‘real’ (i.e. non-digital) world where accommodations for individuals with disabilities help all of us. For instance, curb cutouts in sidewalks don’t just help people who are blind or individuals who use wheelchairs, they also help anyone pushing a stroller, riding a bike or pulling a suitcase. Similarly, making your website easy to navigate with assistive technologies will usually make it easier to navigate and understand for all users.
- Pro tip: If someone cannot see your website, would she still be able to understand the content on that page? The visual context of your page shouldn’t be essential to conveying the meaning of the page. Be sure all content that is accessible or readable by assistive technologies conveys all of the page’s intended meaning.
I know how to get around my website, so that means others do too…right?
Designing a website’s layout and content from the perspective of its visitors is always a good idea. When a visitor lands on your homepage will he know what to do or where to go to find what he needs? Is there important information buried between long paragraphs of text? If your website is confusing or disorienting for users without disabilities, think about how much more difficult it might be for someone with a disability to navigate or understand.
To use a real world example, just because you know the most direct route to take from your house to your favorite restaurant, that doesn’t mean someone visiting from out of town does. This same logic can be applied to your website. Browse your website through the eyes or ears of your visitors, especially visitors with disabilities to gain an idea for how they experience it.
- Pro tip: A great way to get insight into other visitors perspectives is through an analytics program. Programs like Google Analytics and Crazy Egg can show you how visitors are browsing your site and interacting with your content. Look at your most frequent internal search terms. If the same words or phrases are searched for frequently, you might conclude visitors are having a hard time finding that content on your site. Additionally, you might identify “exit pages” that indicate potential issues causing visitors leave your site. Read more about Exit Rate vs. Bounce Rate here.
Does my website have to be accessible?
The short answer is, yes, your website needs to be accessible. While there is still a significant grey area around the absolute rules of web accessibility, lawsuits against companies with ‘non-compliant’ websites are on the rise. And many types of websites are now defined as places of public accommodation. Here are a few high profile cases that show the importance of digital accessibility: National Federation of the Blind v. Target Corporation, Robles v. Dominos Pizza and Beyoncé’s Production Company Parkwood Entertainment.
The top downsides to having a website that doesn’t comply with the ADA:
- Litigation: The expense of defending against a lawsuit and the expense of a possible judgement.
- Loss of revenue: The loss of proceeds from customers or clients with disabilities.
- Hiring Difficulties: The lost opportunity to hire qualified candidates with disabilities.
In a perfect world, all websites would be accessible by all individuals regardless of their abilities or disabilities. Even if you or your company is not immediately at risk of litigation, lost revenue or other downside, making your website accessible is a moral obligation to be seriously considered.
Additional benefits to having an ADA-compliant website:
On top of the reasons outlined above, there are even more benefits to having an ADA compliant website. One of the biggest is improving your site’s rankings in search results (aka “Search Engine Optimization” or “SEO”). Many of the items listed above, such as alt text for images and clear site navigation, are also great for SEO.
One important step to becoming ADA compliant is using well-formed page title tags and on-page heading tags (h1, h2, etc.). That consistent and logical heading structure helps assistive technologies interpret your webpage but it also promotes easy scanning for all visitors, regardless of a disability.
If visitors can find products or services more easily, they will buy or call (i.e. “convert”) more.
Better Mobile Usability
An ADA compliant site will be easier to access and browse on mobile devices.
Increased Client/Customer Loyalty
Whenever and wherever you improve the visitor experience on your website, the more likely those visitors are to come back.
Two Additional FAQs
My website was ADA compliant when it was first built, so I’m done now right?
Actually probably not, but good for you for taking that initial step!
Maintaining ADA compliance is an ongoing and evolving process. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG (the document that defines the ADA rules for websites) was updated in 2018. You should review your website with the updated standards and recommendations.
Additionally, when uploading new images or adding content to your site, you still need to add alt text and other content for users with disabilities. If you haven’t been doing that as part of your ongoing process, your site is not as compliant as it once was.
- Pro tip: If you’ve done the work towards becoming ADA compliant, you can take the next step by adopting a website accessibility policy and linking to it on your website.
My website is not ADA compliant, is it too late?
No! It’s never too late to start taking steps towards digital accessibility. However, this means you may have to change some things. If you are considering a website redesign (or about to start one), make sure you know about the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the different levels of compliance to decide which one best suits your company.
Legitimate reasons for not making a site accessible do not include lack of priority, time, cost or knowledge. Talk to an expert or consult with your design or web agency to better understand what it takes to become accessible. It will be easier for everyone involved if accessibility is considered from the very beginning and can even save you money in the long run. Retrofitting a site to become compliant can cost up to 10x as much as it would if the site were originally designed and built with compliance in mind.