The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 to provide people with disabilities sufficient access to public areas. When this law was passed, the internet did not exist as we know it today. Given the ubiquity of the web in our society, Congress and the courts have extended the ADA to address websites and web applications, like digital editions.
The importance of web accessibility is evidenced by the record number of website-access lawsuits that have been filed in recent years. According to UsableNet (a website accessibility company), last year there were 2,285 ADA website lawsuits filed in the nation’s federal courts, an increase of 181% from 2017.
While the ADA has been in effect for nearly 30 years, the compliance requirements for websites are still largely misunderstood. There is currently confusion among organizations, including those that digitally publish content, on how to properly comply with ADA standards. Moreover, the contradictory rulings of website accessibility lawsuits making their way through the courts are creating even more uncertainty.
Given the state of affairs, many digital publishers and websites are still falling short in providing accessible content. A study by Searchmetrics found that highly-ranked sites on Google are not doing enough to make their content accessible to people with disabilities. The average overall accessibility score for sites that appear in the top 20 positions on Google was 66.6 out of 100 (the lowest score of the four website categories the study analyzed). Among other things, this accessibility score took into consideration color contrast (to make text and other elements easier to see) and whether page elements were tagged with meaningful names and descriptions (to make them easily understood when read out by screen readers).
The good news for digital publishers and other organizations is that there are voluntary guidelines to follow for developing more accessible websites that have been generally recognized by the courts to indicate ADA compliance. These guidelines, known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), are promulgated by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to make websites more accessible for the disabled.
The WCAG 2.0 guidelines and the newly-minted 2.1 updates are a useful starting point for digital publishers to make their content more accessible. According to these guidelines, publishing accessible content involves adhering to four key principles, including perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Here are some quick general tips for addressing each of these principles.
“Perceivable” refers to how usable web content is and how it affects a user’s ability to find and process information on a website.
Tips for improving the perceivability of a website:
- Provide text alternatives to non-text content including buttons, charts, graphics, images, and anything else that impacts user experience.
- Add captions for videos, recorded audio and livestreams, or broadcasts and be sure to clearly label alternative text.
- Contrast in images and text should ensure content is readable including separating foreground from background.
Under WCAG guidelines “operable” means ensuring that the functionality of a website does not impact a visitor’s ability to navigate and use the site.
Tips for making the functionality and usability of a website more accessible:
- Make sure that all website functionality can be navigated by keyboard.
- Ensure that moving content and images can be paused to provide visitors with enough time to read and use content.
- Provide a “Skip Navigation” button for visitors using a text reader.
- Clearly label pages and sections to help users decipher where they are on a website.
- Avoid using strobe effects or any flashing images because they may cause seizures or physical reactions.
The aim of the “understandable” category is to ensure that website visitors are able to read, interpret, and comprehend all information and navigation on a website.
Tips for improving the logical functionality and comprehensibility of a website:
- Ensure that website content loads and functions in a consistent way, allowing users to anticipate how the webpage will respond with each action (this can help users correctly enter information into forms).
- Make navigation consistent across a website and use consistent terminology throughout.
- Make text content readable and understandable through larger fonts and good color contrast.
- Compose error messages that include a clear explanation of the error and direction for correcting it.
The WCAG’s “robust” category is the most technical section of the guidelines and essentially means that the code used to build a website should function in the most common web browsers, so the content displays properly for all users.
Tips for making websites more robust:
- Test a website with all leading web browsers, search engine crawlers, screen readers, and assistive technologies to ensure current compatibility and future upgrade capabilities.
- Make sure website code follows current web standards.
- Use standard HTML tags that are universally recognized by browsers.
With over 40 million people living with a disability in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census, every publisher should consider their efforts to provide accessible content to their customers and readers. This includes not only their websites but also their digital editions. In addition to doing the right thing by making content more accessible, ADA compliance has many benefits for organizations including broadening their audience for digital content and building up brand trust and loyalty.