Thirty years after the historic passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark legislation that transformed the US’s workplaces and common spaces for the better, so much of our lives have moved out of the physical world and into the digital one. The urgency of equality — and the need to ensure that web design and development consider digital accessibility and the user experience of those with disabilities — is at an all-time high.
Nearly one in five Americans has some form of disability. Globally, the number is higher than 1 billion. Although equal access to community spaces — both in the physical and virtual world — is a clear human right, for millions of Americans, the web is broken. It’s a place packed with frustrating stumbling blocks and disorienting design, and it’s in dire need of a UX overhaul.
This is evidenced in the WebAIM Million study conducted last year. The Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University conducted an evaluation of the top million webpages focusing on the automatically detectable issues. Not surprisingly, the results are dire. The study found an average of nearly 60 accessibility errors on each of the site’s homepages, which was virtually the same amount of errors detected when the same evaluations were run, six months prior. The WebAIM Alexa 100 study didn’t fare much better. Across the top 100 homepages of the most trafficked websites, the study found an average of approximately 56 errors per page (including highly pervasive color contrast errors).
This all amounts to an incredible number of digital access barriers. It’s no wonder plaintiffs are filing lawsuits in record numbers. Over the past two years, alone, there have been nearly 5,000 ADA Title III website accessibility lawsuits filed in federal court. There’s still a lot of work to be done.
No matter where you are in your accessibility journey, here are some common mistakes to avoid, as well as some of the often-overlooked accessibility considerations that will have a meaningful impact for your site visitors.
Test With People
If you’re creating inclusive websites, it’s crucial that you expand your user pool of testers to include individuals with disabilities or, at a minimum, subject matter experts versed in the many nuances of navigating the digital world with assistive technologies (AT), such as screen readers.
At best, automated testing tools can only detect about one third of the potential issues
One of the most common misperceptions about accessibility is that, if you use an automated testing tool, you can find out everything that is wrong with your site.
At best, automated testing tools can only detect about one third of the potential issues. Even in the case of the WebAIM Million study, the number of issues uncovered only consisted of automatically detectable issues. It’s safe to assume, the number of issues that actually exist on the web pages evaluated in the study are largely understated. Accessibility testing might seem simple on the surface, but usability testing leveraging assistive technologies is complex and multi-faceted. Motor, visual, cognitive and auditory impairments can all impact user experience, as can the specific AT and browser combination being used. To gain a true understanding of how usable your site is with these tools, you can’t just rely on automated testing.
If All You Plan To Do Is Implement A Toolbar, Think Again
Doing something is certainly better than doing nothing, and we should all applaud anyone that is taking steps to improve the accessibility of their digital assets. But if you think that adding a free accessibility toolbar, alone, is doing enough, you should take note. It’s not.
Toolbar providers that don’t test your site with people or couple their offering with custom, human-informed fixes that correct accessibility violations, do next to nothing to reduce compliance risk. Despite many of the claims they tend to make about their AI and ML technologies achieving full compliance by simply embedding a single code into your website, most overlay solutions do not have a material impact in improving website accessibility compliance. Unfortunately, fully autonomous website accessibility isn’t a thing. Be wary of those making bold, sweeping claims to the contrary. Outsourced accessibility providers will continue to fall short without a broader, more holistic approach.
fully autonomous website accessibility isn’t a thing
Not all toolbar (or “overlay”) solutions are alike, though. A trusted provider will be backed by an expansive customer base of enterprise-grade clients who have vetted the integrity and, perhaps most importantly, the security of the service. At the end of the day, unless they are having a meaningful impact in improving conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), they aren’t moving the needle toward compliance, which is very much focused on adhering to these internationally recognized standards and, more importantly, removing digital access barriers for individuals with disabilities.
Stay Current With The Latest Standards
Speaking of WCAG, for the last several years, the talk of the town, when it came to website accessibility, has been WCAG 2.0 Level AA Success Criteria. WCAG 2.1 (which incorporates 2.0) was actually released back in 2018. Since the latter half of 2019, plaintiffs and claimants have begun to reference WCAG 2.1 AA. When benchmarking, be sure to reference WCAG 2.1, which includes 12 new level AA testable success criteria, which are heavily focused on cognitive disabilities and requirements for mobile/responsive design.
If you really want to stay ahead of the curve, keep pace with the W3C’s progress on evolving the standards. Check out WCAG 2.2, which will be here before you know it.
Think Different For Those Who Might Think (And Navigate) Differently
A lot of the discussion around digital accessibility tends to lean toward vision and hearing disabilities. The vast majority of lawsuits filed are from blind individuals relying on screen reader compatibility or hearing impaired individuals requiring video captioning. But, the size of these demographics pales in comparison to the number of individuals impacted by cognitive and ambulatory disabilities, the two most prevalent disabilities in the United States.
There are several accommodations designers and developers can take to improve usability for individuals with cognitive and learning disabilities. Reading level aligns with the higher level, AAA, WCAG conformance, but making sure your content isn’t written for a rocket scientist to understand is always a good idea. Something below a lower secondary education level is optimal for lower-literacy users. Breaking up, or chunking, site content into digestible snippets is also proven to improve retention and understanding, especially for those site visitors with shorter attention spans or individuals with Attention Deficit Disorder. Providing options to change fonts and letter and paragraph spacing has proven to offer a similar benefit.
the more accessible your website, the better your search results
For individuals with mobility impairments, optimizing for keyboard navigation has many benefits and it’s easy and fun to test. Harnessing the power of the tab key and putting yourself in the shoes of a user who relies solely on the keyboard to engage and interact with your site should become an essential tool in your accessibility testing arsenal. You’ll quickly understand and become fanatic about keyboard focus indicators, skip navigation links, and if you’ve implemented infinite scroll, you might just pull your hair out. Your users will likely be better off with easy-to-follow triggers, like a “Load more results…” button.
There are a considerable number of additional factors that must be taken into account when striving to ensure a fully accessible website experience. Video transcription and captioning, audio description, color selection, layout, structure, animation and effects are just a few examples. When you start examining your website through the lens of accessibility, you’ll quickly realize that the potential pitfalls are many, but the potential to transform your site — and expand your access as a result — is significant.
Simply put, designing for accessibility is good business. Accessibility is directly proportional to SEO friendliness; the more accessible your website, the better your search results and the wider the net cast around your potential audience. When usability is good, clean and simple, reach and impact are also increased. And no one can argue with the cost-benefit analysis of that.
Featured image via Unsplash.
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Author: Sean Bradley