Are You Accessible?
What that means for virtual spaces
The modern Internet didn't yet exist when Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act back in 1990. The law was written to cover brick-and-mortar facilities. But in recent years federal regulators have begun aggressively applying it to virtual spaces. Namely, your company website. The interpretation of the regulators is that these digital environments are extensions of your public places and therefore must also be handicap-accessible.
This is an evolving area of law. The U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division administers and enforces the ADA. They identify two broad categories of compliance-mandatory websites: sites owned by public entities; and sites owned by private entities which are open to the public.
A "public entity" is any branch of state or local government. Increasingly in the modern era, public service delivery has moved from in-person to online. Some examples:
- Applying for an absentee ballots
- Paying tickets or fees
- Filing a police report
- Attending a virtual town meeting
- Filing tax documents
- Registering for school or school programs
- Applying for state benefits programs.
Federal agencies and contractors are covered by a separate, especially strict of rules which are part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1970, as amended in 1998.
A compliant-mandatory private entity is any business open to the public. The ADA requires such businesses to "provide full and equal enjoyment of their goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to people with disabilities." For example:
- Retail stores and other sales or retail establishments
- Hotels, inns, and motels
- Hospitals and medical offices
- Food and drink establishments
- Auditoriums, theaters, and sports arenas.
Not specifically required to comply: business-to-business enterprises. That's a lot of websites, but we don't know the exact proportion. What we can say is that in 2022 b-to-b companies generated about one-quarter of all U.S. sales (source: zipia.com). Likewise not mandated but in a gray area in that they recruit from the general public: private clubs.
Nonprofits are not mandated for ADA website compliance, but it is now strongly recommended. Think about it if you serve a disadvantaged public known to have a high incidence of health issues. Think of yourself as being in the same category as governmental agencies.
You may have heard some talk that accessibility is a ranking factor for Google. (And therefore you should buy into it big.) That is not true, yet. In deciding how high to rank your website in their directory, Google doesn't grade your accessibility. They are not ruling it out for the future, but for now it isn't a competitive issue.
Company spokesperson John Mueller, asked about the matter in early 2022, said there was no way to accurately measure the relative accessiblity of competing websites. He went on to suggest, however, that for many site owners it is an investment worth making. Visitors are less likely to recommend to others a site which is hard to use, Mueller observed.
The chances are virtually nil that the U.S. Justice Department would come after a mom-and-pop website owner. But the risk of being sued by private attorneys for class-action damages has grown. For these litigious law firms it is a money-making enterprise.
Most of the action so far has been in New York State and California. Two categories account for amost 90 percent of legal actions: e-commerce (80 percent of all cases) and food service (seven percent of all cases). Next in the crosshairs come health care and financial services.
Nothing can prevent a TV lawyer from recruiting a bunch of clients and filing a lawsuit against you. But you can lessen the odds by at least taking some preliminary steps toward compliance; and having a plan in place to attain full compliance. ADA website accessiblity lawsuits may not yet have come to your town, but are bound to eventually, because there's money it for the lawyers.
Do small-business owners have anything to fear? It depends on how you define small. Liability attorneys active in this new branch of law do not exclusively target big business. More than half of all web accessibility lawsuits filed last year targeted companies with less than $25 million in annual revenues.
Javelin Communications doesn't dispense legal counsel. If you are in doubt what do do, consult an attorney specializing in web accessibility law and ADA compliance. Your attorney and your web developer will be able to collaborate on appropriate solutions.
A large majority of users with vision and hearing deficits (the moderately impaired) will be able to use your current website if you just show them some consideration. That means:
• Spacious and super-legible typography.
• Captioning for video, audio and images.
• Descriptive labels for all page elements.
• Easy navigation and logical content flow.
• No jargon or turgid prose.
• Muted razzmatazz.
There are two authoritative texts.
The U.S. Justice Department identifies ways in which web design can run afoul of the ADA. Visit https://www.ada.gov/resources/web-guidance/.
The international World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), publishes detailed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Visit https://www.w3.org/WAI/standards-guidelines/wcag/
The Justice Department gives us a proscriptive list of what it considers to be worst practices, versus prescriptive best-practice guidelines. Here they are, taken directy from the agency website.
- Poor color contrast. People with limited vision or color blindness cannot read text if there is not enough contrast between the text and background (for example, light gray text on a light-colored background.
- Use of color alone to give information. People who are color-blind may not have access to information when that information is conveyed using only color cues because they cannot distinguish certain colors from others. Also, screen readers do not tell the user the color of text on a screen, so a person who is blind would not be able to know that color is meant to convey certain information (for example, using red text alone to show which fields are required on a form).
- Lack of text alternatives (“alt text”) on images. People who are blind will not be able to understand the content and purpose of images, such as pictures, illustrations, and charts, when no text alternative is provided. Text alternatives convey the purpose of an image, including pictures, illustrations, charts, etc.
- No captions on videos. People with hearing disabilities may not be able to understand information communicated in a video if the video does not have captions.
- Inaccessible online forms. People with disabilities may not be able to fill out, understand, and accurately submit forms without things like: labels that screen readers can convey to their users (such as text that reads “credit card number” where that number should be entered); clear instructions; and error indicators (such as alerts telling the user a form field is missing or incorrect).
- Mouse-only navigation (lack of keyboard navigation). People with disabilities who cannot use a mouse or trackpad will not be able to access web content if they cannot navigate a website using a keyboard.
Keep in mind that no governmental entity or professional organization can certify your website as "ADA-compliant." Maybe someday.
Companies doing business internationally (or with the federal government) will focus on the W3C guidelines. They are precise and exhaustive in comparison to the U.S. standards. Unfortunately, they also are so highly technical that you need to be a software engineer to read them. Which is no small irony. Here are the plain-English highlights.
There are three levels of compliance: A, AA, AAA. At each step up, design of your website becomes more constrained by accessibility dictates. Most websites need only to attain Level A. That involves satisfying 25 guidelines. Each one is set forth with measurable specifity. WCAG gives us metrics instead of vaguely defined dislikes - i.e. "poor color contrast." The more stringent AA and AAA guidelines come into play mainly when you're selling goods and services to the public online.
According to WCAG, web accessibility is built upon four basic building blocks, which they call "POUR" - Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust.
- Perceivable means that a user can consume page content without undue difficulty.
- Operable means that the components and interface are easily navigated.
- Understandable means components and interface can be readily understood.
- Robust means that the content can be interpreted reliably by a range of assistive technologies.
WCAG does a very thorough job of telling us exactly what we need to do to attain website accessibility for disabled persons. Exactly how we do it has to be figured out creatively by the web designers and Internet software engineers.
As is the case with ADA compliance, keep in mind that no governmental entity or professional organization can certify your website as "WCAG-compliant." WCAG guidelines are advisory except where governments have adopted them as law. In the U.S. they have been adopted as law only relative to federal agencies and contractors. Such entities must meet Level AA accessibility guidelines under Section 508 of the federal code.
1) For the moderately impaired
- Great strides can be made simply by improving your current website.
- Passive accessibility audit tools can measure our progress empirically.
2) For the severely impaired
- We create a super-simplified, high-contrast, large-text, decluttered view of the website.
- We can also enable users to personalize the website view for their unique comfort level.
3) For the acutely impaired
- These folks use assistive screen readers which translate content into speech and braille. Navigation is by keyboard or voice, not mouse. We equip the website to support this advanced interactive technology.
No need to panic. ADA website compliance means that you have to adjust course, not scrap everything and start all over from scratch. New enterprising companies have sprung up to facilitate our passage to the brave new world of website accessibility. It's a growth industry with new players entering all the time.
You're in luck if you own your own website and it's based on WordPress - our primary development platform. The WP ecosystem attracts entrepreneurs who see creative ways to monetize challenges. On the accessibility front, momentum has been building over the past 10 years. A good assortment of accessibility extensions is now available. There are tools for site owners who need the ultimate in accessibility, or something less.
Diagnostic extensions continually scan the site for accessibility issues and call out things that need fixing. Schedule scans at automated intervals or run them manually.
Sitewide enhancerment tools lets the user toggle to a simplified, high-contrast view of the website. The webmaster has the ability to make all your content hyper-legible and simple to grasp.
Accessibility toolboxes allow users to individually optimize their view of the website via a popup control panel. Things that are usually possible to change:
- Color contrast. (User can choose between black text on white background and white text on black background.)
- Text size. (User can choose default, large or extra- large.)
- Typeface. (User can substitute clean, nondecorative body fonts such as PT Serif and PT Sans.)
- Text to speech. (User can select sections of content to be read aloud.)
- Navigation. (User can opt for a super-simple tab-style menui.)
Example of a typical accessibility toolbox trigger. These click icons usally live at bottom-right or bottom-left of the user's viewport. This one is for the popular WP Accessibility Widget.
ARIA wayfinding tools help AI screen readers translate your website content into speech or braille for the benefit of the blind and/or deaf. The acronym stands for Accessible Rich Internet Applications. Developed by the Worldwide Web Consortium, ARIA is a source-code markup system similar in concept to the Website Schemas used by Internet marketers. With ARIA we can embed directional signage which can be seen only by the assistive screen readers, helping them to do their job better on behalf of disabled users.
You're seeing this more and more. If the capability isn't there, many times it can be added quickly. Our favorite page builder for WordPress, Divi, has an accessibility plugin which will take you a long way toward compliance. Our favorite extension for splash layout, Smart Slider 3, comes with a broad range of accessibility tools. Increasingly, accessibility is being built in to our web development systems.
As you go about making your website accessible, bear in mind that others are tackling this problem from a completely different angle. They are making accessibility addons for popular web browsers. These amazing addons can read aloud entire pages, or select parts of pages. This changes everything for web copywriters. It can't just read well. It has to sound great and flow naturally when read aloud.
We custom-design accessibility solutions because every project is unique. Here are technologies we may employ. Some claim to do it all. Others focus more narrowly on the most common accessibility challenges. Quite a few are free plugins. You have to be careful with freeware. Beware of trojan horses laden with malicious code.
- Divi Accessibility Helper - Worth considering whenever we are commissioned to build a new WordPress site. Robust but falls short of an all-in-one solution. Fixes many Divi quirks. Can be supplemented by third-party accessibility tools. Elementor, the other juggernaut page builder for WordPress, does not offer an equivalent plugin but is piloting inclusion of accessibility features as standard with all new installs. Paid license.
- WP Accessibility - Comprehehensive accessibility functionalities including the ability to add long text descriptions to your visual elements. Can declutter pages to show only essential content. Multilingual-capable. Free.
- One Click Accessibility - All the basic accessibility functionalities including link underlining, font resizing, contrast heightening, skip link, outline focus and ARIA markup. Free.
- WP Accessibility Helper - Robust functionalities including sophisticated tricks like assessible popups and widgets, animation suppression and monochrome mode. Multilingual-ready (integrates with the WPML and PolyLang plugins). Paid license.
- accessiBe - Very ambitious AI system which endeavors to handle everything for you automatically. Continually scans your site for accessibility issues AND makes changes on-the-fly. Four monthly pricing levels, starting at $49.
- UserWay - Free widget that allows visitors to optimize their view of your website. Optionally, add paid accessibility scanning as an aid to your own customizations. The AI-assisted scanning service focuses especially on enhancing keyboard-only navigation.
- Accessibility Widget - Minimialist super-simple plugin lets users easily zoom text to make it more legible. Also works on mobile. Free.
- WP Accessibility Tools & Missing Alt Text Finder - Another simple plugin which tackles one common accessibility issue - lack of image alt text. Also can do simple compliance auditing of issues such as color contast.
- wA11y - Highly rated onboard accessibility audit and reporting extension. Tells you what you need to do to become fully accessible. Integrates two of the most popular online evaluative tools, TOTA11Y and WAVE. You can use both of them without wA11y; wA11y just makes it so much easier. From the front end you will be able to visually emulate what your site looks like to an AI screen reader. Free.
- Enable Accessibility - Dynamic plugin aspires to be an all-in-one solution, with a superior list of standard features. Capable of changing how the website looks and behaves, frontend and behind the scenes. Includes toolbar allowing users to personally customize the website view. Paid license.
- Accessibility Lite - Versatile lightweight plugin does a lot of work but won't slow down your site with bloated code. Toolbar permits users to self-customize their view of the website and turn off distracting animations and popups. Free.
- Accessibility Press Plugin - Another simple-yet-effective accessibility toolbar plugin. Attractive design, very easy for users. Extensive language support. Free.
- Online ADA - Cloud-based system uses a simple script to publish an accessibility toolbar to the bottom of all your pages. Not a plugin or extension; changes to appearance are governed by remote AI. Works with any site, simple installation, but does cost $10 per month.
Please note that some extensions, such as accessiBe, also offer Joomla-ready versions.
'What if I use a DIY hosted builder?'
You have no control if you use a hosted builder such as Squarespace, Wyx or Weebly. They control the technology and you have no say. Unfortunately all you can do is cross your fingers that they are staying on top of things and will add the appropriate accessibility features to their builder platforms.
It does add to your price because it adds hours and complexity to your project. If your project is small in scope - say you have a purely expository small-business website or are building one - that could add $1-2,000. Costs rise from there depending on what level of compliance you need to achieve, and how big and complicated your website is. Your costs may be less if you are building a new website from scratch, and we incorporate accessibility as part of the build process from the ground up.