If you are trying to run a successful site, there have probably been countless hours spent on discussing colors, choosing placement of content, and deciding on the perfect phrasing for call to actions. There’s probably a push in your company for quick loading pages while researching and implementing best SEO practices. You may have even hired every kind of consultant to help audit and improve your site. However, if you haven’t really thought about accessibility for the web or heard of 508 and ADA compliance, which is pretty common, then there is something you definitely need to catch up on. Due to lax oversight, up until more recently, a good majority of the web development industry has been overlooking this part of site development. That will definitely be changing in the next few years as more realize the benefits of designing/developing with accessibility in mind. The benefits of this knowledge not only help the UX and usability of sites, but also keep you protected against a quickly growing legal presence.
The Growing Enforcement
Forewarning: a lot of acronyms and abbreviations will follow
When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990, the concept of web browsing didn’t even exist. Since then making the internet accessible has been a somewhat low priority for the Department of Justice (DOJ). Over the past couple of years, this definitely has been changing. In 2010 the Department issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) with the goal of guidance for websites accessibility for the American Disabilities Act (ADA). While reviewing the public comments to the ANPRM the aim was to have guidance by 2016. They have since postponed until 2018, but that doesn’t mean that it is still the Wild West for online accessibility. Plaintiffs and advocacy groups have not hesitated to file suits in the meantime. Even without regulations, due to the further delays on the NPRM, the DOJ itself has even brought enforcement actions for ADA violations. The influx of these cases has grown considerably in only the past few years.
Over time, the rules for assessing compliance has grown as well. Federal sites already had guidelines with 508 compliance but the ADA was missing a strict set of rules to adhere to in the corresponding laws / regulations. Since the 508 list of requirements didn’t apply to everyone, how are there actual rulings for compliance on normal sites? Around the same time - all the way back in 1999 - the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) also put together guidelines. The recommendations of the governing body were compiled into the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). There have been updates and adjustments over the years and WCAG 2.0 came about around 2008. Since then, many rulings from the DOJ have pointed to the 2.0 version for compliance (at least for Title II cases http://www.ada.gov/enforce_current.htm).
You might be asking, who do all of these rules apply to under ADA then? State and local governments fall under Title II, which should be pretty quick to determine. As for Title III and the business world, it gets tricky because of how “Public Accommodations” can be interpreted. There have been inconsistent court decisions because of this as well as different standards for determining accessibility. In 2002 the Southern District of Florida held that the ADA restricted its coverage to physical places. However, since then some courts have ruled that the Internet and thus websites are a form of public accommodation for businesses. This is why Netflix, for example, had to add close captioning to all of its videos by 2014.
Because of the slightly unknown nature of the courts and the delay until 2018 for a more consistent set of rulings, it is better to be safe than sorry. Judging from many of the rulings it does seem likely the DOJ will side on WCAG 2.0 AA requirements. Also, with the ever increasing need for the internet on a daily basis “public accommodations” has strong potential to apply to websites as an official ruling. Following the WCAG 2.0 guidelines overlaps a lot of other options (e.g. 508 compliance) so jumping ahead of the curve and developing now is a fairly safe bet and will help prevent any current legal action.
Accessibility Design Helps with More than Compliance
Yes, there is going to be a push for compliance from a legal standpoint, but there are a lot of benefits in implementing these guidelines. Putting accessible UX into design and development can improve your site overall for all users. It can help with increasing crawlable content and search engine value, make your site quicker and easier to use, as well as potentially bring in and keep new user markets. If you are looking for stats on how many users with impairments are using your site, you are out of luck. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy way to determine if users are using screen readers, switches, or other devices/software since those tie in on the OS level rather than being browser based. However, since the benefits can apply to everyone, the gains will still be seen for the effort spent. Don’t forget that Google and other search engines put weight on how usable your site is and how long users stay. So an easier use site will help out your users as well as your site.
- Adding Text alternatives for visual content increases information for screen readers as well as search engine bots.
- Using SVGs for infographics will have the text available for all users without needing to create any extra content or tag attributes. The text information is crawlable and looks nice regardless of screen resolution.
- Transcripts for videos on dedicated pages will add a lot more to the video content that can be crawled. In the process, for non-live video, you have taken care of the minimum for compliance as well as give options for users who don’t have time to watch a whole video.
- Adding in keyboard functionality helps all users. They end up being slight “Easter Eggs” that super users will enjoy as well. For example, video/music player sites often have used the spacebar to play and pause content. Configuration tools and possibly complex aspects of your site could become easier to use for everyone with some attention to keyboard shortcuts.
- Having text error messages next to related inputs, if done correctly, can help both screen readers and visual based users. The less time a user has to figure out how to fill out a form the more likely they will complete the actions you want.
- Having the right contrast ratios for text can help make sure all users can actually read your content. This not only helps users with poor eyesight, but also many users who have poorly calibrated monitors.