We all have different roles in building the web. Marketing pros aim to get a succinct message to their target audience. Web designers create designs that are beautiful, distinctive, and functional. Web developers build code that is functional and robust. To do our jobs to the best of our abilities, we must all understand what accessibility means in information technology.
Let’s first examine some myths:
- Web accessibility is only for “blind people.”
- Considerable expense is necessary to accommodate people with disabilities.
- People with disabilities live very different lives than people without disabilities.
- There’s nothing I can do to remove barriers facing people with disabilities.
- None of my customers have disabilities.
All of these statements are false.
People with disabilities are the largest and most diverse minority group in the United States. As of the 2010 census, 19 percent of the population is living with a disability. That’s nearly 1 in 5 people. How many people do you encounter every day?
Barriers to Access
We all experience challenges and barriers in our lives, whether or not we consider ourselves as having a disability. But for people with disabilities, barriers happen more often and can have a much greater impact. So rather than considering disability a personal deficit or shortcoming, instead think of disability as the result of a person’s physical or social environment not addressing their functional needs.
Most barriers in information technology can be broken down into five areas:
More than twenty-five years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), our society has seen lot of positive changes. Unfortunately, stereotypes and stigmas about people with disabilities are still everywhere. It is our social responsibility to support everyone to live full and independent lives by recognizing and addressing challenges that people experience. We can start with facing our own stereotypes and stigmas we hold.
There are varying degrees of visual impairments, from color blindness to low vision to full blindness. Similarly, there are varying degrees of hearing loss and auditory impairments. And in this category of barriers are also cognitive impairments and learning disabilities. When creating a website, we must think about how to communicate with others who have varying degrees of auditory, visual, cognitive, and learning disabilities.
In addition, we must be mindful of physical barriers. The most common physical modes of access to the web are mice (mouses?) and keyboards. For those who have limited hand or finger movement, adaptive technologies allows the use of eye and mouth movement to control a computer. Websites cannot be built in a way that only allows access with a mouse.
Current policy surrounding disability is very complicated and can be an additional obstacle. Under current law, only federal agencies’ websites and educational institutions’ websites are required to follow regulations that protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination based on their disabilities (Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973).
However, Section III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodations. This is where it gets more difficult: a place of public accommodation is a place where one receives a service. Does a website provide a service?
Social and economic
Another level of complexity to this issue is socioeconomic. Of those living in poverty, 29 percent have a disability. People living in poverty may have limited internet access: low bandwidth at home or cellular network access only.
Now that you understand some of the barriers facing individuals with disabilities, what is your responsibility to this 19 percent?
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) are designed to make the web accessible to everyone, regardless of disability. These guidelines were founded on four principles:
- Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
- Operable: User interface components and navigation must be operable.
- Understandable: Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.
- Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.
WCAG 2.0 has three levels of compliance and below are just a few examples of how you can meet them:
WCAG 2.0: Level A (most basic standards)
- Skip to content link
- Alt-text on images
- Captions or alternatives for video-only or audio-only content
- Logical order of information with clear page titles
- Don’t use color as only method of conveying information
- Don’t play audio automatically
- Keyboard accessible controls and navigation
- Display controls for moving content (videos/slideshows)
- No content flashes more than 3x per second
- Label input elements and provide clear error messages
WCAG 2.0: Level AA (addresses common barriers)
- Live videos have captions
- Audio descriptions of video content
- Minimum contrast ratio between text and background: 4.5:1
- Text can be resized to 200%
- Don’t use images of text
- Offer multiple ways to find pages
- Clear headings and labels
- Keyboard focus is visible
- Use menus, icons, and buttons consistently
- Suggest corrections when users make errors on forms
WCAG 2.0: Level AAA (above and beyond)
- Minimum contrast ratio between text and background: 7:1
- Audio is clear
- Range of options for presentation
- Let users know where they are
- No time limits, interruptions, or auto-changing elements
- Every link’s purpose is clear from text
- Content is written at an 8th grade reading level
- Explain unusual words or abbreviations
- Reduce risk of all input errors
All of this information may be a bit overwhelming, however here are some tools to get you on the right track:
- The A11y Project
- WebAIM articles on accessibility
- World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) articles on accessibility
With an understanding of the common barriers to access, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), and the proper tools, we can all work together to create websites that are more inclusive.
Best practices in usability benefit everyone. And search engines reward websites with good usability and clearly organized information. Remember, it’s not about making the web accessible to people with disabilities. It’s about making the web accessible to people. Period.