Accessibility refers to building and updating a website to make it easier for all users, including people with disabilities, to navigate and get information. Barriers of traditional mediums, such as print, audio, and visual media, can be overcome through web technology. It’s our job as strategists and producers of web content to ensure that there aren’t different barriers preventing those with disabilities from accessing the same content they might not be able to off the web.
The number of people with a disability makes up about 26 percent, or 1 in 4, of the U.S. adult population according to CDC disability statistics from 2018. By not incorporating accessibility into your digital strategy, you could be missing an audience the size of California and New York’s populations combined, not to mention the other benefits you receive from an accessible website. In order to reach that audience, have better SEO, and improve the experience of using your website, you must make your site accessible from the start.
1. Introduce accessibility into your digital strategy
Accessibility is far easier to implement while you’re planning your site content than to try and fit it in after you’ve already published a landing page or redesigned your navigation. Instead of having to audit your site and adjust your color palette, alt text, and headings, introduce accessibility issues as usability issues from the very beginning of your digital strategy.
By working accessibility into your digital strategy, you can plan and prioritize your features. For example, If you want to make sure you have AA standards (the second of the three levels of accessibility standards set by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG), you can figure out who your users are before you plan your content or site out and determine what the baseline is so that you meet the AA standards. Some things you want to consider when reviewing site content are:
- Are your headings ordered correctly?
- Is the contrast of your colors high enough?
- Do you need language considerations?
- Is there descriptive alt text?
- Is it responsive?
2. Set measurable goals and create user personas for accessible UX
One of the best ways to incorporate accessibility is to introduce it naturally rather than as something different and new that everyone needs to pay attention to separately.
Start with your key performance indicators (KPIs) and consider if there is a legal or statistical benefit to having accessibility be one of them. If it is, begin measuring the ones most impactful to your audience and on your site. These could include:
- Site load speed
- The number of pictures without an alt attribute
- The number of Level A success criteria violations
- The number of Level AA success criteria violations
Then move on to analyzing your user personas. Create inclusive personas that have limitations and disabilities. Also consider capturing people who might be challenged by things like a temporary disability, slow internet connection, or colorblindness—things that people don't necessarily think of as a disability. That way, when you begin to design, you can keep in mind the challenges your persona might run into.
Finally, consider your competitive analysis. Is your competition doing more to reach the 26 percent of people that have a disability than you? These questions all work to make you and your team start thinking about how accessibility naturally fits into your deliverables.
3. Rally your team
Part of having an accessibility-aligned digital strategy means being able to discuss accessibility with the rest of your company, whether that’s your CEO or a junior developer. That said, your strategy team may not know all the nuances of approaching accessibility right away. The following talking points will help your strategy team understand some important topics and hold a conversation or introduce an idea.
Accommodating for Visual Disabilities
Almost everyone has heard of alt text, but far fewer are aware of the many types of images there are and how that impacts what the alt text should say. From informative to decorative to complex, the different types of images you are working with will change the alt text you add to the image to make it accessible. You can use this W3 images tutorial to make sure you’re providing the appropriate text alternatives based on the purpose of the image.
Additionally, consider high contrast and keep in mind how colors on a site or image work together, particularly if there is text on top of them. If the color of the text is too similar to the background color or image it is appearing on, the result would not have a high enough color contrast ratio and it may not be readable to someone. Instead, always use a Contrast Checker to ensure the text is legible.
Accommodating for Hearing Impairments
There are a number of different types of video transcripts that you can include with video and audio to make media more accessible.
- Basic transcripts are written text recordings of audio, including sounds and speech.
- Descriptive transcripts are basic transcripts that also include visual information and what the piece of media is showing.
- Interactive transcripts highlight the text in the transcript and connect it with the point in the media that the transcript is referring to. This helps people follow along with the media and find a specific time where something is said or done.
Be sure not to confuse transcripts with captions. Captions are also written text of audio, but they are displayed within the media player, while transcripts are independent as a separate piece of content. Transcripts can be used for audio-only or visual media with audio to meet different levels of A ratings. Captions should be used, and are required for an A or AA standard, when producing visual media with audio when the audio is needed to understand what the video is communicating.
Other Accessible Practices
For people with cognitive or mobility concerns, using white space to create a separation of information can make the user experience more enjoyable or mean the difference between someone getting overwhelmed or not. An example of this is the spacing around links. Adding more spacing makes navigating the site much easier.
Another good practice in accessible-designed sites is properly formatted header tags. Making sure that your headings are in the right order and that you don’t have more than one Header 1 (often referred to as H1), is important for assistive technologies.
These are just a few things your team can bring up in conversation and notice about sites. The more they talk about and create with accessibility in mind, the more they will notice and become familiar with other accessibility issues.
4. See the SEO value
Reaching the 26 percent of people with a disability isn’t the only benefit you can get from building accessibility into your digital strategy. There's also the SEO benefit.
Approaching issues like headings and descriptive alt text with accessibility in mind will set you up for good SEO practices. As search engine crawlers peruse your site, they will be tracking the content on the pages and how easy it is to navigate using headings. Alt text tags for images will better help them understand what the image is supposed to represent. However, be careful you don’t fall into the trap of using keywords in place of descriptive text, as that is not accessible content and could lead to confusion when someone is using a screen reader to understand your content.
How people respond to a site also affects SEO, so making your site responsive means you will have a lower bounce rate from those on mobile or tablet that might miss the information on your site because it’s hard to navigate on their device. It also helps people who have a disability that are using a zoom function or other device so that they can access and navigate your site.
Just because your site is optimized for search engines doesn't make it accessible, but in creating an accessibility-friendly website, you are better optimized for search engines. So focus on accessibility alongside SEO, and you’ll often hit two birds with one stone.
5. Have a basic understanding of compliance standards
As we approach 2021, government and educational institutions will have had to meet 508 compliance for 3 years. Section 508 c is a law that requires federal agencies to make their technology accessible, but laws have since stemmed from and alongside 508 requiring more businesses to meet compliance requirements. These include the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In 2019, 2,256 ADA website accessibility lawsuits were filed against business sites, including these real-world examples. Any business that sells products or services needs to be aware of these laws and meet accessibility to ensure accessibility standards are met or risk dealing with a lawsuit. The best practice for businesses is to meet a AA rating, the standard for most accessibility compliance laws.
Accessible sites are becoming the norm, so it's time to start talking about it and making accessibility a natural progression in our projects right from the beginning. Now is the time for accessibility to become more than just something we can do; it has to become what we do.
If you already have a site and it's not compliant, or you're not sure if it is, consider reaching out for an accessibility audit. Our team uses a combination of testing tools and manual testing to accurately assess the level of attention your site needs to become fully compliant. Our audit will also help you prioritize so that you can get up to speed over time and within your budget. Ready to get started? Contact us here.
Interested in auditing your own site first? Download our digital strategy accessibility checklist to make sure you cover WCAG 2.1 accessibility standards in your audit and then let us know if you need more expert help.
Editor's note: This content was originally published as a Friday 5 video in June 2017 and has since been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.