A study of one million websites by WebAim.org found that fewer than 4% of all homepages were compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines for accessibility.
The stakes for both companies and individuals with disabilities are high. As ADA.gov says, “Inaccessible web content means that people with disabilities are denied equal access to information. An inaccessible website can exclude people just as much as steps at an entrance to a physical location.”
For companies, the stakes go beyond liability for lawsuits under the ADA act; the risk of alienating a segment of their target audience has big implications for brand integrity and their bottom line.
In a world where a simple Google query can return all sorts of insights on ADA rules and requirements, why are so many companies lagging — and how can they catch up?
Consider the benefits
Beyond being a responsible corporate partner, companies stand to gain by complying with ADA standards. Google might not explicitly say SEO favors ADA-compliant sites, but many ADA best practices — images with HTML alt tags, for example — fall squarely in line with its ranking guidelines. HTML image alt text is used by assistive technologies to describe images to the visually impaired, providing a positive user experience. And a positive user experience is paramount to Google.
Companies who invest in ADA compliance now are, sadly, well ahead of the curve and can take pride in an actual differentiator. Whether they want to call attention to it or not, they can be sure it’ll go noticed, appreciated and perhaps even commented on favorably by users with disabilities and their allies in the know.
Check the basics
You don’t have to be a developer or an ADA expert to look for certain accessibility red flags, which include:
- Insufficient color contrast between image background and text
- Small text size
- Videos without captions and/or the ability to manually stop or start
- Assertively looping/flashing graphics
- Forms with missing labels, not clearly marking required fields, no success or error messages, time limits, etc.
- Functionality that is not usable with just a keyboard (websites should not require a mouse)
If you come across any of those, you’ve likely scratched the surface of a host of ADA issues.
If you’re worried about whether your site is ADA-compliant, a) it’s probably not; b) get an expert audit to gauge the extent of the issues, and ask who they’d recommend to help implement the needed updates. If you’re building a site from scratch or doing a big overhaul, make sure you’re working with an ADA-compliant developer and designer from the jump.
The first thing folks should consider with ADA compliance is how a site needs to be rendered for people with disabilities. As a web developer, familiarizing yourself with the WCAG's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines is the best place to start. They cover a wide range of recommendations for making Web content more accessible to people with disabilities.
It is also important to manually test. Try to navigate your site with your keyboard only and see if you get stuck anywhere or if things do not tab through in a logical order. I use a screen reader and close my eyes and try to navigate a website; this is a great way to diagnose whether there are any issues. You’ll get to experience the frustration of people with disabilities first-hand, which will give you a much deeper empathy for folks who live in an online world that’s built without regard for their needs. If you’re not part of this group already, remember that through a health or medical condition, an accident or just by aging, you can become part of it at any time.
Look for tools and springboards
If you're already using or plan to build on a website platform like Shopify, Wix, Squarespace or WordPress, look for ADA-compliant templates. Shopify, for example, requires all themes to meet a list of accessibility requirements before submission to be published on the Shopify Theme Store.
There are many browser extensions and websites that can audit existing websites (many of these tools, including one of my favorites, WebAim’s WAVE, do so by analyzing code). We also keep ourselves on the right side of compliance by having an accessibility test runner running on continuous integration in Gitlab, which reports any accessibility issues it finds. It won’t let you make any live updates until those issues are resolved.
Last, if you’re facing a significant volume of updates to get into compliance, or if you’re building a new site and have to buy some time with your current one, add a simple statement and contact info for addressing accessibility to offer a layer of support. It doesn’t fix anything regarding your compliance, but it’s something you can do to lend support that people might actually use.
Third-party platforms, tools and plug-ins are a reality for most websites. Do not make the mistake of assuming that all of the ones you’re using or considering are ADA-compliant. Vet any for compliance before putting them into play — and if you find that they’re out of compliance, let them know. The more potential users they’re turning off, the greater the pressure they’ll be under to come into alignment.
Perhaps the most important work you can do is to help make sure your organization’s DE&I initiatives always include consideration of people with disabilities — including hidden disabilities. The sooner we reach a tipping point that makes these reminders obsolete, the healthier the online ecosystem will be for everyone.
Jessie Mele is senior development team lead at DMi Partners