Features | January 25, 2022
Web Accessibility Starts With You
Accessibility for the web, often referred to as a11y, is a frequently-overlooked concern when planning new online initiatives. In an ever-changing landscape of regulations, guidelines and legal responsibilities, a11y is a topic that you should consider when you plan to extend your online presence. A properly accessible website benefits all users, regardless of physical differences or capabilities, and can help increase sales and improve online presence.
The organization responsible for guiding and managing how the web works, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), provides detailed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) for building content and solutions that are legally compliant and follow their established standards.
These guidelines are divided into three detailed tiers of criteria for success, ranked A to AAA. Basic A-level compliance is not difficult to achieve for most projects if it is accounted for early on. A-level compliance includes criteria like making sure text and background colors have sufficient contrast and that all images that are not purely decorative in purpose have alt text, or a short description of the image. AA addresses considerations like captioning video and audio content. The considerably more challenging AAA tier extends efforts to such levels as including pre-recorded sign language interpretations for audio content as a measure of success, and is rarely met outside of strict legal requirements.
For the purposes of legal responsibility, all U.S. government contractors and government-run websites are required under Section 508 of the revised Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to adhere to A and AA compliance. Meeting the W3C’s WCAG is an official requirement for Section 508 compliance. Additionally, organizations with an online presence that don’t allow for reasonable accommodation of functionality and that don’t meet these success criteria may be at risk of litigation or penalty, regardless of their relationship to the U.S. government.
In Europe, each member state of the European Union (EU) is required to enforce compliance individually by the EU Web Accessibility Directive. Consequences for failure to comply in either jurisdiction frequently involve heavy fines or other penalties.
|A special warning to stakeholders: the usage of technologies known as “web accessibility overlays” as drop-in solutions for compliance may seem like a quick fix, but is highly discouraged. These solutions are frequently faulty, interact poorly with assistive technologies and fail to adequately satisfy success criteria. In 2020 alone, more than 250 lawsuits were filed against organizations relying on overlays due to these shortcomings. A widely circulated petition, The Overlay Fact Sheet, has gathered hundreds of professional signatories throughout the web development industry in condemnation of these tools.
Regardless of the targeted level of compliance, the WCAG focus on four major tenets. The website must be:
Perceivable: These criteria address the presentation of content, from color contrast to order of presentation and the ability to adjust content to the individual user’s needs based on their individual browsing preferences.
Operable: Criteria in this category focus on the mechanics of interacting with a website. Metrics for success include all practical functionality being achievable with only the use of a keyboard (pointer devices like mice and touchpads may present challenges for users with fine motor control impairment), ensuring that users have enough time to complete tasks (addressing cognitive impairment) and allowing users to skip content from which they cannot benefit.
Understandable: Content must be written in such a way as to be easily understood, and user interface (UI) elements must be consistent and predictable. This tenet often falls prey to aesthetic wants from stakeholders when decisions are made solely based on visual appeal but without regard to functionality, especially as it relates to operability.
Robust: According to the WCAG, “content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.” Each of the robust criteria focuses on good development practices and helps ensure that assistive technologies, such as screen readers, can parse and interpret the content and structure of the site, and that the content gracefully degrades but remains accessible in older browsers.
Building an accessible web experience should be taken into consideration as early in the development process as possible. Waiting until the end of the project to consider accessibility can lead to significant lost time, effort and money. The initial impact of these efforts on development schedules and costs is far outweighed by the technical debt of delay and the potential legal and financial ramifications of ignoring them outright. When starting a project, bring these considerations up with your development team as soon as possible. Identify your required or desired level of compliance, and plan your content, visual design and functionality accordingly.
Jaron R. Hendrix is the lead front-end developer for Launchpad Intelligent Software.
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