According to the World Bank, approximately one billion people have some form of disability and it goes without saying that it impacts their lifestyle, including access and use of digital content. Thanks to technological advancement, it has now become possible to make web content more accessible by implementing assistive technology in your website. In this article, we will review the most popular forms of assistive technology and will list down a checklist for an ADA compliant website.
What is assistive technology?
Assistive technology incorporates assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices for people with disabilities, according to the official Wikipedia definition. But in terms of web content, assistive technology includes all tools and software products that help people with disabilities access and use web content. If you need an example, think of CC (closed captions) or speech recognition - both are considered assistive technology and both help people better perceive content on a website.
There are several types of assistive technology based on the types of disabilities they assist with - let’s have a look at each.
Visual disability comes in many forms, from partial loss of sight to total blindness. Hence, there is a variety of AT tools that serve people with visual impairments:
Screen magnifiers: enlarge the text and graphics (up to 20 times of original size or more). It is worth noting that almost all modern devices and OSs (Windows, Mac, iOS, Android) have built-in magnifying software.
Screen readers: allow vocalization of web content via synthesized speech.
Speech recognition: converts users’ speech into text that appears on the screen. Users’ speech is also used to control the mouse and keyboard for easier navigation.
As you see, the main idea behind these tools is to make the content more visible by enlarging or vocalizing it and allowing users to interact with the content without necessarily seeing it (voice recognition).
The most common type of assistive technology for hearing disabilities is CC aka closed captions. You must have seen it on YouTube or elsewhere: while you watch a video, you can click on the CC icon and the text will appear on the screen. You might have also noticed that CC includes not only speech but also sounds, effects, background music, etc. All this is done in order to help people with hearing disabilities get the absolute impression of the presented content.
While CC is usually created by content owners, there is also automatic transcription software that can generate captions by automatically converting audio into text. Note though that such tools may often be inaccurate and the captions may be incorrect so it’s always better to double-check them manually.
In terms of web content usage, people with physical disabilities often have issues with muscle control and the use of their hands. Hence, it is important that they are able to interact with the content and create content with minimal effort and with alternative input methods:
Joysticks for cursor movement;
Trackballs (especially suitable for people with fine motor control issues);
Head pointers for people with limited mobility.
By now, it may seem that optimization of your website in terms of accessibility might be too complex - but fear not. We will now have a look at the WCAG and ADA terms and see what their accessibility guidelines are.
WCAG and ADA
In order to better comprehend who monitors web content accessibility, we will have to roll back to 1990. This was the year when ADA, The Americans with Disabilities Act, was instituted. The primary goal of the Act was to provide protection against discrimination against people with disabilities. At that time, it led to the wide adoption of wheelchair access ramps, equal-access facilities, Braille devices, and much more.
So how does it relate to the Internet? The thing is, ADA states that “every owner, lessor, or operator of a “place of public accommodation” provide equal access to users who meet ADA standards for disability”. And since commercial websites were considered “places of public accommodation” by courts across the US, this is how ADA became in charge of web content accessibility.
But ADA needs guidelines to base their requirements upon - this is where WCAG steps in. WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These guidelines were published by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium). The first WCAG version, WCAG 1.0, was published back in 1999, and the WCAG 2.0 version was published in 2008 and became an ISO.
If it seems like too much for you, don’t worry: WCAG has official documentation that provides a compliance checklist (we will talk about it below). Now let’s move further.
Reasons for ADA compliance
Even though ADA has been around for years, it began paying special attention to websites only in the last few years. So why should one bother?
The thing is, the lack of compliance with ADA and WCAG may lead to serious issues for a company. Companies that failed to comply with the requirements later faced legal claims from dissatisfied users who were not able to use and access their web content. Needless to say, legal claims, in turn, lead to serious financial losses as well as have a very negative impact on the company’s image.
But what’s more important is user experience and satisfaction. Since user experience plays a major part in developing loyalty and trust for your website, you’d want to cherish it. This is why it is so important to make an ADA compliant website accessible to anyone who visits it.
We are now clear that assistive technology is a must-have for any modern website. Now let’s talk about the steps you need to take in order to get an ADA compliant website.
Best practices for ADA compliance
The bad news is there are no guidelines on compliance officially defined by ADA. But the good news is that Kris Rivenburgh, Chief Accessibility and Legal Officer at Essential Accessibility. Co, came up with recommendations that any website owner will find useful:
Have full WCAG 2.1 AA compliance.
Publish an official statement on accessibility where you define your policy and list down the steps that you took to make an ADA compliant website.
Still no idea where to start? Let’s walk through these points step-by-step.
In general, WCAG recommends keeping the website design clear, user-friendly, easily navigated, and well-structured. That means any user should have no problems with navigating it and understanding its content. Hence, pay attention to the background and its contrast with the content (text, video, images), organization of content and its structure, predictability of navigation, and overall ease of website use.
But if we drill down, WCAG has specific requirements on accessibility that are related to people with disabilities. The official WCAG documentation in full is available on the official website but for the sake of brevity, we will outline its main points below.
Text alternatives to audio-only and video-only content should be provided;
The website structure should have a clear presentation with the correct use of color, meaningful order, color contrast, text resize, etc.
The user control should be diverse and user-friendly: all content should be accessible by keyboard, any time limits should be adjustable, any scrollable, moving, or disappearing content can be paused, stopped, or hidden.
All content should be understandable and the content navigation should be easy and intuitive.
Consistency and predictability: navigation should be consistent, there should be no focus or input changes, the HTML code should be free and clean.
For a more detailed checklist, you can check the post by Kris Rivenburgh on Medium where he breaks down every point in more detail.
An official statement on accessibility
An accessibility statement is an official document published by your company with an aim to describe your policy on accessibility and the step you took to ensure it. Again, there is no official template - but here are the main things to points to cover:
Describe your policy in general and suggest readers provide feedback, if relevant.
Identify the standards that you aim to meet.
Describe compatibility and possible limitations: what browsers is your website compatible with?
Cover assistance from an accessibility coordinator, if relevant.
Explain to whom your policy is distributed.
Describe your accessibility testing methods.
Describe your accessibility training and education practices.
Discuss your compliance with applicable regulations.
List helpful resources, if relevant.
This template will help you create an informative statement that will cover the main points on accessibility by your company.
The four principles of WCAG
One more thing that we need to talk about is the four main principles of WCAG, called POUR. These principles determine the quality and accessibility of content and describe it as following:
Perceivable: the content can be comprehended and perceived by users. For that, you can use text alternatives and make sure the content can be adapted (presented in different ways) and distinguished from the background.
Operable: a user can easily operate the content. For that, try making all functions available from the keyboard, provide multiple ways to navigate the content, and ensure users have enough time to read and comprehend the content.
Understandable: the content should be easily understood by all users. Hence, it should be readable, web pages should be arranged in a predictable way, and you can also enable users to correct mistakes if they encounter any.
Robust: content should be supported and interpreted by a variety of user devices, including assistive technologies.
As you see, there is a lot to take care of. Luckily, there are services that offer accessibility testing services so you might want to check them out.
A quick recap
Web content accessibility is defined by WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) and monitored by ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).
Accessible web content should be POUR: perceivable, operable, understandable, robust.
In order to make an ADA compliant website, you need to go through an official WCAG 2.0 checklist and issue an official compliance statement.
Assistive technologies are an integral part of the majority of websites, especially commercial ones. While it might take quite a lot of time and resources to implement this technology, it will reward you with customers’ loyalty and trust and will have a significant and positive impact on your brand.
SoftTeco is currently working on accessibility and we hope that our content can be easily perceived and accessed by all users that visit our website.