keyboard with custom accessible key - metaphor to website accessibility and ada compliance

Website Accessibility Compliance Intro

David Gibson

The ADA, WCAG and Website Accessibility Compliance 

The Americans with Disabilities Act via Title III requires that all "public accommodations" (retailers, doctors, malls, restaurants, hotels, and ski resorts) provide facilities and equipment that are readily accessible to, and usable by, people with disabilities.  Through litigation, proponents have worked to extend access from the physical world to the digital world to now include websites and mobile apps.

The de facto standard recognized commonly across the world and here in the US is the  Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The guidelines come in three degrees (A, AA, AAA). The current version is WCAG 2.1 which ads 17 additional criteria, so this is what is commonly recommended. As of 2020, we are seeing legal complaints citing WCAG 2.1.


Web Accessibility and WCAG Website Compliance Standards

The standards break down to 4 basic principles: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, Robust. The following overview includes limited examples for the sake of providing an "overview". Refer to the WCAG 2.1 for all details.

Perceivable - Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
This means that users must be able to perceive the information being presented (it can't be invisible to all of their senses)

  • Provide text alternatives for non-text content.
  • Provide captions and other alternatives for multimedia.
  • Create content that can be presented in different ways, including by assistive technologies, without losing meaning.
  • Make it easier for users to see and hear content.

Operable - User interface components and navigation must be operable.
This means that users must be able to operate the interface (the interface cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform)

  • Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
  • Give users enough time to read and use content.
  • Do not use content that causes seizures.
  • Help users navigate and find content.

Understandable - Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.
This means that users must be able to understand the information as well as the operation of the user interface (the content or operation cannot be beyond their understanding)

  • Make text readable and understandable.
  • Make content appear and operate in predictable ways.
  • Help users avoid and correct mistakes. 

Robust - Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.
This means that users must be able to access the content as technologies advance (as technologies and user agents evolve, the content should remain accessible)

  • Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools.


WCAG Levels for ADA Web Compliance

The WCAG is divided into three levels: A, AA, AAA. A level issues are the low hanging fruit. AAA level issues are not required in practice (demand letters, lawsuits or DOJ/DOE actions). AAA level issues are best practices but not required. This leaves the minimum requirement for ADA compliance in 2020 to include WCAG 2.1 A, AA compliance. 


Steps to Make Your Website ADA Compliant

1. Automated + Manual Website Audit

The path to digital accessibility begins with a 3-step audit that combines the results of automated, manual, and assistive technologies into one comprehensive audit. Unless you cannot afford all three steps, avoid the temptation to only conduct an automated audit. Even the best can only detect ~30% of WCAG issues, because these issues are nuanced and interpretive. Adding manual and assistive technology testing (screen readers, etc) of unique pages/templates captures the remaining 70% of issues.

The quality and depth of the reporting is important also, and you should expect reporting to not only identify issue, but should also provide the remediation guidance to fix each. This is what we do, and we even include relevant screen-shots. Quality reporting at this level will greatly reduce the number of false positives, and well written remediation guidance will greatly reduce the time/cost impact on the remediation team. Learn more about our WCAG auditing services.


2. WCAG Website Remediation 

The first question is who should do this work. Should you rely on your existing developmant team vs outsourcing to a credible website remediation company. The answer is largely one of resources, time, and risk tolerance (here is an article that answers the question in greater depth).

The process begins with segmenting the audit results based on task category and then severity or priority. In our reporting, we indicate the severity of each item and then assign a priority level to guide project management. Issues then fall into three category buckets: design, content, development. 

Design issues will include items such as color, contrast, size, spacing, and page structure. 

Content issues will include items that can be addressed through the CMS. These would include items such as image labels (alt tags), or the structure of headings (H1, H2, H3, etc). The content team would also handle captioning video content. Content remediation is not technical but tedious and makes good work for interns.  

Development issues will include the bulk of issues found in the front-side code: the CSS/HTML/Javascript layer. The good news is that websites are built using templates, shared modules, global libraries, etc... so one issue found on every page in a header element for example can potentially be eliminated with one fix. If the audit reporting is thorough and provides strong remediation guidance, a team of experienced developers should be able to address most issues on their own. Otherwise you may want to consider bringing in a team of remediation specialists who are experts in both WCAG compliance and the code.


WCAG ADA Testing & Remediation: What to Avoid

Responding the dream of fast and cheap, too-good-to-be-true “overlay” or "widget" solution providers claim that by adding a plugin or javascript snippet they can automagically make any website WCAG compliant. Without naming names, these rely on automated tools which we know can only detect ~30% of issues in the first place. As the term “overlay” suggests, these methods fail to fix the underlying code. They also need to be manually turned on by the end-user. Attorney Richard Hunt of Hunt Huey PLLC was one of the first attorneys to specialize in digital ADA cases. He recently wrote Is there a silver bullet for ADA website accessibility? Sorry, but the answer is no. On March 31, 2020 he wrote: "If your business wants to avoid getting sued under the ADA because of an inaccessible website an accessibility overlay or widget isn’t going to help you. I can say this with some certainty because in the last two weeks alone five lawsuits have been filed against businesses that use an accessibility widget or overlay on their websites."

Also be sure to avoid alternate “accessible website tactics. This approach fails the separate but equal mandate of the ADA, as such sites are never equal in practice.  

More reading on these and other "solutions" and methods to avoid


Final Thoughts on Web Accessibilty

If you only remember one thing from this post…  automated solutions can only detect 30% of WCAG issues. For those with limited budgets, starting with automated as a phase one will address most easy low-hanging fruit items. If the primary goal is to avoid legal issues, consider that trolling law firms are only using automated tools themselves, so as long as you're using better automated tools, you can gain some protection. However for actual accessibility for those many with disabilities - and a growing boomer generation with bad eyes and shakey hands - you must follow the full 3-step process.

Good luck and let us help.