How to make a website accessible
People need to start thinking about website accessibility in the same way they think about security and privacy.
That’s according to Lainey Feingold, a disability rights lawyer in Berkeley, California, who works on web and other digital accessibility cases.
“In the coming years, everything will hopefully be born accessible, as it should be,” she says. “Lawyers need to be advising their clients not to build something, not to purchase technology that everyone can’t use.”
Web accessibility—the practice of designing and coding websites so that people with disabilities can use them—is a brand differentiator, an opportunity for innovation and creativity, and a way to improve search engine optimization, Feingold says. It’s also a civil rights issue, as lawsuits over barriers to online access have rapidly increased in recent years.
WHERE TO START
A company that wants to make its website more accessible can start by hiring a website accessibility consultant.
“This really is a specialty, and once you bring in a consultant, they will do an audit and let you know what you need to do to remediate the website, so it is accessible,” says Kristina Launey, an attorney with Seyfarth Shaw’s ADA Title III Specialty Team, who advises and defends companies in web accessibility cases.
The consultant’s recommendations will likely mirror the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA or 2.1 AA, two sets of technical standards for improving web accessibility that were designed by the World Wide Web Consortium. The W3C, as it is commonly known, is an international community that works to develop web standards.
Those standards aim to improve access for people with a range of disabilities, including auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech and visual. They can also benefit people without disabilities, including people who are aging and people with “temporary disabilities,” such as a broken arm.
A company can work with a website developer to implement the recommended changes in the back end of its website. A developer can insert code, for example, that differentiates headings from regular text. A person who is blind or visually impaired then uses a screen reader, a form of assistive technology, to access those headings and navigate to different sections of the website.
A developer can also integrate other accessible features, including video captions for people who are deaf or have hearing loss, and both visual and audio CAPTCHAs, a response test used to determine if the user is human.
‘DESIGN FOR YOUR FUTURE SELF’
Another important feature for older adults or people with mobility issues is the ability to move through a website without using a mouse, Feingold says. An accessible website allows full navigation with the keypad—users should be able to hit the tab and return keys and the up and down arrows to interact with all of its content.
“Accessibility is especially good for seniors who may not identify as being a person with a disability,” Feingold says. “For young developers and designers not part of the baby boomer generation, one of the things we say is design for your future self.”
She also suggests that companies involve their target audience in the process. There are online portals where people with disabilities review websites and provide feedback on usability, she says.
The website accessibility consultant may also need to train a company’s information technology or marketing staff if they are not experienced with web accessibility.
“Websites are dynamic and they’re constantly changing,” Launey says. “If the people who will be adding or changing content on the website don’t know how to do it in an accessible fashion, then you will be continually at risk.”
Launey recommends that companies adopt internal web accessibility policies, as well as guidelines for third-party vendors who provide content that is imbedded in their websites.
She also suggests that companies train their customer service representatives to speak articulately about web accessibility and understand issues that need to be addressed.
Other best practices for companies include posting accessibility statements on their websites, which appear in either the footer or header and describe their commitment to accessibility. They also provide contact information for someone users can call if they have trouble accessing content.
“I believe in transparency, especially when you’re working on public websites,” Feingold says. “Accessibility is not a one-and-done thing. Companies, including law firms, have to show they are committed to accessibility.”