When referencing accessibility, most people think about ramps or elevators or physical objects to assist people with disabilities with access to everyday places and items. It is extremely important that accessibility is included in the way we develop websites. Not only is it the right thing to do, but there are legal requirements, which if not met, can expose our clients to lawsuits and penalties.
Not a small minority
The 2010 US Census showed that there are approximately 57 million people with a disability living in the United States. That number represents about 19% of the civilian noninstitutionalized population.1 Think about that. About 1/5th of the US population benefits from some type of assistance when navigating eCommerce sites we are building for our clients. Assistance comes in the form of alternate ways of navigating the site for users that may have mobility issues that limit their ability to use a mouse or keyboard, vision or hearing impairments that can benefit from alternate tagging or screen reading applications.
According to a report released by Seyfarth Shaw,2 an international law firm specializing in employment and labor law, the number of website accessibility lawsuits in the US tripled in 2018 over the previous year.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has reaffirmed on several occasions that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to websites. Websites are considered to be a place of public accommodation, and therefore fall under the ADA protections. There is not an existing technical standard in the ADA and so the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has developed a set of standards, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that are referenced most frequently as the accessibility requirements for websites. The WCAG is constantly being refined and in testing, we strive to ensure our websites are meeting WCAG 2.0 Level AA established guidelines. For more information on W3C, you can visit their websites at w3.org.
WCAG strives to meet 4 main principles for web accessibility, as defined below:4
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
As accessibility standards have been developed and the importance of accessibility has become more prevalent, many tools have become available to ensure accessibility standards. These tools are available as built-in apps on devices, such as mobile screen readers, or browser options or plug-ins, such as Wave. Other apps, such as JAWS, are available for download.
When planning the testing of websites, there are a couple of tools I have become reliant on. Wave is an excellent tool as a plugin for Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox browsers. It is a simple tool that will automatically search for issues and errors based on the compliance level you set on the tool.
On mobile devices, there are built-in screen readers, such as VoiceOver on Apple devices. I recommend trying to use the built-in screen reader to understand how difficult it can be to navigate websites on a mobile device.
Be an advocate for accessibility in the websites we build for our clients. Adopt standards early in the development process. Make it a requirement/user story in your project backlog. Not only will it protect our clients from potentially costly lawsuits, but it will ensure the inclusion of a large group of accessibility-dependent customers for our clients. About one in four adult Americans has some kind of disability, and their disposable income is estimated at over 645 billion dollars annually.3