Accessibility: What it is and How it Affects Your Software
Summary: Lawsuits regarding accessibility on the Web are on the rise, and one of the best ways to comply with Section 508 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and The American Disabilities Act is to conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) put forth by the World Wide Web Consortium. In this post, we explain what each of these is and how it all relates to you and your software.
In the recent wake of lawsuits against small businesses for having websites that are not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), businesses are scrambling to become compliant and avoid fines or other consequences. Many businesses have had to shut down their website or redirect traffic to their Facebook page while they address accessibility issues. For e-commerce websites or retail businesses that are reliant on the holiday season, this can be devastating.
Undoubtedly, the best approach to triage a non-compliance situation of any sort is to use the age-old protocol stop the bleeding, start the breathing. There are a number of tools available to help identify the issues that need the most urgent attention and support you in improving your software. While we will provide a few of those tools & techniques here, the real purpose of this post is to kick-off a multi-post series on accessibility and design. To start things off, let's set the stage for why accessibility is good design by first defining what web accessibility is and looking at its surrounding context.
Accessibility: The Laws, Your Software, and Standard Guidelines
“Web accessibility means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them. More specifically, they can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web as they contribute to its' growth. Web accessibility encompasses all disabilities that affect access to the Web, including auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual disabilities.”
Designing with accessibility in mind may sound sentimental, but it isn’t just a “nice thing to do”. Compliance with accessibility laws has been a legal concern for years and its reach into technology, and more specifically your websites, is ever increasing.
You don't need to be a Rocket Surgeon to follow some simple concepts behind making your websites compliant. What is difficult, however, is understanding the language of the law and pulling together a set of specific guidelines against which you can checklist your website. "Just tell us what we need to do" is the most frequent comment we hear from our clients when we assist them with compliance. Unfortunately, there is a bunch of legalese out there that makes understanding what you need to do difficult, so here is the lay of the land:
Congress passed The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies. Section 508 of this Act, specifically addresses information and communications technology, requiring it too to be accessible to people with disabilities for both the general public and employees. Although the Act, including Section 508 of the Act, only applies to programs conducted by federal agencies, many private employers adopted its standards as a way to ensure their technology infrastructure was accessible. This would avoid issues with private businesses when they either enter into contracts with the federal government or are involved in projects that are funded by the federal government. In such cases, private businesses are required to adhere to the law, including Section 508. At this point, however, if you are a business that was not involved in any federal programs, there was no compliance requirement.
In 1990, just as the Web was beginning to emerge, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life including private places that are open to the general public. This is where your business, and your website, come into the picture. There are (5) sections, or titles, as they are called in the ADA. Title 1 deals with employment discrimination, and if you have been involved in the Human Resources function of your business, you probably know about this section already. Titles 3 and 4 of the ADA are more specifically geared toward public access to your business or your electronic communication and this is where your website comes into the picture.
If you were to open up a storefront in the physical world, with a physical doorway, Section 3 of ADA will require that you have certain "accessibility" requirements met so that people of all shapes and sizes can enter your business. One of the most well-known examples of accessibility requirements is Wheelchair Access. Businesses, including commercial landlords, are required to make sure this accessibility exists for the physical entryways to businesses; this includes elevators, ramps around staircases and doors that can easily be opened.
As a business owner, when you stand up a website, you are creating a virtual doorway to your business and the ADA is just as relevant. However, accessibility is a different thing in the virtual world. We don't need to make accommodations for physical access, but rather, we need to follow some basic guidelines for virtual access.
“Okay, okay,” you might say. “There’s Section 508 and ADA compliance, and I get it, my website is my virtual business. Let’s go back to the ‘just tell me what to do’ part.”
Accessibility concerns in the virtual space have been around long enough that lots of brilliant people have dedicated their time to come up with guidelines for “good accessibility.” Those guidelines are called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). As evidence for the strength of these guidelines, Section 508 and Title III of the ADA have both incorporated language pointing to the valuable guidance the WCAG provides for accessibility compliance. Not only do these two statutes point to the WCAG, the International Organization for Standardization accepted the WCAG 2.0 as a standard for web accessibility in 2012.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an organization that works to develop a whole host of standards related to internet ("web") technologies. The W3C works in cooperation with individuals and organizations from around the world to develop the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, the first version of which was adopted in 1999. In 2008, the "2.0" version of the standard was adopted and as recent as June 5th of this year, an updated 2.1 version was adopted as a formal recommended standard. WCAG 2.1 is backward compatible, meaning that if you are in conformance with 2.1, you will also be in conformance with 2.0. So if you're looking for guidelines to follow, look no further than the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1. The guidelines have three different levels of conformance:
Level A: For Level A conformance (the minimum level of conformance), the Web page satisfies all the Level A Success Criteria, or a conforming alternate version is provided.
Level AA: For Level AA conformance, the Web page satisfies all the Level A and Level AA Success Criteria, or a Level AA conforming alternate version is provided.
Level AAA: For Level AAA conformance, the Web page satisfies all the Level A, Level AA, and Level AAA Success Criteria, or a Level AAA conforming alternate version is provided.
Some content cannot be made to meet AAA conformance, so it is likely not feasible to attempt full AAA conformance. Level A conformance is considered the minimum and as such where feasible Level A should be exceeded. When working with our clients, we use AA as our target level. When our clients ask us to “just tell them what to do”, we not only suggest following the WCAG 2.1 with AA conformance, we help them do it.
Now that we’ve discussed what accessibility is and how its laws affect you and your websites, we will go into further detail in upcoming posts about why accessibility is really just about good design - if you design your website or software well, compliance will be easy as most WCAG guidelines will already be in place.