Keeping Accessibility in Mind: Advice From a Web Accessibility Expert
Making your company’s IT both properly accessible to people with disabilities and compliant with accessibility laws means your organization must always keep accessibility in mind.
WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind) Associate Director, Jared Smith, recently lent some great advice in his presentation Implementing & Evaluating Web Application Accessibility.
To start off, here are some basic facts about web accessibility you may or may not have known:
- It supports good design and development practices.
- It supports and improves search engine optimization.
- It supports internationalization.
- It supports mobile-friendly content.
- 8.5-20% of the population has a disability that affects computer usage.
Regarding the last item in that list, Jared says this is actually a very conservative estimate:About 8.5% of the population has a disability that affects computer use. That’s a very minimal number taken from the US Census data. About 20% of the population has a disability. Of those, a lot of them have disabilities that can affect computer use. This does not include those with color blindness or color deficiency. It does not include those with most cognitive and learning disabilities and so forth.
He goes on to interpret this data as a business opportunity:[P]eople with disabilities are going to go to the places that are most accessible to them. And so, I really see this 8.5% or more of the population as really being an opportunity, maybe a market opportunity, to expand your reach and really have this population come to you.
WCAG and Building ‘POUR Websites’
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 is the most influential, current, and comprehensive documentation of its kind, and is the standard internationally when it comes to web accessibility.
WCAG calls for websites that are POUR: Perceivable, Operable, Usable, and Robust. Essentially, this means organizations should integrate accessibility into the design of their website instead of considering it later on by looking for accessibility tools and programs that attempt to mimic a non-disabled user’s experience.
In Jared’s own words:[W]e need to think about usability first, and then, as we do that, very often, accessibility becomes much easier, becomes much more natural because it’s already usable to begin with. Very often we see things that are not very usable, and the approach or thought is that we’ll just add ARIA, or adjustability markup, to it to somehow make it better. And that very rarely works very well.
Best HTML Practice
Many people with visual disabilities including blindness, low vision, color deficiency, or color blindness use assistive technology to engage with websites and web applications. Common examples are screen readers and tools that enlarge text and images or change the color contrast.
These tools are very helpful, but if a website’s HTML, colors, or graphics were not implemented with these kinds of tools in mind, features of the website might be completely inaccessible to those with visual impairments.
To avoid that on your website or application:
- It’s typically best to use a single
<h1>header per page.
<h1>header should contain an accurate description of the page.
- Headings should define and follow a proper outline of the page’s content.
- Make sure to include alt-text on all images.
- Use HTML5 regions like
- Include labels in HTML that indicate buttons, forms, and other interactive elements.
Descriptive text needs to be included in HTML code so that visually impaired people using screen-readers and other devices can interpret where they are on the webpage. If interactive elements (like buttons and forms) are not labeled as such, then those users will be very confused about, or excluded from, what that webpage has to offer.
Also, labeling does not affect or change how the webpage normally renders. Therefore, it is a good idea to incorporate that descriptive text as part of your organization’s standard HTML-writing protocol.
A Quick Note on ARIA
In some cases, like with very complex webpages and applications, HTML is not sufficient for properly communicating content to a user. Sometimes, there is no HTML element to define or describe an object on a page. This is when ARIA tools (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) can be really handy.
ARIA, however, can actually make content inaccessible if you don’t use it properly. Jared says:In our work with most of our clients, where we’re helping them with accessibility of web applications, we tend to spend more time telling them how to stop using ARIA than how to start using ARIA to enhance accessibility.
Very often ARIA is added when it’s not necessary, or it’s added incorrectly, and that can very, very easily destroy the accessibility of a web application. Even though it’s [meant] to enhance, it very easily can make things totally inaccessible to screen-reader users simply by adding one attribute to a particular element.
Evaluating Web Accessibility at your Organization
Only people, and not tools or software, can truly evaluate web accessibility.
The best way to evaluate user-experience is to have actual users experience your web content themselves and give critical feedback. Jared argues:Accessibility is about the human experience. You have to be a human. Tools can be useful. They can identify some components of accessibility. But human evaluation will always be necessary.
Jared recommends making a check list to make sure you cover every area.
User-testing can be applied and extremely useful in evaluating the level of accessibility in practically every area: keyboard testing, screen-reader compatibility, color and text visibility, caption readability, and any other sensory experiences your website or application offers as part of its content.
There are many tools that can help, as well. But it is important to recognize their limitations and remember they are just tools and not complete solutions. A great, free tool for helping with user-testing is WAVE, offered through WebAIM.org.
For more tips and advice on implementing and evaluating accessibility at your organization, watch Jared Smith’s presentation below: