Web Accessibility: Your Roadmap to Building Inclusive Digital Experiences

Introduction

What is web accessibility? 

 

Web accessibility is the process organizations undertake to create or modify their digital environments and assets—including websites, mobile apps, and even smart devices—so that people with disabilities, be they visual, auditory, speech, physical, cognitive, or neurological, can use them successfully. 

 

Many organizations today understand the importance of ensuring their websites and other digital properties are accessible, both as a means of promoting inclusivity among their customer base, capturing the commercial benefits, and also avoiding litigation. Unfortunately, the number of lawsuits related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) continues to rise annually, hitting 3,550 cases in 2020. In some cases, the organizations involved may not know of the inaccessible nature of their digital properties until receiving an ADA demand letter or lawsuit.

 

If the concept of web accessibility is new to you, then this guide is for you. In it, we cover:

  • How to determine if web accessibility applies to your organization.

  • Common criteria for determining if a digital property is accessible.

  • How to achieve website accessibility, via a three-phase approach

    1. Fixing high-risk issues and understanding the current state of your digital presence.

    2. Completing core remediation and building awareness and processes for web accessibility within your organization.

    3. Planning for the future with ongoing monitoring.

  1.  

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Your Roadmap to Building Inclusive Digital Experiences

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Chapter 1

Does Web Accessibility Apply to Me?

Web accessibility applies to every organization with a public-facing website. 

Litigation around web accessibility frequently references the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that was passed in 1990 and prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, including any place that is open to the general public.

According to the CDC, 61 million adults in the U.S. are living with a disability, or about one in four American adults. If a business isn’t following these regulations, it is actively neglecting a significant portion of consumers and leaving itself vulnerable to expensive lawsuits. 

Title III of the ADA applies to online accessibility and public accommodations for businesses and organizations that are open to the public. Title III standards also apply to any digital property that an organization owns, including its website or app. 

Even though ADA regulations apply  to digital assets, they continue lack specific guidelines for how organizations are to accommodate users with disabilities. This continues to leave organizations with uncertainty about which steps to take as they work to achieve accessibility.

California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act is another piece of legislation that refers to web accessibility, prohibiting discrimination based on a person’s:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Religion 
  • Age 
  • Ancestry
  • National origin 
  • Disability 
  • Medical condition 
  • Marital status 
  • Sexual orientation
  • Citizenship
  • Primary language 
  • Immigration status

Any ADA violations are also likely to encroach on Unruh legislation, but Unruh regulations are more standardized, so the state of California is often stricter than the federal courts. This leads many plaintiffs to do what they can to keep lawsuits within the state.

Violations of the Unruh Act that are independent of ADA violations require intent to be proven. This act affirms that websites or any digital property that are inaccessible to users with disabilities are discriminatory.

In Canada, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) is an Ontario law mandating that organizations must follow standards to become more accessible to people with disabilities.

AODA applies to five specific areas:

  • Customer service
  • Employment
  • Design of public spaces
  • Information and communication
  • Transportation

The AODA aims to make each of these areas of public life accessible by 2025. All levels of government, private sectors, and nonprofits must comply with this legislation.

 

A Note on Annual ADA Lawsuit Trends

2020 was a record-breaking year for ADA-related digital lawsuits, which grew 23 percent from 2019. More than 3,500 new cases were filed in California and federal court last year—the equivalent of about 10 new lawsuits during each business day. 

Seventy percent of all ADA cases are filed by just 10 plaintiff law firms, which themselves filed more than 2,500 cases last year. These law firms are very experienced in finding sites that are inaccessible, sending claim letters, and pursuing these cases. You never want to ignore a claim letter. 

Retailers are often at the center of these legal filings, making up more than seventy-seven percent of all digital accessibility lawsuits. Ninety-eight percent of plaintiffs win ADA lawsuits.

Chapter 2

What is the Criteria for Web Accessibility?

Although the Department of Justice (DOJ) hasn’t provided definitive web accessibility standards, maintaining accessibility is still considered a legal requirement for private and public organizations. However, many businesses are unsure as to how to make their sites and other digital properties compliant. Unlike the physical requirements for ADA standards—such as the required height of light switches or the incline of building-entrance ramps—the digital requirements are not codified in ADA legislation.

Not only does the lack of clear web accessibility guidelines create uncertainty for businesses, but it also creates susceptibility to differing interpretations. In 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit—which has jurisdiction over California—reversed a 2017 state ruling that had dismissed an ADA case against Domino’s Pizza. California resident Guillermo Robles is visually impaired and filed a lawsuit against the pizza chain when he was unable to place an order on its website or app using his assistive technology.

The Supreme Court rejected an additional bid made by Domino’s to dismiss the lawsuit. This decision was seen as a victory by disability rights activists, who hoped the ruling would push other businesses to make accessibility a priority.

Although they are not the official guidelines of the ADA with regards to web accessibility (because such guidance doesn’t exist from the DOJ), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are widely viewed as common standards for creating accessible experiences for users with auditory, visual, mental, and physical impairments. Each of the guideline’s four values covers a different aspect of usability:

  • Perceivable: The user interface components must be presented in easy-to-understand ways that users can clearly perceive. For example, this means asking yourself if there is anything on your site that a deaf, colorblind, low vision, or blind user would not be able to perceive.
  • Operable: User interface components and navigation must be operable by users and cannot require actions that some users cannot carry out. Users with visual and physical disabilities are more likely to use keyboard navigation when interacting with your website. Your site should offer ways for these users to correct any mistakes they might make while interacting with your site and also confirm their choices.
  • Understandable: Users must be able to understand both the information being presented and the operation of the user interface. Is the content on your site presented in a clear way so that someone with a neurological disorder can easily make sense of it?   
  • Robust: Content must be robust enough to be understood by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies, even as these technologies evolve. 

Chapter 3

How Can I Make My Website Accessible?

Web accessibility should be viewed as a continuous journey, and not a final destination. Think about it: Modern websites are constantly being updated with new pages, products, and content. Each new blog, photo, webpage, or app update presents an opportunity for you to underscore your commitment to accessibility.

It is never too late to get started with making your digital properties accessible, and it also doesn’t take weeks or months to begin implementing high-impact changes. Your accessibility initiative should identify any immediate fixes your site currently needs and work toward building accessibility into your platform and future processes.

Start with a Plan

As you begin planning for how you will pursue accessibility, be sure to inform and consult with the following members of your team:

  • Executives: Change takes place at the top and works its way down. An organization’s leaders must stress the importance of accessibility to the company and its customers. 
  • Product Owners and Project Managers: By owning processes and lines of business, these colleagues are in a unique position to ensure accessibility is factored into the scope and requirements of each project or maintenance initiative.
  • UI/UX Designers: If these specialists don’t consider accessibility when designing, it can lead to exponentially more developer time spent on remediating accessibility issues. Or worse yet: You may discover too late in the process that a given UX/UI widget can’t be made accessible without major revisions, creating unnecessary expense and lengthening timelines. 
  • Marketing and Content Teams: The work of these teams is often public facing, meaning it is important that they understand the organization’s web accessibility needs as they create content for your website, app, emails, social media posts, and more. 
  • Developers: An accessible design helps set your developers up for success, but designs may not convey all the functionality that the final developed product will have. For this reason, developers should be familiar with the standards and codes of WCAG.
  • Customer Service Team: With more than 25 percent of the U.S. population having some type of disability, it shouldn’t be a surprise that your customer service team will be contacted by people with disabilities. They need the tools and knowledge to assist these current and prospective customers. 
  • Quality Assurance: As part of their larger quality validation process, quality assurance should incorporate a clear process for assessing web accessibility with clear definitions of success.

 

Which Model for Pursuing Accessibility Makes Sense for Your Organization?

How one organization chooses to embark on the accessibility journey may differ from how other organizations choose to, and that is completely understandable. Different variables will factor into this decision, including:

  • The availability of internal resources
  • The skillset and familiarity with accessibility criteria of internal resources
  • The level of urgency behind the remediation
  • The budget available to address accessibility  
  • The complexity, amount, and updating frequency of digital properties
  • The level of control over digital properties (i.e. managed fully in-house or managed via an external partner)

Some organizations will prefer working toward accessibility internally with supplementary support from an expert like UsableNet, which provides these teams with access to:

  • Best-in-class technology that identifies errors and how to fix them
  • Continuous audits and remediation 
  • Specialized services and real-user testing by members of the disability community to validate accessibility and usability. 

Other organizations are better suited by a fully hands-on approach, led by an accessibility expert who will conduct all testing, remediation, and ongoing support. This option makes the most sense when internal familiarity with accessibility requirements is limited, and manpower to implement updates is scarce. 

In both cases, organizations will benefit from incorporating accessibility into their processes and culture from the start, so that less remediation work is needed later on.  

 

How Can Organizations Plan for and Maintain Accessibility in the Future? 

Even after your organization completes all the remediation work, the accessibility journey isn’t quite over. Your existing digital properties are always being updated and new properties are being created, and those changes should be reviewed for accessibility with the same level of scrutiny that your existing properties were reviewed. 

ADA monitoring services can help you maintain your level of conformance using different means of review:

  • Automated WCAG 2.1 AA testing provides the scalability and high degree of accuracy that larger organizations need due to how frequently digital properties are updated or created.
  • In the few cases that automated review falls short, frequent user testing by real members of the disability community can flag aspects of your site that may technically qualify as “accessible,” but that are not actually usable. 
  • Keyboard testing helps to ensure that your properties are fully navigable via just a keyboard for users who may not be able to use a mouse. 

As part of any ADA monitoring service, updates should be provided to you on a frequent, recurring basis. Further, the level of detail provided should suit the different stakeholders at your organization. At a high level, the executive leadership at your organization simply needs to know that accessibility is being tended to, while the team that oversees accessibility efforts directly will need a higher level of detail.

Chapter 4

The Phases of Your Accessibility Journey

Phase 1: Risk Reduction and Initial Accessibility Improvement

Many organizations begin their accessibility journey without having prior knowledge about web accessibility or even knowing that they were creating barriers for disabled users in the first place. Alternately, accessibility may once have been an organizational priority, but adherence to WCAG lapsed after the initial issue remediation.

In this phase you should start making progress on improving accessibility, learning and building experience across your team, and determing the tools and technology your team will need to be successful long term.  

During this phase, your organization should follow these steps: 

  • Begin by identifying any high-risk issues that need immediate remediation. Consider using screen readers, keyboard testing, and free accessibility testing to quickly get the information you need.
  • Get a more detailed assessment: Instead of reviewing every single webpage or asset, compile and review a representative sample of your properties, and assume that your findings are likely indicative of your entire digital presence. For your website specifically, you might begin with the homepage, headers, footers, top user task(s), templates, and navigation. 
  • Fix the issues found in using tools and the manual audit.
  • Document the types of digital properties that need review, including websites, apps, videos, files, or PDFs. You might also begin to document specific issues to be fixed, organized by elements, components, and unique issues on each page or template.
  • Prepare an Executive Summary of where the site and apps stand for resource allocation and budgeting, as the decision makers may care more about overall severity rather than individual issues.
  • Begin drafting your accessibility statement. 
  • Determine which model of handling accessibility makes the most sense in your unique case: are you able to handle accessibility in-house, or should you partner with an accessibility specialist firm like UsableNet to handle the initial conformance issue identification and remediation?

 

Phase 2: Core Remediation

With your initial documentation out of the way and your initial issues remediated, the core remediation begins. The scale and expertise needed during this phase is typically greater than in phase one, which is why many organizations turn to an expert. 

Both automated and manual testing procedures are crucial during this phase, because together they can identify all the issues that people with disabilities might encounter. Also, employee training on WCAG awareness (for technical roles) and accessibility awareness (for other employees involved in your digital experiences) often takes place during this phase to help ensure that accessibility is prioritized during each stage of creating your digital assets.

During this phase, your organization should follow these steps:

  • Get a more comprehensive assessment of the accessibility of your site using manual review on a broader set of pages.
  • Begin the processes of remediating the rest of your site based on severity for users and complexity to fix.  
  • Document areas where you still need expert guidance (this should have become apparent during phase one). Schedule regular touch-points to access experts if you need help or are unsure about new content. 
  • Emphasize the importance of accessibility to those working within your organization. 
  • Complete and publish an accessibility statement that communicates your vision, details your priorities, and establishes your plan to bring your online and mobile properties into alignment with accessibility standards.
  • Conduct user testing with members of the disability community to ensure your site is not only accessible but is also usable. Documents your efforts and improvements. 
  • Document any issues with third-party content or tools that may require your vendor's assistance in remediating.
  • Develop a quick and effective approach to remediation for future issues, and create teams responsible for identifying and rectifying such issues. Further, document areas that you believe you could hire or train for, so that you can address accessibility in as self-sufficient a way as possible.

 

Phase 3: ADA Monitoring

Because organizations are always updating their sites and adding new content, continuous monitoring for web accessibility is necessary. Accessing regular reports of website audits and improvements not only helps you understand the latest state of your accessibility, but it can also demonstrate your organizational commitment to accessibility in the event that you encounter litigation. With multiple layers of tangible proof that you’re doing the best you can to improve the conformance of all digital assets, any negligence on your part becomes more difficult to demonstrate. 

As part of your ADA monitoring program, your organization should follow these steps:

  • Automated WCAG testing each week.
  • Set up regular user testing: At least once per month, or in tandem with any large-scale updates of your digital properties.
  • Create a centralized dashboard to quickly and seamlessly analyze the overall health of your site as needed.
  • Develop ongoing accessibility training and awareness programs that are included in employee onboarding, so that conformance stays high even after key players leave.
  • Build UX personas and development standards.
  • Provide a simple way for users to report any accessibility issues they encounter.
  • Create internal policies and processes to handle criteria concerning accessibility, customer-reported issues, internal UI/UX standards, and development guidelines.
  • Make accessibility part of your contract requirements with all web and app vendors.
  • Treat accessibility with the same importance as stakeholder privacy and business continuity and security. Document any issues accordingly, and distribute regular reports to stakeholders that track progress and issues over time.
  • Conduct a larger annual audit (deep code assessment, user testing, etc.) to provide proof that you are continually working toward user accessibility. On a more frequent basis, conduct recurring user testing from the disability community to ensure 360-degree accessibility.

 

Chapter 5

UsableNet and Your Accessibility Journey

UsableNet has been helping companies with digital accessibility for more than 20 years. Our unique approach leverages both expert resources and technology, creating a proven roadmap that has assisted hundreds of organizations in making their websites accessible.

Accessibility as a Service provides everything your team needs to meet web accessibility and WCAG, including audits, training, user testing, support, tools, and continuous monitoring.

This service streamlines the process of finding, fixing, and reporting accessibility  violations and develops a long-term plan for maintaining accessible and inclusive experiences for everyone. 

Click here to learn more.

 

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