Web Accessibility for Everyone
Hello everyone! Most of us share legal information with the public through our websites, blogs, and educational videos. This is definitely a great practice, but becomes moot if the information is inaccessible to its audience. Sure, you’ve provided some great stuff, but if the user can’t read, hear, or see it on their end, it’s not very helpful to them. Remember: there’s a difference between availability and accessibility. Your information may be available on the web, but if it’s not accessible to populations who need it, it might as well not be there at all.
There are a number of ways to ensure that your information is accessible, including having translations available for Limited English Proficiency (LEP) clients and using plain language instead of Lawyerese. What we’re here to talk about today, though, is web accessibility.
There are a lot of great resources out there on web accessibility. In terms of actual recommendations, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (29 U.S.C. 794d) outlines some good practices. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may also be worth a read, though it’s mostly applicable to government entities and public accommodations such as transportation, and addresses a much broader context than just the web. The document that I found most useful, though, and that I’ll talk about below, is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), version 2.0, as developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
Before we dive into the contents of WCAG 2.0, I’d like to share a portion of the document’s introduction. I think it frames the discussion about accessibility in a helpful way:
“Accessibility involves a wide range of disabilities, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities. Although these guidelines cover a wide range of issues, they are not able to address the needs of people with all types, degrees, and combinations of disability. These guidelines also make Web content more usable by older individuals with changing abilities due to aging and often improve usability for users in general.” [emphasis added]
WCAG describes four web design Principles, and within each a set of Guidelines. In addition, each Guideline comes with some tips on understanding what it says and implementing it. The full document is available online, so I’ll only provide a summation and general sense for each Principle.
Principle 1: Perceivable. The first Principle advises that “information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.” Basically, this Principle revolves around providing alternative ways of conveying and presenting information. For non-text content (like images or video), provide text descriptions, captions, or transcripts of the content. (See LSNTAP’s earlier article on YouTube captioning for help there.)
This Principle also addresses (in Guideline 1.4) making your content Distinguishable. This includes both a visual and an auditory context; i.e. color and any included sounds from your site. Color should never be the only method of conveying information (through color coding, highlighting, or some other technique), and color contrast in your images should, in most cases, be at a ratio of 4.5:1 (there’s a bit of math involved in figuring out contrast ratios; look into relative luminance as well to determine it). This ensures that people with color blindness, low vision, or other visual conditions can effectively perceive your information.
For auditory material, you should provide captions if the sound is more than decorative, and the user should have the ability to control volume. There should be no or very low background noise – at least 20 decibels lower than the foreground auditory content. There are a few other guidelines; see the full document for the particulars.
Principle 2: Operable. This Principle advises that “user interface components and navigation must be operable.” When this Principle is met, the user can both find his or her way around the site efficiently and make effective use of it. It includes making all navigation possible from keyboard commands, providing enough time for response (and allowing for extensions) in any areas of your site that require timed input, and avoiding flashing content that could cause seizures.
This Principle also gets into basic website usability, which is applicable for all site visitors. The Navigable Guideline (2.4) deals with methods for making your site more navigable and learnable, such as providing meaningful titles to pages and sections, keeping sequential pages in order, letting the user know where they are within the website’s hierarchy, and making the content of a hyperlink easily discernible before it’s clicked. As mentioned in the quote above, each of these are good general tips for making user-friendly websites and don’t only apply to users with disabilities. Again, I didn’t cover everything here, so see the full document for more.
Principle 3: Understandable. The third Principle is pretty straightforward, though it encompasses a lot: it says that “information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.” According to Guideline 3.1 (Readable), content should be available in language that users understand. This doesn’t mean that your content must be available in every language on the face of the Earth – though that would be nice – but it does mean that you should write in plain language, at an eighth-grade level, and that you should define any unusual words, jargon, and abbreviations used.
Your content should also be Predictable (Guideline 3.2). This means, essentially, that your navigation, layout, and identification of different elements in the site should be consistent. Once an icon is established to mean something, don’t change its meaning. Present lists of navigational mechanisms – like links to other parts of the site – in the same relative order on each page. Keep it consistent!
Finally (under Guideline 3.3), if you have users fill out information on your site, you should seek to minimize their errors. If the site is capable of identifying errors (for example, a phone number entered where an email address should be), the user should be notified and directed to correct it. If possible, a suggestion for fixing the error should also be made. Any selections (as on a “choose only one”-type list) should be reversible, and help should be available. For the particulars, see the full document.
Principle 4: Robust. The final Principle is all about making your content “robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.” Basically, provide enough information that assistive technologies (including things like screen magnifiers, screen readers, text-to-speech software, speech recognition software, alternative keyboards, and alternative pointing devices) can accurately interpret it. This means following the “grammar” rules for whatever technology you’re using, so that it can be correctly analyzed. Guideline 4.1 talks mostly about ensuring that start and end tags are included, that elements are nested correctly, and that all identifiers are unique. Just because a person could figure it out, don’t assume that the machine that’s helping someone can. And as above, see the full document for more.
Conformance. After the Principles and Guidelines, WCAG 2.0 goes into the requirements and documentation needed for a conformance claim (the certification that your site is accessible). I won’t go into too much detail, except to say that there are three levels of conformance: A (the lowest), AA, and AAA (the highest).
W3C doesn’t recommend a requirement of meeting the AAA standard, since it’s not always technologically possible, but striving for A or AA is great (many of the Guidelines specify what Level they meet). To achieve conformance with any level, the entire site has to conform to all of that level’s requirements. It can go above and beyond, working toward the next level up, but it won’t achieve conformance until all requirements are met. There’s a lot more you can read about how to conform with WCAG 2.0 recommendations, which you can find in the full document.
Online Accessibility Checkers
By this point, you’re probably thinking about how your organization’s website stacks up. Good news! There are a number of free online accessibility checkers you can use to find out!
The big name here used to be Bobby 508, which checked sites’ compliance with the Section 508 mentioned above. For ten years (1995-2005), Bobby provided a free automated check for accessibility metrics and an icon you could post on your site that indicated compliance. In 2005, Bobby was sold to Watchfire Corporation, which was acquired by IBM in 2007. In 2008, the tool was shut down.
So what’s still available today? Luckily, there are a number of free tools still available: A-Checker, Acc, AccessColor, Accessibility Valet, and many more (lists can be found through W3C and the Usability Geek website). The one that I’ve seen most recommended, though, is WAVE.
WAVE is owned by WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind), which has a lot of great resources in addition to the checker. You can find detailed checklists to determine if your site complies with both WCAG 2.0 and Section 508, as well as trainings, articles, and other resources (like this infographic, and the video at the bottom of the page!)
When you’re ready to use WAVE, just feed your site’s URL into the search bar and it will indicate areas of your site that you could use improvement. Out of curiosity, I fed the LSNTAP website into WAVE, and this is what I got:
I guess we’ve got some work to do too!
Clicking on each of the icons will explain what’s wrong with that particular element. Sometimes, an exception outlined in WCAG 2.0 – like logotype, which has different color contrast rules – will apply, and you won’t have to worry too much about WAVE’s recommendation. On the whole, though, it points out some problems you might not otherwise see.
However – don’t take WAVE or any other online accessibility checker as the be-all and end-all of accessibility testing. There are some elements of accessibility, such as color contrast and the availability of video transcripts and captions, that still have to be checked manually. These checkers are a quick and cheap way to get an idea of what your site’s accessibility looks like as a whole, but they should not be taken as the final word. Your web designer or another expert should still comb through the site with a checklist to make sure that all recommendations are met.
For many more resources on accessibility and accessibility testing, see the Web Hosting Database.
LSC and Accessibility
If you need any more convincing, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) has defined web accessibility as a priority for its Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) recipients. In its Grant Assurances, all recipients agree that
“In the development of any website, pro se materials, or other grant-supported product, the recipient shall consider and address the special needs of persons with disabilities to ensure that the sites, materials and other products are accessible to them.”
This is priority number two for TIG recipients – so it ranks pretty high. In fact, some TIGs are available just centered around improving accessibility. So get on it!
Happy accessibility-izing, everyone, and check out the video from WebAIM below!