Getting started with website accessibility

Submitted by Katelyn.Fogarty on Mon, 09/05/2016

Getting started with website accessibility

Many people care about ensuring website accessibility, but don’t know where to start and also don’t understand the legal ramifications. Government and public sector sites, or those organizations who receive federal or state funds, are held to strict requirements when it comes to ensuring full access to visitors with disabilities such as impaired eyesight. Nearly 1 in 5 people in the US have some form of disability, which means that there’s a significant portion of the population needs to be accounted for. Have you considered website accessibility for your site?

I’ve known about 508 compliance — the rules and guidelines for delivering accessible sites — but honestly hadn't dug very deep into what this means and where to start with the goal of achieving it. When I started doing research on 508 compliance I was very overwhelmed and pushed it aside for a few more weeks to consider. There is just so much content out there about the topic it was hard to digest. My goal with this blog post is to give you a high level overview of what web accessibility is and means, where to start, and what resources you can look at to learn more.

WCAG vs. Section 508
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), is a standard published by the W3C, the standards group that defines Web standards. WCAG 2.0 reflects the best international consensus on the issue of accessibility. However Section 508 is a national regulation specific to only the US. Other countries have their own laws and regulations.

WCAG 2.0 is a good standard to apply in different contexts (i.e., websites, desktop apps, mobile apps). It has 12 guidelines that are organized under 4 principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. For each guideline, there are success criteria at three levels: A, AA, and AAA (A being the least strict, and AAA being the most stringent).

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires federal agencies to provide software and website accessibility to people with disabilities. This includes:

  • Government agencies
  • Federal-funded nonprofits
  • Public higher education institutions
  • Public K-12 schools

Many large companies have also voluntarily chosen to be 508 Compliant.

Where do I start?
The best place to start is by talking to your developer or development agency. They may already have experience on the basics and can start implementing specific aspects on your site. Here is a list of things to consider when starting an accessibility project for your site.

  • Use ARIA: ARIA (Assistive Rich Internet Applications), is a spec from the W3C and created to improve accessibility of applications by providing extra information to screen readers via HTML attributes. Screen readers will help the visually impaired to read the copy on your page out loud, and it also picks up alt text on images to describe the image itself. Out of the box, screen readers work with regular HTML, but adding ARIA can provide screen reader users with more context and greater interactivity with content.
  • Provide sufficient contrast between colors, especially between the foreground and background
  • Don't use color alone to convey information (i.e., color-coding only)
  • Provide clear and consistent navigation options
  • Label all form elements
  • Make sure tables (used only for tabular data, of course!) have table headers – <th> tags
  • Use good code structure such as headings and spacing to group related content
  • Descriptive alt text for images (this is for screen readers specifically)
  • Don't use slideshows, videos, or other content that starts automatically
  • But if you do, be sure you have controls to stop it
  • Reflect the reading order in the code order, because screen readers actually read through your code. If you have some code organized differently than it is displayed, this could cause confusion for a disabled user.
  • Ensure that all interactive elements (links, forms, etc.) can be used with a keyboard
  • Avoid CAPTCHAs
  • Avoid flashing of any kind – it can cause seizures
  • Certain types of movement, such as parallax scrolling, auto-running slideshows, or ads, can be a problem.
    - For people with attention deficit disorders, movement can be so distracting they can't focus on content at all

This list doesn’t capture the full list requirements, but is a good place to start when embarking on website accessibility.

Scanning Tools, Services, and Other Resources
Accessibility scanners

Video captioning services

Audio Captions

Color Contrast Analyser

Readability analyzers

Screen readers

Experts for deep dive or audits

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), Ontario, Canada

I hope this helps get you started on your journey to website accessibility. Please also check out this 2-part series on accessibility for clients on our developer website:

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