Embracing online accessibility
The internet has greatly improved our access to goods and services. Amazon allows us to purchase virtually anything from the comfort of our own home. Wells Fargo online banking saves us the wait in line and travel time of visiting a brick and mortar branch. Uber makes getting around easy when driving isn’t convenient or desirable.
For people without disabilities, the convenience provided by websites and online services often overshadows their ability to access and interact with them. However, for users with disabilities, being able to simply access and interact with websites and online services is as much a right as it is a convenience. This right to equal access has come under the protection by the US Department of Justice under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which published its “ADA Standards for Accessible Design” in 2010.
All of the companies mentioned in the first paragraph have made efforts to ensure that their online information and services are accessible to people with disabilities. However, technology often moves faster than accessibility, and companies find themselves needing to comply with accessibility requirements after a website or application has been designed, developed, and launched. This can even happen as the result of a class-action lawsuit.
Both Target and Amazon settled lawsuits out of court in 2005 and 2006 respectively, with provisions for updating their sites to comply with accessibility guidelines. In 2001, Tesco in Great Britain voluntarily undertook revisions to their e-commerce site to increase accessibility and actually saw increased revenue as a result.
At Kick we found the easiest and most cost-effective way to comply with ADA guidelines is to make accessibility a priority from the very beginning of a project. Accessibility touches so many parts of the design, writing, and development process that it’s important that the entire project team understand what’s required of them throughout the entire process. Fortunately, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has authored the “Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0” (WCAG). These guidelines can be used to understand and comply with ADA accessibility requirements. They have also been identified in Federal Court as the industry standard for compliance.
The WCAG are broken into 4 key principles
1. Perceivable - Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
• Provide text alternatives for non-text content.
• Provide captions and other alternatives for multimedia.
• Create content that can be presented in different ways, including by assistive technologies, without losing meaning.
• Make it easier for users to see and hear content.
2. Operable - User interface components and navigation must be operable.
• Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
• Give users enough time to read and use content.
• Do not use content that causes seizures.
• Help users navigate and find content.
3. Understandable - Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.
• Make text readable and understandable.
• Make content appear and operate in predictable ways.
• Help users avoid and correct mistakes.
4. Robust - Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.
• Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools.
It should be evident at first glance that most of the principles and guidelines of the WCAG are basic best practices that can improve the experience of all users, not just those with disabilities.
WCAG 2.1 is already being drafted to fill gaps in 2.0 which includes mobile interaction and additional guidelines focussed on low vision and cognitive disabilities. Work is also already being done on project “Silver”, the guidelines that will eventually supersede WCAG. But both of these projects are ‘backwards compatible’ with the original WCAG, meaning that they will retain the requirements of the original WCAG.
As technology continues to evolve so will our understanding of how to best make it accessible. One of the most exciting advancements in accessible computing is the rise of voice interaction, such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Assistant. These technologies address accessibility issues at a very fundamental level by eliminating sight-based interactions, but also introduce challenges and new ways to think about accessible user interaction.
As an industry we can either embrace accessibility cost-effectively from the bottom up, by making it a priority during the design and development process, or we can be dragged into compliance by the DOJ, class-action lawsuits, and corporate lawyers.