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digital accessibility

What is digital accessibility?

Digital accessibility is design of technology products and environments to help people with various disabilities not be impeded or otherwise unable to partake in use of the service, product or function.

In 1990, the United States Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which mandates that public and private spaces must be made accessible to individuals with sensory, cognitive and physical impairments or limitations. Digital accessibility is an extension of ADA principles to the use of assistive or adaptive technology. For example, closed captioning of video helps deaf and hard-of-hearing people read what is being said, and audiobooks turn text to speech to assist blind or partially sighted people.

Due to the influence of the World Wide Web, a separate initiative called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) was launched in 1999. WCAG is a set of recommendations for making web content more accessible to people with disabilities and includes a guide for organizations on how to be compliant with WCAG standards.

However, just because the initiatives exist, that doesn't mean companies always adhere to them. A 2022 study by Web AIM ran accessibility analyses of more than 1 million websites and found that more than 96.8% of homepages violated some aspect of the WCAG. Violations included low contrast text, missing text alternatives for images, buttons without text and empty links.

Why is digital accessibility important?

There are multiple reasons why digital accessibility should be a guiding principle to technology and website design, ranging from legal to moral, including the following:

  • Failure to comply with the ADA could mean stiff penalties and other expenses. If a website is inaccessible to those with disabilities, the business could face a fine and other monetary damages, be ordered to pay legal fees and may be required to redesign the website to come into compliance.
  • The United Nations estimated that there are more than 1 billion people around the world living with some form of disability, which equates to 15% of the world population. If technology or websites aren't accessible, repercussions can range from loss of potential customers to denial of vital access to services.
  • Digital accessibility for a website also benefits non-disabled visitors. Accessibility features help most people navigate a website more effectively.
  • Creating an inclusive culture can not only benefit a company's relations with customers, but with employees as well. A 2018 study by Deloitte found that companies with an inclusive culture are more likely to meet or exceed financial targets, be high performing and innovative and agile. They are also more likely to report favorable business outcomes than those that do not promote inclusivity. While companies have begun to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs and policies, there is much work to be done.

What are the four principles of digital accessibility?

The following four principles of web accessibility under the WCAG are known by the acronym POUR and are the foundations for accessible web content.

  • Perceivable. The information of the user interface and content must be presented in a way so that nothing is ‌undetectable‌ or‌ ‌invisible to the user. The user should be able to consume content with another sense if they have a disability. For example, while most people access the web visually, those who are blind or partially sighted may need to use touch or audio instead.
  • Operable. Users should be able to operate a website with the controls they normally use, even if they're not used by most people. The interactive elements of an interface, such as controls, buttons and navigation, should be operated physically through multiple forms of interaction, such as voice commands.
  • Understandable. Websites should be understandable to every user and not overly complicated. A website should be presented in standard ‌patterns‌ ‌of‌ ‌use‌‌ ‌‌and‌‌ ‌‌designed so it is not completely unrecognizable to the way a site normally operates. The end user should be able to understand the meaning and purpose of the information presented in proper context.
  • Robust. Content must be equally robust across a ‌wide‌ ‌variety‌ ‌of‌ ‌technologies and platforms, from one browser to the next, from PCs to handheld devices and so on.

If any of these four principles is not adhered to, the website will be inaccessible to users with disabilities.

Examples of digital accessibility

A few common examples digital accessibility for a well-designed website include the following:

Image alt text. Screen readers and other assistive technologies read the text on a screen but cannot read images. Anything that is graphical in nature needs to have a complete text alternative, such as a description of the picture or reading text embedded in the picture. This can be vital for explanatory images or flowcharts, schematics, graphs, maps, menu buttons, infographics and slides.

Keyboard accessibility. A disabled person may use a keyboard to navigate instead of a mouse. A website should be completely accessible via keyboard using tabs to move between sections to menus, across form fields and links and to other content areas in a predictable, logical manner.

Sequential heading structure. Page headings aren't just design elements, but are also critical for navigation and content organization. Headings should be coded with actual heading elements and nested in a hierarchy that organizes and presents the content as it's intended to be read and understood.

Properly formatted hyperlinks. Hyperlinks can be a challenge for both disabled and nondisabled users, such as light linking color. Proper linking can be one of the most critical elements for all users. Users requiring reading assistance devices commonly scan for identifiable hyperlinks, which don't always show up. A properly formatted hyperlink needs the following three components:

  • readability, which uses normal language rather than only listing the URL,
  • clarity, which identifies the content of the link, and
  • distinctiveness, which uses a description of the link to distinguish it from regular text in the body copy.

Consistent navigation. Each page on a website should provide a consistent user experience (UX) by using the same or similar design, layout and navigational controls from page to page. This helps people use a website with confidence of a consistent experience and without unnecessary error. It's important to position repeated navigation links in the same location on each page, including skip links, and use icons and control elements consistently.

Digital accessibility legislation

As of this writing, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has not officially extended digital accessibility regulations to the ADA, and instead has still has a longstanding position that the ADA covers digital accessibility.

However, other legislation can be seen through of the lens of digital accessibility. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that federal departments and agencies make reasonable efforts to provide information via systems that are equally accessible to disabled people. If they cannot do so, they must provide individuals with disabilities with an alternative means for equivalent access to the information and data that those information systems provide. Access available to individuals with disabilities must be comparable to access available to others.

The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CCVA) of 2010 amended the Communications Act of 1934 to include updated requirements for ensuring the accessibility of modern telecommunications to people with disabilities. In the bill, Title I imposes accessibility standards on "advanced" telecommunications products and services, while Title II imposes various requirements on the accessibility of televisions, television services, and television programming, as well as streaming video.

The European Union has its own legislation, known as Directive (EU) 2016/2102, a standardization of accessibility laws across the EU that went into effect in 2016. A directive is a legal act of the European Union, which requires member states to achieve a particular result without dictating the means of achieving that result.

How can organizations promote digital accessibility?

According to the 2021 State of Accessibility Report (SOAR) conducted by website developer Diamond, more than 90% of the world's websites do not meet even the minimum requirements for accessibility established by the standards of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Organizations can promote and support digital accessibility with the following best practices:

  • Do the homework. Study the ADA and how it applies to web accessibility. The WCAG has been revised several times and is now at version 2.1.
  • Develop a plan and include those affected. In coming up with a plan for accessibility compliance, organizations should encourage participation from employees who will benefit from accessibility policies.
  • Conduct an internal audit. Before developing outward-facing services, companies should start with their own internal networks. This should include employee portals, sales and support, meetings and other platforms employees regularly use to do their job. It will serve as a good learning experience for developing proper digital accessibility.
  • Stay up to date on WCAG requirements. WCAG requirements change and evolve regularly, and organizations should revisit the checklist often.
This was last updated in July 2022

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