Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that businesses and nonprofit services providers make accessibility accommodations to enable the disabled public to access the same services as clients who are not disabled. This includes electronic media and web sites. While the ADA applies to businesses with 15 or more employees, even smaller businesses can benefit from ensuring that their websites are ADA compliant. Doing so opens your company up to more potential clients and limits liability. Web developers should include ADA compliant features in the original site and application plans.
This is particularly important when working for a government agency or government contractor, as these organizations must follow web accessibility guidelines under Section 508 of the Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Although ADA and Section 508 compliance are different, the published checklist for Section 508 compliance offers insight into ways to make websites accessible for people with disabilities, and thereby work toward ADA compliance.
To check your website for accessibility, use the accessibility checklist published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1194.22 Web-based intranet and internet information and applications):
- Every image, video file, audio file, plug-in, etc. has an alt tag
- Complex graphics are accompanied by detailed text descriptions
- The alt descriptions describe the purpose of the objects
- If an image is also used as a link, make sure the alt tag describes the graphic and the link destination
- Decorative graphics with no other function have empty alt descriptions (alt= "")
- Add captions to videos
- Add audio descriptions
- Create text transcript
- Create a link to the video rather than embedding it into web pages
- Add a link to the media player download
- Add an additional link to the text transcript
- The page should provide alternative links to the Image Map
- The <area> tags must contain an alt attribute
- Data tables have the column and row headers appropriately identified (using the <th> tag)
- Tables used strictly for layout purposes do NOT have header rows or columns
- Table cells are associated with the appropriate headers (e.g. with the id, headers, scope and/or axis HTML attributes)
- Make sure the page does not contain repeatedly flashing images
- Check to make sure the page does not contain a strobe effect
- A link is provided to a disability-accessible page where the plug-in can be downloaded
- All Java applets, scripts and plug-ins (including Acrobat PDF files and PowerPoint files, etc.) and the content within them are accessible to assistive technologies, or else an alternative means of accessing equivalent content is provided
- When form controls are text input fields use the LABEL element
- When text is not available use the title attribute
- Include any special instructions within field labels
- Make sure that form fields are in a logical tab order
- Include a ‘Skip Navigation' button to help those using text readers
(Courtesy U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
If the site meets all these criteria, it is likely accessible to people with disabilities. The best test is to obtain feedback on the site's ease of use from people who are blind, deaf, and have mobility disabilities, then address their feedback with site improvements.
When collecting feedback, ask users what type of adaptive technologies they use. This will allow you to cater your website to your particular clientele, and will help you appoint resources toward the best compliance options. Navigating the Internet is particularly challenging for people with limited or no vision. Many blind people use specialized web browsers and software that works with standard web browsers, like Internet Explorer, that have features that enable users to maximize their Internet use and experience. This screen reading software reads the HTML code for websites, and gives the user a verbal translation of what is on screen.
Web developers need to keep this in mind when creating websites. The best screen readers use naturalized voices and alter tone and inflection based on HTML tags, so choose layout elements carefully. It is also important to keep in mind that navigation is significantly slower when using a screen reader than it is for sighted people. Sighted people don't have to wait for the reader to get to the link we want- we spot links quickly and are able to navigate to our sought items, often without having to do any reading at all. Minimizing graphics also helps shorten reading times and speed navigation for disabled users.
Don't wait for user feedback to discover the gaps in your website's accessibility. Conducting your own trial run will tell you where the site has too many graphics, and where HTML tags don't convey information accurately. It's wise to do trial runs with as many of the most popular screen readers available:
- Apple's VoiceOver is built into OS X Lion
- JAWS works with Microsoft Windows
- Windows comes with a standard screen reader called Navigator
- Windows Magnifier is not a text to speech screen reader, but allows visually impaired users to magnify specific parts of the screen; check your site for visibility with Magnifier.
- WebbIE works on Windows machines, and incorporates browsing, screen reading, RSS, Podcatcher, and other tools.
- Thunder works on Windows machines in tandem with WebbIE, and is a screen reader for accessing the computer GUI and web browsing
- Access Firefox is a Firefox add-on that offers additional accessibility to Firefox users
- Fire Vox is a text to speech add-on for Firefox
Development tools and tutorials exist to help web designers meet compliance standards and go beyond to offer disabled users an enjoyable experience (and keep them coming back). Check out the following for more information:
- HTML Best Practices for accessibility
- Microsoft's Accessibility Overview and tutorials
- Introduction to ARIA
- Semantic HTML
Then make your job easier with these web accessibility development tools:
- Accessibility Evaluation Toolbar for Firefox
- The Develop Menu in Safari's toolbar
- WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Toolbar for Firefox
- WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool for web sites and HTML
- Web Accessibility Toolbar for IE -2011
- VisCheck for accessibility for people with color blindness
- mobiReady for evaluating accessibility from mobile devices
- Stanford University's Web Accessibility Checker
You probably won't have to check your site with all of the available evaluation tools out there, but it is a good idea to do so for the most common web browsers. Just as accessibility software makes it easier for people with disabilities to navigate the Internet, these tools make it easier for developers to ensure accessibility from the start. When you think you've mastered it, go back through the Section 508 compliance checklist to ensure you've met every goal.
Nicole Bremer Nash is Director of Content and Social Media for HuTerra, where she uses SEO and social media to promote charitable organizations in their community-building and fundraising efforts. She enjoys volunteering, arts and crafts, and conducting science experiments at home. Nicole has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Transylvania University, and has experience in copywriting for education, print, business, and the web. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter via @HuTerra.