While we were still using dial-up to connect to a bare internet on our small, curved cathode ray tube screens nearly 20 years ago, the U.S. Access Board issued Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act to make sure the content that could be found with this technology would be available to people with disabilities.
At the time, people needed access to state-of-the-art tools such as fax machines, printers, and emerging cell technologies. Teletypewriter services, for example, where a TTY is connected to a communication channel, enabled the deaf and hard of hearing to communicate via telephone using a relay operator long before text communication became the societal norm.
While TTY is still needed, your firm has a corporate responsibility to provide access to more than telephones and basic web pages, and there are more disabilities to consider, such as vision, cognition, speech, color perception, manual dexterity, and reach. Mixed reality, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence are just a few of the technologies not included in the original Rehabilitation Act that have been addressed in a recent update by the board.
If your firm hopes to leverage these advances eventually to extend the reach of its services and expertise, staying abreast of updates to site accessibility regulations is key.
Why Accessibility Matters
Making content accessible goes far beyond SEO and other trendy techniques. Imagine your website as a retail store — you want customers to be able to come in and shop.
If there were stairs, for example, the Americans With Disabilities Act would require that you provide a wheelchair ramp. You need to take the same considerations into account when building out a content-based web presence. However, many businesses — likely due more to ignorance than ill intent — have not sufficiently complied with accessibility requirements as they conceive the plan for their web development.
That’s why so many advocacy groups and users have brought their complaints to court over the past several years, creating a worldwide rise in web accessibility-related litigation. In fact, since the year 2000, 23 percent of all accessibility-related litigation and settlements in the U.S. have happened within the past three years. According to Return on Disability’s 2016 annual report titled “The Global Economics of Disability,” 1.3 billion people have disabilities worldwide. That’s approximately 18 percent of the world’s population, in case you don’t want to do the math.
Of course, the moral and ethical reasons for caring aren’t the primary reason you need to be aware of website accessibility. Your site being inaccessible to one out of every five people also greatly diminishes your possible client base. Moreover, compliance is required for government websites, regardless of whether they’re federal, state, or local — and even for the sites of federal contractors.
Given all of the filing and checking of information on ADA-compliant sites that some law firms do, the legal sector should be setting the example and helping to raise the accessibility bar for other industries. For those who still don’t agree it’s necessary, laws are in place to ensure their compliance.
Keeping Up With ADA Laws
The change won’t be immediate, but it’s going to happen and soon. Websites that aren’t compliant will face fines, bad PR, lowered search rankings (possibly even removal from search engines), and more. The only way to avoid these online hurdles is to get your website up to par.
- Start with development — the sooner, the better.
Ideally, you start ensuring that a website meets or exceeds accessibility standards (along with mobile optimization, SEO, etc.) during the development stage. Doing it after the fact, like any retroactive process, is a longer, more expensive ordeal. Being proactive saves time, money, personnel, and other valuable resources.
To meet accessibility standards, both design and code must meet specific requirements, such as minimum contrast ratios between foreground and background text. HTML markup needs to be structured to optimize accessibility while maintaining design and functionality. Structuring the code for website pages and unique templates with accessibility requirements in mind will save a lot of headaches down the road.
- Take advantage of compliance tools.
Plenty of tools are available to help you test and validate website templates for accessibility, such as AChecker, WAVE, Cynthia Says, and even Google’s Accessibility Developer Tools. All of these resources take slightly different approaches to reading page code and interpreting how it’s structured. Comparing those results to the requirements in the accessibility specification will tell you whether your website is in compliance.
But remember, these tools are just that: tools, not be-all, end-all solutions. Checking the web content accessibility guidelines specification can be automated for the most part, but it’s best to review them manually, using these tools to ensure they go beyond what they recommend. The process most firms follow is essentially:
- Define a goal/requirement for the website accessibility standard and level of compliance you will meet — the most common one being 100 percent compliance with the WCGA-level AA specifications.
- Follow best practices when designing and implementing website content templates.
- Test the website templates using one or more of the above testing and validation tools.
- Revise the template code to ensure compliance and address the automated tool test.
- Repeat the process with a set of actual content pages on the site to ensure the actual final website content pages meet requirements.
- Revise content and code accordingly to meet requirements.
- Repeat the above steps as necessary — and on a periodic basis — to ensure complete and ongoing compliance with accessibility guidelines.
- Maximize your return on investment.
Ensuring website Accessibility is an ongoing process involving design and development, as well as content production and maintenance. As content is added and modified, content editors must take care to maintain desired levels of accessibility by properly tagging content and providing alternate text for images and the like.
However, significantly older websites should consider a complete redesign because they already require a great deal of re-coding. This is an opportune time to ensure not only accessibility, but also mobile optimization and adherence to SEO. Those elements are all interrelated and should be designed to make your content accessible to anyone, using any device in whatever way they want to use it.
- Do right by others — and by your business.
While new regulations will mandate increased accessibility, making your website compliant is also smart business. Your clients are why you are in business, and improving accessibility is just another aspect of world-class customer service. If you don’t comply, you’ll lose a lot of business to those who do.
Check out Berwin Leighton Paisner, a London-based global law firm, for example. Its website is accessible to a very broad audience, demonstrating the firm’s commitment to serving everyone. You can follow a case study about the firm’s website to learn how your firm can do the same.
The internet has thrived because it makes life easier, and greater inclusivity online will make life easier for everyone. Whether used to connect with others, blow off steam, learn new things, or earn and spend money, the worldwide web offers something valuable for everyone. Unfortunately, the endless amount of content available online is not accessible to those of us living and working with certain disabilities.
Taking these measures will help ensure that this significant portion of the population can access your content. Aside from keeping your site in compliance, it’s also the most direct way to boost your firm’s online presence and create an enduring return on your investment in improving website accessibility.