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Making Websites Accessible: Compliance with ADA and WCAG Standards

Introduction

Ensuring your website is accessible to people with disabilities is not only the right thing to do ethically – it’s also required by law. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on disability and mandates equal access to information. Combined with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards, these obligations necessitate technical considerations in website development. This guide covers why digital accessibility matters, ADA and WCAG criteria, implementation best practices, auditing techniques and Online accessibility regulations worldwide. Use it to inform accessibility-focused design and development decisions.

Why Website Accessibility Matters

Key reasons to prioritize accommodating disabilities:

It’s the Law

The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities and requires equal access to information and interactions.

Supports Your Audience

Enable all prospective customers and visitors to use your site effectively.

Builds Loyalty

Demonstrating commitment to accessibility strengthens user affinity and trust.

Improves Rankings

Search engines consider accessible coding a quality signal for better SEO.

It’s the Right Thing to Do

Equal access to experiences and information is an ethical obligation.

Lowers Risk

Avoid potential lawsuits or penalties for non-compliance.

Accessibility should be standard practice throughout web design and development.

ADA Requirements for Digital Accessibility

Key mandates from the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act applied to websites:

Equal Access

People with disabilities receive equal ease of use and enjoyment accessing information and functionality.

Alternate Formats

Information is available through multiple sensory channels like text, audio, enlarged font etc.

Auxiliary Aids

Additional accommodations like screen readers, accessible hardware and assistants are permitted as needed.

No Fundamental Alterations

No need to fundamentally modify services or experiences, just ensure equality of opportunity.

While early debates questioned if ADA applied online, legal precedent confirms websites are places of public accommodation under the law.

WCAG Standards for Compliance

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines detail specific criteria for ADA conformance:

Perceivable

Users can perceive content through multiple modalities, with equivalents for elements like images, videos and audio.

Operable

Components are operable through various assistive devices, with ample time limits and avoidance of content triggering seizures.

Understandable

Content is readable, predictable and navigable with clarity of focus and consistent identification.

Robust

Content is interpreted reliably by assistive technologies across a wide range of user agents and devices.

WCAG standards outline technical requirements for universally usable design.

Conformance Levels

WCAG classifies criteria into three conformance tiers indicating compliance:

A Level (Minimum)

For Level A conformance, site meets all Level A success criteria or provides adequate alternative versions of pages.

AA Level (Moderate)

For Level AA, site meets all A and AA success criteria or provides accessibility-enhanced alternative pages or technologies to access content.

AAA Level (Optimal)

For AAA, site meets all Level A, AA and AAA success criteria or alternative versions with enhanced accessibility.

Most aim for AA as ideal balance of obligations and flexibility.

Perceivable WCAG Standards

Criteria ensuring content availability through senses:

  • Text Alternatives: Provide text equivalents for any non-text content (images, audio, video) through alt text, captions, transcripts.
  • Time-based Media: Provide audio description or alternative media presentation for prerecorded video.
  • Adaptable Content: Information and user interface components must be presentable without losing meaning when orientation, shape or size changes like through magnification.
  • Distinguishable Content: Make it easier to see and hear content through techniques like color contrast, text resizing, images of text, background audio volume control.

Perceivable standards remove barriers to consuming content.

Operable WCAG Standards

Criteria enabling navigation and interaction:

  • Keyboard Accessible: Ensure all functionality is operable through keyboard interfaces without requiring specific timings of inputs.
  • Enough Time: Provide flexible time limits for reading, interacting and responding with option to disable timeout, extend time limit, or request more time before timeout.
  • Seizures: Don’t design content in ways known to trigger seizures like flashing visuals over three flashes per second.
  • Navigable: Provide ways to help users navigate, find content and determine orientation like page titles, table of contents, main navigation links and headings.

Operable standards support diverse interaction modalities.

Understandable WCAG Standards

Criteria promoting clear comprehension of information:

  • Readable: Present content readable and understandable, identifying language changes.
  • Predictable: Websites appear and operate predictably through features like consistent navigation, changing settings causing predictable results, and consistent identification.
  • Input Assistance: Help users avoid mistakes and make it easy to correct mistakes like confirming submissions, providing suggestions, or providing instructions and error recovery.

Understandable standards reduce confusion and ambiguity.

Robust WCAG Standards

Criteria ensuring reliable compatibility with assistive technologies:

  • Compatible: Content must be robustly accessible through a wide variety of browsers and assistive technologies now and in the future.

Robust standards anticipate evolving technical landscapes.

Common Accessibility Issues to Avoid

WCAG helps identify deficiencies – strive to prevent:

  • No text equivalents for images/multimedia
  • Inadequate color contrast ratios
  • Videos without captions
  • PDFs not tagged for accessibility
  • Inaccessible embedded content like iframes and audio
  • Nondescript links or buttons like “Click Here”
  • Missing form input labels
  • New windows launched without warning

Keep these touchpoints in mind throughout design and development.

Developer Tools for Finding Issues

Automated and manual testing helps catch problems:

  • Axe or Wave Browser Extensions Identify accessibility issues directly on page.
  • Chrome Accessibility Audit Built-in inspector identifies failures like color contrast.
  • Lighthouse Report Provides accessibility score and failures for page.
  • Keyboard Navigation Testing Navigate site without mouse to ensure keyboard operability.
  • Screen Reader Testing
    Verifies page is readable and navigable for the blind.
  • Automated Accessibility Scans Spot broad issues scanning entire site.

Validate compliance continuously beyond just launch.

Document Accessibility

Ensure files and documents adapt to assistive needs:

Office Files

  • Use built-in heading styles rather than manual size formatting.
  • Provide alternative text descriptions of images/charts.
  • Ensure color contrast meets minimum ratios.
  • Enable “Make it easier to read” accessibility check.
  • Don’t convey information only by shape, size or location.

PDF Files

  • Make sure text correctly reflows when zoomed.
  • Verify assistive technology can access content and read order is logical.
  • Include alternate descriptions for images and interactive elements.
  • Make form fields and links accessible to screen readers with tags.
  • Set document language so screen readers pronounce correctly.

Designing Accessible Forms

Optimize input components for usability:

  • Labels Associated With Inputs Link by ID on label for attribute on input.
  • Indicating Required Fields Denote visually without just color.
  • Error Messaging Succinct helpful text guiding correction.
  • Input Contrast Sufficient color contrast from background.
  • Field Length Guidance Provide max character allowances.
  • Focus States Indicate active field focused for non-mouse navigation.
  • Logical Tab Order Tab flows top to bottom, left to right.

Eliminate confusion interacting with forms.

Accessible Website Navigation

Facilitate wayfinding for clear path to info:

  • Logical Information Hierarchy Pages, sections and sub-sections organized sensibly.
  • Descriptive Page Titles Reflect purpose and main content.
  • Link Text That Makes Sense Out Of Context So still comprehensible when read sequentially by screen readers.
  • Consistent Menus and Elements Keep common items uniformly in same position.
  • Prioritized Content First Lead with main heading, key info at top.
  • No Misleading Cues Don’t rely solely on shape, size, visual location for meaning.

Accessible Website Media

Adapt visuals and audio for broader consumption:

Images

  • Provide descriptive alternative text
  • Denote purely decorative images as background-image in CSS
  • Avoid text-only conveyed through images
  • Ensure sharp legible text if images contain text

Audio-Visual Media

  • Include text captions synchronized to dialog
  • Provide audio descriptions of key visual details
  • Allow control over pausing, volume, speed

Live Video

  • Caption synchronized in real time
  • Provide sign language interpretation inset

Accessible Data Visualizations

Convey charts, graphs and maps to non-visual users:

  • Detailed Accessible Text Description
  • Structured data tables with markup
  • Associate data cells with headers
  • Support screen reader navigation modes
  • Avoid conveying meaning solely by shape, color or location
  • Allow zooming and panning of complex large infographics
  • Indicate interactive elements

WCAG Criteria Quick Reference

Print this checklist for frequent accessibility audits:

Perceivable

  • Text alternatives provided for all non-text content
  • Documents are structured, tagged and formatted to be accessible
  • Information is not conveyed solely by color, shape, size or location
  • Contrast ratios meet minimum recommendations

Operable

  • All functionality operable by keyboard only
  • Users have enough time to interact with pages and can optionally extend time limits before timeouts
  • Content avoids flashes or flickering that could trigger seizures
  • Pages use clear straightforward language and have consistent navigation and identification

Understandable

  • Interface behaves predictably and in consistent ways
  • Input errors are clearly identified with instructions for correction
  • Content appears in a meaningful sequence to avoid confusion

Robust

  • Compatible with current and future user agents and assistive technologies

Global Accessibility Regulations

Beyond ADA, many nations mandate accessibility:

  • EN 301 549 – Europe
  • AODA – Canada
  • BS 8878 – UK
  • JIS X 8341-3 – Japan
  • DIS 29500 – India
  • AS EN 301549 – Australia/New Zealand

Research specific obligations where you operate.

Voluntary Accessibility Standards

Some organizations provide guides exceeding legal minimums:

  • Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
  • Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit
  • IBM Accessibility Checklist
  • BBC Mobile Accessibility Guidelines
  • W3C Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite

Consult these broader perspectives on inclusive design.

Accessibility Audit Checklist

Use this summary checklist when assessing and improving site accessibility:

  • Text equivalents provided for images, audio, video and multimedia
  • Color contrast ratios meet minimums everywhere
  • Site remains navigable when CSS disabled
  • All functionality operable by keyboard alone
  • Forms include clear labels associated with inputs
  • Focus order flows logically without unexpected skips
  • Media includes captions for audio and video
  • HTML semantics used appropriately for screen readers
  • Site passes automated accessibility scanners
  • Zooming to 400% doesn’t hide or overlap content
  • Page layouts adapt cleanly to mobile sizes

Conclusion

Ensuring your website accommodates people with disabilities requires forethought, testing and diligence – but provides immense value supporting more users. Lean on automated tools along with manual keyboard navigation, screen reader testing and trying diverse browsers and devices. Beyond compliance, accessibility instills development practices making experiences intuitive and friendly to operate for all.

By Dani Davis

Dani Davis is the pen name of the writer of this blog with more 15 years of constant experience in Content marketing and informatics product, e-commerce niche.

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