What guidance is there for accessibility?
There are a couple of things that are driving accessibility efforts. The first effort is centered around developing standards for sites to conform to so assistive technologies can make sense of websites. The second revolves around federal laws to keep things equitable for people with disabilities.
W3C - World Wide Web Consortium
The World Wide Web Consortium or W3C (an international community of developers, organizations, businesses, and the public), works to develop standards for the Web. They believe that the Web is a great connector of humanity (as do we). Anything that prevents people from participating in that global connection lessens the Web as a whole. They kicked off the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) to gather a task force to develop standards and practices for web developers to follow.
WCAG2.0 - Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0
The fruit of that groups labor is in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These guidelines map out what your site needs in order to be accessible to a wide audience of people with disabilities. If you want your site to be useful to everyone that needs it, you need to be thinking about and implementing these guidelines.
The 12 guidelines, organized around 4 principles, lay out what your website needs. Your site needs to be:
Perceivable - Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
People need to be able to absorb the information through at least ONE of their senses.
Operable - User interface components and navigation must be operable.
The user needs to be able to navigate and operate your site
Understandable - Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.
The site needs to be readable, it should be presented in a predictable way, and the user should be able to see and correct mistakes
Robust - Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.
Develop your site using standardized coding techniques. Future assistive technology and software shouldn’t be surprised by the code in your site.
The WCAG2.0 guidelines lay out specific criteria for satisfying each principle and even have samples and suggestions. Some criteria satisfy the principles more than others and are given a special ranking like A (The videos on your site have pre-recorded captions), AA (they have an audio-only alternative that the user can choose), and AAA (the videos include a sign language interpreter as an option). Websites can strive towards reaching a specific "level of compliance," like Level AA compliance across all principles.
These guidelines are also on the verge of being updated with an upcoming dot release, WCAG2.1. The newer version will include a renewed focus on accessibility for persons with low vision and people with cognitive or learning disabilities. It’s also going to be looking at accessibility issues for touchscreen and small screen mobile devices. The new guidelines are set to be finalized by the end of this year and will be adding 3 new success criteria.
Rehabilitation Act of 1973 - Section 508
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act basically says that federal government agencies, including the Postal Service, have to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. This access needs to be comparable to what people without disabilities are getting. With the newest refresh of Section 508, the Act is requiring these organizations to meet Level AA compliance of the WCAG2.0 principles.
As of January 18th, organizations have to comply with web accessibility requirements or become vulnerable to Rehabilitation Act lawsuits from private citizens. These are in addition to vulnerability to lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was put in place to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in the workplace, to ensure that they are able to participate in American life at the same level as everyone else. It’s broken up into three major sections: employment (Title I), Regulations for state and federal agencies and facilities (Title II), and regulations for non-profits and businesses (Title III). In essence, the law states that people with disabilities should enjoy the same opportunities for employment, the same ability to purchase goods and services, and the same ability to participate in state and federal programs and services.
What’s this mean for your website?
Well, a lot, it turns out. More and more courts are finding that Titles II and III of the ADA apply to websites, particularly if you’re in the retail, restaurant , or hospitality industries. Lawsuits under Titles I & II of the ADA have been rising steadily. In 2015, there were at least 57 lawsuits filed, with 262 in 2016 and 432 as of August 2017 according to the law firm Seyfarth & Shaw.
These lawsuits have targeted companies like Bank of America, Charles Schwab and Safeway in the early 2000’s. More recently, Target paid $10 million to settle an accessibility lawsuit and cover plaintiff court costs according to the LA Times. These lawsuits were brought to bear because the companies involved had websites that couldn’t be properly used by assistive technology for the disabled. And they haven’t all been settled out of court. In June of 2017, a Florida judge ruled in favor of a blind defendant that the grocery store chain Winn-Dixie’s site was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and ordered the company to revamp their website to get in compliance (check out the Forbes article).
Web accessibility is a serious issue and an important one if you want your website to be useful to everyone.