A handy, no-nonsense guide to website accessibility

Chris Esh

An image of a path through a forest.

Many of our awesome clients have been asking about website accessibility recently. Accessibility is now a mainstream essential in any website, and more people want to ensure that their website is accessible for all. At Spacious, we love where this is going.

But many people still don’t quite understand what accessibility is. They know they need it, but don’t know what exactly makes a website “accessible” or what they need to do to maintain ongoing accessibility. I’ll try to demystify accessibility in this article by answering some of the questions I get most frequently, plus a few best practices for maintaining website accessibility for those of you who manage your website content.

What is website accessibility?

Website accessibility means designing and building websites to ensure everyone, including people with disabilities, can use them. Disabilities might include cognitive, physical, auditory, neurological, and visual. Accessibility also ensures people with temporary limitations, such as an arm in a cast, can still fully use the website.

Accessibility standards are set by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The latest version is organized around these core principles: websites should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

Why does accessibility matter so much?

The internet is our portal to information and services. It’s how we manage our work, stay in touch with our friends, plan our vacations, pay our bills, hire our contractors, and maybe find a life partner.

But not everyone interacts with websites and apps the same way. Some folks are visually impaired and have trouble with text lacking contrast to the background. Others use screen readers to read the content on the screen, including images. Others can’t use a mouse or touchpad and use their keyboard to navigate through the content on a website. Some folks with motor impairments can use a touchscreen but might have difficulty selecting the right link if several are packed together with insufficient spacing. The list goes on.

Your website needs to be fully accessible to everyone, including whatever assistive tools they use to interact with your site. In addition to being the Right Thing to Do, it’s also a good way to expand your user base, which means new customers and supporters.

Is website accessibility required by law?

If you run a government website in the United States, then yes, you must abide by Section 508 of the Disabilities Act. This might also apply to you if you’re a nonprofit funded by federal grants.

In the private sector, things are a bit murkier. You aren’t breaking the law by failing to have an accessible website, but you are potentially vulnerable to lawsuits if users cannot interact with key components of the site due to disabilities.

“Between the years of 2017 and 2018, there was an increase of 181% in the number of filed federal court lawsuits. For example, in the Gil v. Winn-Dixie decision, a court ruled that websites may constitute “public accommodations” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).In other words, for businesses with physical stores and websites, their sites can be considered heavily integrated with their physical store locations. So, their websites could be considered “gateways” to their physical store locations.

For this reason, websites constitute “a service of public accommodation” covered by the ADA. In other words, websites are expected to meet accessibility standards.”

Read more from Hubspot’s Web Accessibility Guide.

Can’t we just put one of those little accessibility plugins on our website?

We advise against it. Accessibility needs to be baked into the structure of the website, but overlay plugins just add a bunch of fancy tools on top of your website.

Image of accessibility tool app: inaffective

These same tools can just as easily be added to a computer or browser, which is how most folks use assistive technology anyway. Including them again as a plugin is redundant and can unfortunately make sites less accessible. Yikes!

To learn more, check out this Overlay Fact Sheet.

I suspect the reason these plugins persist is: 1) They take about 30 seconds to implement and 2) They make it obvious that “We care about accessibility!” and it makes your typical user think “Wow they’re so thoughtful.” But it’s not worth doing if it doesn’t actually assist the people who need it.

Not only that, these plugins can make you more vulnerable to accessibility lawsuits. One accessibility expert told me these overlay plugins are so notoriously unhelpful that some people scan websites for these tools in order to find easy lawsuit targets.

Is our website accessible?

Accessibility, like most things in life, is not exactly clear cut between accessible vs. not accessible. There are some fundamentals (listed below), but even when those are covered, there’s often room for improvement.

There are also a mix of critical vs. suggested improvements. Sometimes there are tradeoffs—for example, accessibility checkers will tell you not to include a link more than once within an element. But in some cases, it’s helpful to link both the image and a “read more” link.

This is a great tool for checking accessibility: https://wave.webaim.org/.

However, don’t be surprised if there’s a lot. Focus on the errors, then consider the alerts.

Our website isn’t very accessible. Can you fix it for us?

Ideally, accessibility is taken into account when the site is developed. If the HTML structure isn’t done correctly, it’s not easy to change that without a partial rebuild.

It’s like building a new house without an HVAC system, then deciding to add it a year later. It’s a lot easier to install ductwork before the drywall goes up.

But there is always room for improvement. You can ensure your images have alt text, that your blog posts appropriately use headings, that your text has sufficient contrast to the background, etc. If you’re dealing with a poorly built site, you may not be able to make it perfectly accessible, but you can certainly make it better. Your users will appreciate it.

Accessibility Best Practices for WordPress Website Managers

There are many best practices for web developers, but I will focus on what you can do as a WordPress user to improve accessibility and ensure new content is up to par.

  1.  Use Semantic HTML: Structuring content with semantic HTML elements (e.g., headings, lists, paragraphs) enhances screen reader compatibility, facilitates navigation, and improves overall document structure. If you’re writing a blog post, the title should be a Heading 1 (H1) by default. If you have subsections within that post, use H2s. And if you have subheadings use H3s. Bulleted and numbered lists can be helpful too. Not only is this structure super helpful for users with screen readers, but it’s also great for SEO.An image showing how to set different headers for better accessibility
  2.  Provide Alternative Text for Images: Descriptive alt text for images allows visually impaired users to understand the content. It is important to describe the image’s purpose or the information it conveys without relying solely on visual cues. In WordPress, you can add alt text here, and it’ll be displayed automatically anywhere that image is used on the site.
    An image showing where to add alternate text for an image.
  3. Avoid using text in images unless that content is also visible on the page as text. For example, if you have a fancy event flyer with the title, location, and dates, make sure all of that vital information is also listed as text somewhere on the page. Otherwise, screen readers won’t be able to read that text and those with visual impairments won’t get the information they need.
  4. Optimize for readability. Make sure there is enough contrast between the text and the background. Make sure you use reasonably large font sizes, have sufficient line-spacing, and avoid overly stylized fonts. Check out this handy contrast checker to quickly search for contrast issues on your website.
  5. Maintain simple, intuitive navigation. Make sure people can easily find what they’re looking for, and that navigation links clearly identify where they lead. This is good for all users, of course, but poor navigation is especially costly for users of assistive technology.
  6. For videos, make sure to include captions. If you include audio, make sure to include transcripts. Rev.com is a great service for transcriptions and closed captioning.

Accessibility for all

Web accessibility isn’t optional—it’s fundamental to creating inclusive online experiences. By implementing accessibility best practices, you can ensure that individuals with disabilities can access and fully interact with all parts of your website.

Embracing accessibility supports a more diverse and engaged user base, enhances your reputation, and promotes equality and inclusivity in the digital realm.

Aside from just being The Right Thing to Do, adhering to accessibility standards can help bring in more customers/supporters, improve SEO, protect you from lawsuits, and improve the website user experience.

It’s a no-brainer.

Have questions about how to make your site more accessible? Contact us today!

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