What Makes A Website Accessible?

Algorithms – they know us better than we know ourselves, right? I was paying very close attention when our 21st century overlord The Algorithm presented me with a commercial, right in the contents of my LinkedIn feed. The beautifully shot short-film depicted a blind woman going about her day. Preparing breakfast with items that make themselves more accessible to her with the use of sounds and textures. Then it smacked me across the face; posing a question along the lines of ‘How do you think the average website feels to this person?’ 

I’d just spent weeks designing a website, and my heart felt a strong pang of guilt. While I’d been pouring over fonts, layouts, graphics, and sloganeering, I hadn’t thought one bit about how it might be for a blind person to navigate. I’m someone who cares deeply about accessibility. I believe that one of my purposes as an artist is to make things better and easier for others. So I swiftly began beating myself up for being such a jerk, and started scrambling to learn everything I could about ADA Compliance for website users. Effective advertising indeed! 

What I learned surprised me. In late 2020, The Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State ran accessibility tests of the top one million websites (those most visited throughout the year). Of these sites, an astounding 98% had detectable WCAG 2.0 failures. Which leads one to the obvious question; what is the WCAG 2.0? 

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

WCAG breaks down to 4 guidelines: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, Robust

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are the standards that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C for short) set forth. WCAGs dictate broad accessibility, as per the International Organization for Standardization (IOS). In 2008, over a decade ago, the current WCAGs were agreed upon. Subsequently, updates have been made in the years following. However, since 2010, despite urging from disability advocacy groups, the Department of Justice has abdicated its role of enforcement and rule making. An understandable abdication when you consider the rapidly changing landscape that is the Internet, and how it’s regarded – both as a public good, and a private service. But an abdication that seems to suggest ADA Compliance is not important. On the contrary.

An updated version, the WCAG 2.1, has been recommended by the W3C for implementation by the IOS since 2018. Disability groups continue to advocate, and there’s widespread expectation that the Biden administration will act on these urgings. 

So what makes content broadly accessible? To easily conceive of Accessibility: remember the acronym POUR. As in, “pour me up a glass of easy to digest content!” Content should be Perceivable (notice that the word choice is a variation of ‘perceive’ and not of ‘view,’ as that would be ableist), so comers to the site are easily become aware of the content. It should be Operable, so users can navigate and operate the site, easily gaining some use value from it. Content needs to be Understandable so that the users can understand what’s going on at the site where they land, without anybody there to explain it to them. And lastly, content should be Robust. Robust content is easy to interpret and display across myriad devices, most importantly assistive technologies. 

Assistive Technologies

Assistive technologies are where things get even more interesting. These services have done the heavy lifting in terms of creating accessibility on sites, apps, and online platforms. In lieu of the standard bearers like the DOJ and other aspects of IOS. Disabled users rely on their own assistive plugins to make sites comply with the POUR acronym on their own. So what about that commercial I saw? Urging me to make use of their service, which promised a quick and easy path to ADA compliance? So I wouldn’t be letting down the lovely woman I saw making breakfast in her highly accessible kitchen. If she were to ever visit my site? 

All of the information I found, especially that put forth by disability advocacy groups, urged against the use of such services. Referred to as OAS (Overlay Accessibility Solutions) these one-size-fits all approaches cause an array of interference to the end users’ assistive technologies. This creates a headache for them, and actually gets in the way of accessibility! I’ve since seen more aggressive campaigns for similar softwares, noting fines and citations for those that can’t create ADA compliant displays. The fact of the matter is, most sites today aren’t up to par with the WCAG. End users have simply had to make their own adjustments. Unless one is claiming that they are presenting an ADA compliant site when they’re not, no fines or penalties will apply. 

The Path to ADA Compliance

The path to genuine ADA Compliance is an arduous one, and as with many things in life, there is no quick fix. As some great reporting by Accessibility.works put it; if you’re asking “Is my website ADA Compliant?” quite simply, the answer is no. Because if your site was fully compliant, you would be well aware. Compliance means going through the process of auditing your site with a qualified compliance expert. Subsequently remediated based upon those audit results, and relaunched. 

So where does this leave our disabled friends when it comes to their website use? Until standard bearers put forth updated and more strongly enforced standardization, they for the most part will be like the woman in her kitchen, using their own accessibility tools to navigate and enjoy their surroundings, be they digital or otherwise. 

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