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Making Websites Accessible: What You Need to Know

The world of tech moves fast, and it can be challenging to keep up. There are a billion acronyms to learn, constant new releases, and evolving areas to dive into at all times. It is what makes this field of work so unique, and personally, why I love what I do. 

Daily, I hear things that I bookmark to the “I should learn more about that” menu in my brain. That pile grows faster than I can pick a topic off the top. As a project manager, I oversee the design, development, and maintenance of websites, along with web accessibility and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance. Web accessibility is an issue I want to know more about and have decided to fully explore. My educational journey far from over, but I’m ready to share what I’ve learned so far:

As a digital agency, we’ve always been aware of ADA/WCAG compliance. A color contrast check here, a scan through a system there, an “alt text” everywhere… But the more we learn about website accessibility, the more we realize we need to know.  And that’s not uncommon across the digital industry since web accessibility standards previously released by the Department of Justice (DOJ) were incredibly vague and left a lot to an agency’s interpretation.

“Title 3 applies to digital” they said…” “Okay,” responded the world of digital, and we all did our best. Then in March 2022, the DOJ released six guidelines on what that broad application meant. The guidelines weren’t exhaustive, but they were more clear than the guidance that preceded them and were a welcome step forward. Those guidelines, are as follows:

  • Poor color contrast: Make backgrounds and text high enough contrast for readability.
  • Avoid use of color alone to give information: Don’t ask a user to click the “green button”; give navigational cues that are not solely reliant on seeing colors.
  • Lack of text alternatives on images: Use “alt text” on all images so users can see the purpose and/or description of an image when they cannot view the image itself.
  • No captions on videos: Include closed captions/subtitles on videos so individuals with hearing impairments can read/view voice-over content.
  • Avoid inaccessible online forms: Attach labels to data entry fields that screen readers can utilize, such as “Email field”, “Full Name”, etc., so individuals know where to enter information. This includes labels for  error messages.
  • Avoid mouse-only navigation: Ensure users can utilize both a keyboard and a mouse/trackpad to navigate website menus and page content.

These guidelines are helpful to those of us in the digital space, giving us parameters on what is considered to be compliant. However, the key piece of the updated DOJ guidance isn’t just about providing basic requirements, improving audit scores, and mitigating the number of accessibility errors that appear on a page. It comes down to the “why.” Why does accessibility matter? 

That answer depends on who you ask. For me, it matters that all web users can enjoy the sites we build. I’m embarrassed to admit that my view on accessibility prior to my deep dive was about legal liability and not the humanistic side. I hadn’t thought about why the numbers of errors mattered, I hadn’t thought about the user who just wanted to purchase a bottle of wine from one of our winery clients, or get details about their favorite musician’s concert dates. I hadn’t been thinking about the person

It was a wake-up call because my professional approach was in direct opposition to my personal view–and that of our Culture Foundry team. We believe the technology we design and implement must prioritize the person using it. So, when I learned that 97 percent of websites have at least one barrier for individuals using assistive technology, it became immediately clear that many websites, including sites we’ve built, still have work to do on accessibility. 

How do we chart a path to improvement? Our accounts team started talking (and still is) about how we help our web clients tackle this problem. We’re not discussing a one-time, “fix-it-and-move-on” solution. It has to be a systemic remedy with an evolutionary approach that can scale over time as technology evolves and DOJ guidance becomes more specific, and potentially, more directive.

To broaden our perspective, we seek expert advice from outside our agency, and we’re connecting with agencies that specialize in digital accessibility. We want to identify a strategic partner in this area that prioritizes the human experience, along with manual testing rather than relying solely on automated site scans. 

Additionally, we’re taking a holistic approach to scanning our sites pre-launch (i.e., what’s actually blocking a user from accessing critical information on a site?), and we’re adding accessibility statements across the websites we design, develop, and support to signal what we believe: that accessibility matters, we’re working on it, and we’re open to feedback. 

Spoiler alert: We’re still working on answers, so my apologies if you read this expecting a tried-and-true solution (but feel free to email me at jory@culturefoundry.com if you have one!). I strongly encourage anyone seeking legal guidance on accessibility, ADA compliance, and potential liability to consult an attorney; your potential liability for not maintaining an accessible website could depend on the type of business you’re in. 

There’s an ocean of information out there, and while I’m still in the shallow end of that deep pool, I’m eager to keep swimming, and I encourage our clients to do the same. For now, here are some of the best resources and tools I found during my research:

Again, I’d love to hear from anyone who is on this learning path. Feel free to reach out and share resources, stories, processes, or just to say “hello.” And if you’re a current client of Culture Foundry and want to prioritize this work, let us know by emailing us at hello@culturefoundry.com

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