Does website accessibility feel like a nebulous concept with daunting requirements? 😵💫 If so, you’re not alone. The truth is, a lot of the laws and regulations around website accessibility are still developing, so it’s an area that can be kind of tough to keep up with, especially if you’re trying to DIY your website.
But accessibility is important, and ignoring it will only hurt your business in the long run. So let’s break down the accessibility basics.
Why does accessibility matter? 🤔
Just like you wouldn’t want a physical business location that was impossible for wheelchair users to access, you don’t want the website for your business to be unusable for segments of the population. With somewhere around a quarter of the US population having at least one disability, a good portion of your clients or customers are bound to belong to this population.
Who is accessibility for?
When you think of website accessibility, blind users with screen readers may be the first thing that comes to mind. 🧑🦯 Blind or visually impaired users often have software solutions that read aloud the text that appears on their computer, tablet, or phone screen. These tools need to be able to easily and effectively access all of the text on your website.
But it’s also important to remember that there is a whole host of disabilities, not all of which come down to a physical limitation. There are also cognitive disabilities that make it difficult for people to focus and retain information or conditions that affect attention spans. Websites that are optimized for these kinds of disabilities have to cover more than just screen reader compatibility.
The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is a civil rights law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination. 📃 When it comes to websites, this means that businesses that are open to the public are required by law to have accessible websites. (You can read more on the ADA website.)
While it isn’t typical for an actual disabled user to sue a business over website accessibility, some lawyers have realized that these types of lawsuits can make them easy money, so it’s best practice to ensure your website has made a good-faith effort to be accessible lest you become an easy target for this kind of legal attack.
Accessibility is better for everyone
It’s also true that accessible design—in websites and elsewhere—makes for a better experience for all users, disabled or not. 🌐 The aspects of design that make a website accessible are also just good practice in general. A webpage that is high-contrast and easy to read for the visually impaired is also easier to read for the able-bodied visitor. An accessible reading level for users with cognitive disabilities also makes a page easier to read for every user.
Considerations for your website
The bare minimum
If you really don’t have the time or budget to put in a huge accessibility effort, or you already have a website but you know it’s not very accessible, there are still some things you should make sure to adjust.
Make your website screen reader compatible 🔉
There are nearly 7 million Americans with vision loss of varying degrees, and many of them use screen readers to access content on their devices. For their assistive technology to be able to access your website, you’ll want to make sure that you are doing these things:
- Make use of HTML tags to help the screen reader understand the organization of your web pages. This includes things like HTML header tags and language indicators.
- Use alt text for most of your photos so the screen reader can describe them and your website visitor can understand the purpose they are serving on your site.
- Keep all important text out of photos; screen readers will use alt text to describe images on your website, but critical information should always be found in the body of your website pages, not in images.
- Test your website using a screen reader to see if there are any places where it doesn’t operate properly.
Ensure your website can be navigated by keyboard alone ⌨️
Some users with physical disabilities may have limited mobility and use only their keyboard to navigate websites. Visually impaired users may also use keyboard controls to navigate websites they are accessing through their screen reader.
Any aspects of your site that can’t be used without a mouse are rendered inaccessible to these users, so you want to make sure that your website doesn’t include design choices that require some other kind of interaction.
Take into consideration other disabilities, such as epilepsy, color blindness, or cognitive disabilities 💁
These groups of disabled individuals are often overlooked when it comes to a cursory approach to accessibility, but their access is just as important, and they are equally protected under the ADA. For their accessibility, you’ll want to stay away from flashing or strobing effects, using colors that commonly look the same to certain types of colorblindness, and other elements that might make it difficult to carry out the typical tasks on your website.
A word about overlays 🧑🏫
You may be aware of overlay tools or plugins such as UserWay and AccessiBe that offer an automated “fix” for accessibility issues on websites. It’s easy to learn about them and think that it’s a great solution to your accessibility headaches, but in reality, it’s not a viable long-term solution and often ends up being redundant to tools that disabled users already have at their disposal. They also can never achieve full accessibility compliance, so their usefulness is severely limited. Many users actually reported that these overlays made things less accessible for them since they interrupted their own assistive devices. We advise putting in the work to make your website more accessible instead of hoping that overlay tools will do it for you.
Going deeper: best design practices for accessibility ✅
Mind the color contrast 🎨
You’ll want to make sure that your website design utilizes high-contrast colors. This means paying close attention to the color of the text on different backgrounds to ensure that it is readable. This aids users with vision loss, but it is also helpful for people who might be viewing your site on a small screen, like a smartphone, or for folks who are outside or in a bright location that might make it harder to see the screen.
Think about links 🔗
If you link to other websites or different pages on your site, you want to consider how you want these links to be opened. Website platforms like WordPress will give you options about what will happen when a visitor clicks on a link. There’s some disagreement about what the best practice is, since opening a link in a new tab renders the back button useless and the user might have to do more detailed navigation to get back to where they were. However, you don’t want folks to lose the progress they’ve made on something like a form. Whatever you choose, make sure you’ve thought about how it might impact the experience of various kinds of users and optimize for the least disruptive choice.
Learn more (about vague button text)
If someone is using a screen reader or has a cognitive disability, it might take a lot of work to figure out where a “Learn more” button is going to take them. It’s a lot to keep track of, especially if there are a lot of buttons within a small space on any of your web pages. Instead, make button text more descriptive with phrasing like: “Learn more about our products” or “See membership plans.”
No attention thieves
Popups are a common design choice for many websites, and they aren’t inherently inaccessible. Still, they become an issue if they happen spontaneously or in a way that serves to distract the user. Folks who use a screen reader can be momentarily lost as their screen reader begins working through the popup instead of the text they were consuming, and people with difficulties focusing or reading comprehension can get distracted in a way that might make it very difficult to resume where they left off. If you have popups, make sure that they are triggered by intentional action, not something that just randomly happens on the page.
The user should be in control
For disabled and able-bodied folks alike, a web page that is doing something outside of their control is frustrating. If your page is going to play a video or make sound, that aspect of the experience should be something that the user can pause or opt-out of. These kinds of disruptions can make it difficult to use a screen reader, or they can cause issues for folks with cognitive disabilities or difficulty focusing.
The best way to create an accessible site
This all might seem overwhelming; it certainly is a lot to keep track of! 😮💨 However, all these considerations are aspects of building a website that a good designer will already have in mind. That’s why we always recommend working with a professional designer if you want to ensure that your website is doing its best for all your visitors.
If you are already working with a designer, ask them about their accessibility considerations. If they can’t tell you much, or they don’t mention any of the items we’ve discussed in this post, they may not be well-versed in accessibility. Look for a designer who can explain clearly how they design for disabled users and demonstrate an awareness of all the potential issues your particular website might have with accessibility.
At Valerian, we always do our best to design in an accessibility-friendly manner. We can’t guarantee perfect results, but our websites always strive to meet accessibility best practices. We’ll do everything we can within your budget to make your website accessible as we build it, and if you’d like to go the extra mile, we can bring in one of our trusted partners to help. We can also refer you to an accessibility remediation service from one of our partners if you are interested.