Creating an Inclusive Digital Experience: Your Guide to Online Accessibility
Imagine navigating a digital landscape where every website, every document, and every piece of information is accessible to all individuals, regardless of their abilities. This vision of inclusivity and equal access is not only good practice but also a legal requirement for certain types of organizations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In this article, we’ll explore the importance of accessibility and provide practical steps to help organizations make their web content and PDFs accessible.
The Power of Accessibility
Let’s start our journey by introducing Sarah, a vibrant and enthusiastic individual who happens to be visually impaired. Like many of us, Sarah spends a lot of time online, browsing websites, shopping, sending emails, interacting on social, watching videos, and reading articles. However, her experience is sometimes hindered by inaccessible websites and PDF documents she cannot read. As a result, she faces barriers in obtaining information, engaging with content, and making purchases.
By prioritizing accessibility, a wide variety of businesses, nonprofits, and other institutions can provide equal and inclusive experiences for people like Sarah. Accessibility isn’t just about compliance; it’s about empathy and fostering a sense of belonging for all users. When websites and documents are designed with accessibility in mind, they become welcoming platforms for individuals with a diverse range of abilities, ultimately increasing engagement and broadening an organization’s reach. And it doesn’t just apply to individuals with disabilities. Some people just prefer to use captions. Some would rather walk up a ramp instead of taking the stairs. Accessibility gives options to everyone.
Understanding ADA Compliance
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 to ensure equal access and prohibit discrimination based on differing abilities. The signing initially led to the widespread adoption of wheelchair ramps, accessible restrooms, and other accommodations to ensure equal access to physical spaces. In 2022, the ADA added guidelines that apply to websites and digital content.
While local and state government websites must be accessible under Title II of the ADA, the legislation as it applies to other businesses can be a gray area and is sometimes up to interpretation by the courts. But regardless of whether the ADA standards apply to your organization, compliance is a good idea.
The Benefits of Accessibility
Embracing accessibility offers a multitude of benefits for an organization.
- Expanded Reach and Engagement. By creating an inclusive digital environment, you open doors to new audiences, foster engagement, and establish meaningful connections.
- Enhanced User Experience. Accessibility principles often lead to better overall design, improving the user experience for all visitors, regardless of their abilities.
- Improved SEO. Many accessibility practices align with search engine optimization (SEO) techniques, which can improve your website’s visibility and reach.
- Positive Reputation. Prioritizing accessibility demonstrates your organization’s inclusivity and social responsibility, enhancing your reputation among customers, partners, and stakeholders.
Making Websites Accessible
Now that we understand the significance of accessibility and ADA compliance, let’s explore some practical steps to ensure your website is inclusive and welcoming to all. This process entails following certain guidelines to make sure that people with limitations have the same (or a similar) experience as people who do not.
Design for readability. Ensure a clear and consistent layout with readable fonts and plenty of white space. Design pages with an appropriate amount of color contrast. Some visitors may be unable to read if there is not enough contrast between text and background.
Logical navigation. Make sure your website uses consistent naming, styling, and navigation across the site. Use headings and subheadings to make it easier for users to understand how a page is organized and make it easier for screen readers to navigate. Use breadcrumbs to help users understand where they are on the site.
Alt text. Alternative text, or alt text, is descriptive text for images that allows accessibility software to communicate the visual content to people with disabilities. For example, someone who is blind might use a program that reads the text aloud, including the descriptive text associated with the images. Without alt tags, the images are unreadable by screen readers and other assistive technology. Unimportant images, such as decorative images that do not support the page content, should have empty alt tags so they can be skipped.
Captions and transcripts. Add captions and/or transcripts to make videos and animations accessible. Captions provide a text version of audio information, including both speech and any non-speech audio information that is needed to understand the content, such as who is speaking (if not evident) and sounds like music or laughter. Captions are typically synchronized with the audio and displayed in a media player when turned on by the user. This feature benefits people with hearing impairments, people who are deaf, or those with cognitive and learning disabilities who comprehend better when they can both hear and see the content.
A transcription of audio content is another option that helps users access content quickly and handle issues such as regional accents or background noise.
Keyboard accessibility. Ensure your website can be navigated using a keyboard alone, without requiring a mouse. Many individuals with mobility impairments rely on keyboards or alternative input devices to navigate digital content. On a keyboard-accessible site, visitors should be able to access interactive elements by pressing the tab key. The navigation order should be both logical and intuitive, typically following the visual flow of the page. For a thorough list of requirements that must be met to ensure proper keyboard operability, click here.
Identify the language. Many screen readers support multiple languages and can easily switch between them. Use markup to identify the language of the text and any blocks of text that deviate from the default language. This step will ensure that screen readers can determine the appropriate language and use the correct pronunciation when reading the text.
Creating Accessible PDFs
To enable the maximum number of people to view and interact with a PDF, it must be universally easy to use and meet established accessibility standards. An accessible PDF is a file that can be accessed, used, and understood by anyone who is blind or visually or cognitively impaired. The file must be able to be read by assistive technologies such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, speech recognition software, alternative input devices, text-to-speech software, and refreshable Braille screens.
Here are a few key considerations for creating accessible PDFs:
- Searchable text. Ensure the text in your PDF file is searchable using the standard Adobe Reader search function. Files that include scanned text images can make a document inaccessible if they do not contain searchable text that can be read by assistive technology.
- Logical structure. Structure documents with an appropriate hierarchy (for clarity and understanding). Create PDFs that are clear and navigable for assistive technologies.
- Accessibility tags. Tag PDFs to define the logical reading order and identify headings, paragraphs, tables, and other page elements. Tags help screen readers and other assistive technology present content accurately and logically.
- Interactive form fields. When creating PDFs that include forms, set a defined tab order so those using assistive technology can logically tab to move from one field to the next. Each field should be properly labeled, and the form should provide instructions for completion.
- Alt text. As outlined above, provide alt text for important images.
- Language and title specifications. Specify the document language in the PDF title to make it easy for users to locate and select the file in their preferred language.
- Proper color usage. Avoid conveying important information solely through color. Use sufficiently contrasting color combinations and provide additional visual cues to make content understandable to everyone.
And finally, use a PDF only when appropriate. PDFs preserve a document’s appearance across devices and allow users to save the information to their local devices after they leave the website. If this is not necessary, consider using a format such as HTML, which is less complex than a PDF and more accessible.
The above guidelines are just a starting point. For more information, view the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international community that develops open standards to ensure the long-term growth of the web. These standards help developers, designers, and website owners create and maintain accessible websites and digital content.
Empowering Users and Enhancing User Experience for All
Digital accessibility can have a profound impact on individuals like Sarah who desire equal access to digital resources. And it doesn’t just benefit users with disabilities. By taking the right steps to ensure the accessibility of your online content, you can make your website user-friendly and easier to understand for all visitors.
Remember, accessibility is a continuous journey. By implementing the steps outlined in this article and staying up to date with evolving accessibility standards, you can empower your organization to provide a digital experience that leaves no one behind.