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Why you should care about accessible web content

Do you know how many of your website visitors can consume your content? If it’s 100%, color me impressed! This is not an easy task.

Almost 20% of Americans have some form of a disability—cognitive, vision, hearing, or motor-skill related. And this statistic only covers one country! It also doesn't account for temporary disabilities that also impact your audience. For example, tomorrow I could break my arms or have eye surgery (heaven forbid)—or have limited access to the internet for another reason. So, if you’re not up-to-date on accessibility standards, you could be missing opportunities to reach 100% of your audience.

During last month’s Now What? Conference in Sioux Falls, Eileen Webb, co-founder and partner at webmeadow, gave a 20-minute talk on planning content for everyone. Web content accessibility is not something clients (or even teams within ad agencies) bring up often. Eileen ended her talk encouraging attendees to “be the person who talks about it.”

Well, I’m talking about it.

According to 2010 U.S. Census disability statistics, of the 241.7 million U.S. adults (aged 15 and older), about 14.9 million or 6.2% have difficulty seeing, hearing, or speaking. That percentage increases to 17.9% among those 65 years and older. These are people who are more likely to use a screen reader or other assistive technologies while online.

Not everyone uses websites the same way. That’s why standards for web content exist.

What are some web content accessibility standards?

Why not make the web a positive experience for all, if we have the power to do so? We should all have equal access to the same information online, right? Both are valid questions organizations around the globe are addressing.  

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international organization that collaborates with members and the public to create standards for the internet. Web accessibility and standardization is at the core of what this organization does.

W3C accessibility standards are known as WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). Web professionals use these standards, and so can you. The standards use four principles of accessibility as a foundation for creating accessible web content. Content must be:

  • Perceivable: The content must be visible to the user’s senses.
  • Operable: The interface and navigation cannot require unperformable interactions.
  • Understandable: The information and user interface must be digestible.
  • Robust: The content must be assistive technology–friendly.

According to the W3C, “If any of these are not true, users with disabilities will not be able to use the Web.”

WCAG 2.0 standards have different rankings to measure how accessible your website content is, too:

  • A - Good
  • AA - Better
  • AAA - Best

To reach A, AA, or AAA status, you must meet several checkpoints listed under 14 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The more checkpoints you satisfy, the more accessible your website will be, according to their standards.

What are some advanced specifications and alternative standards?

While W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines address general web content, the Accessible Rich Internet Application (ARIA) specification applies to programming. ARIA is not required for WCAG compliance. However, developers add ARIA attributes to markup, like HTML, to make formatting more accessible to those with disabilities.

The American government is also playing a role in creating accessible content. Section 508 is a U.S. federal law that requires federal government agencies to make all electronic and information technology accessible to those with disabilities. Disabled employees and the public must be able to access the same information as others. This is an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act. Section 508 and WCAG guidelines are not the same. But there is overlap when it comes to ensuring accessible web content.

Who needs to follow web content accessibility standards?

If you’re a government agency or receive government funding, you must meet web accessibility standards under section 508. But, the line can become blurry for others.

Your first instinct will likely be to think about who you’re trying to reach when developing, designing, and generating content for your website. Do you serve an older demographic? Are you a school, university, or college that caters to a diverse audience? Hitting accessibility checkpoints will be even more important to you.

While audience matters when it comes to how much you’re going to invest in creating accessible web content, consider this: accessible web content benefits everybody.

Eileen used a wheelchair ramp to illustrate this point. “Do you ever take the ramp versus the stairs?” Eileen asked the audience. It’s not just used by those with wheelchairs. Everyone is "disabled" at some point.

Click Rain web developer, Bryan Burgers, and myself chat for a bit about this. “When I go to the zoo with my kids, I use automatic door openers all the time,” Bryan said. “Holding the door open while trying to push a stroller through puts me in a ‘disabled’ position.”

“You can apply the same concept to a website,” said Bryan. “Colors on the web need to have good contrast. Not because of those who are color-blind, but because something with high contrast is easier to read and gather information from quicker. Your website should provide an optimal experience for everyone.” Because everyone experiences disabilities in their life, you can't assume your customers won't have them, too.

Accessibility standards cover web best practices in many cases. While it may take more time, effort, and budget to implement accessibility elements, they make for a better experience.  

What can I make more accessible? 4 things to consider right now.

Not every website team has the budget to attain top-level AAA accessibility status. However, some quick accessibility fixes may help you reach more of your audience (and search engines!).

PDFs

While the fastest way to add content to a website might be throwing up a PDF, you may wish to think twice.

A PDF is an image of text and/or a picture. If it’s not saved correctly, both search engines and people (who have visual impairments, low bandwidth, restricted data plans, etc.) may not be able to access the content.

To boost accessibility, first, you need to tag your PDF. This is hidden text within your PDF (a lot like HTML for a webpage). It’s also what allows screen readers to read it and search engine bots to crawl information. (A double whammy!) Keep in mind that PDFs are not mobile-friendly, so don’t use them if there is a better option within your constraints. In her talk, Eileen suggested using Adobe’s Accessibility Checker to ensure your PDF is as accessible as possible. She also recommended writing a summary for the PDF so people know what they’re opening.

Webaim.org has some great resources about creating accessible PDFs if you’d like to look into this.

Videos & Podcasts

Digital video and podcasts can make for a great multimedia experience, but are they accessible? Maybe you have a slow internet connection and the video won’t play. Perhaps you’re in a quiet room (like the library) without headphones or have a hearing impairment? Maybe you need information fast and don’t have time to find the right spot in the video or podcast? All these scenarios might hinder you from listening to your video or podcast.

The solution? Transcripts!

“It’s not ready for the website until the transcript is ready,” Eileen said during the conference.

I’ve transcribed a time or two before. Forewarning—it can be time consuming. You can also hire someone to transcribe for you. I’ve also done this using Rev. It costs $1 a minute. Well worth saving my hands from over an hour of work for 19 minutes worth of interviews.

Design

Does your website work on any device? According to the Pew Research Center, 7% of Americans solely rely on their smartphone for internet access. So it’s important to have a website that works on phones, too. Using responsive design is not only good for SEO, as Google gives love to mobile-ready sites, but it can help with accessibility.

Design may also take performance aspects of websites into account. Not everyone has LTE coverage in the city or WiFi at home. Creating accessible content could also pertain to those living in rural areas and still using broadband internet. (Yup, they’re out there.) According to Tech Times, almost 2.1 million people in the U.S. still use dial-up internet service from AOL. This isn’t an old statistic. It’s from AOL’s Q1 2015 earnings report! The article speculates that seniors and low-income households may be the most likely to still use dial-up.  

Those with slower connections don’t want to wait 10 seconds for content to load. If you have a fast server, good code, and avoid several large images, its load time should increase. You can test your page speed using Google’s PageSpeed Insights tool.

Finally, one of the core functions of the web is access. Not everybody has the most up-to-date browsers. Consider this when designing your site. Can anyone access your site from any browser? Address this during your project scope before development even begins.

“Anyone with a device should be able to get something from your site,” Bryan said. “Not everyone is going to get a perfect representation of what the designer has in mind. But that’s why accessible design should be defined by core goals, not how the website looks.” Wise words, Bryan.

If you want to know more about good design, check out this blog post on Performance, Forms & Content Tips for a Better Site.

Content

Keep copy simple. If you’re writing for the web, get to your point—fast! That doesn’t mean ignore voice and tone, or what you learned in English class. It means avoid complex sentence structure, jargon, and complicated words. Many writers, including Eileen, encourage everyone to read written work OUT LOUD. If you stumble over your words, rework it.

During my first web writing project at Click Rain, Sarah Rhea Werner, senior content strategist at Click Rain, introduced me to a tool that should be in every web writer’s list of bookmarks—readability-score.com. Copy and paste your content into the site’s text field. Then you’ll get your FRE (Flesch Reading Ease) score.

We use the Flesch Reading Ease scale to measure readability on a scale of 1 (extremely difficult) to 100 (very easy to read). Google’s algorithm takes this accessibility factor into account for SEO purposes, too. The lower your number, the more Google will penalize your content. Readers will also be less engaged by difficult-to-read content. If your score is below 60, revise! Also, this tool is free. So you have no excuse. And if your excuse is you're not connected to the internet, Microsoft Word comes with a built-in readability checker. You just need to enable "Show readability statistics" in your Preferences for Spelling and Grammar.

To improve your content’s readability, follow web writing best practices, decrease the number of syllables per word, and simplify sentence structure.

Readability score tool

Also remember content goes beyond copy. Add alternative text to your photos, too. This is text that will appear when an image on a page doesn't display. It’s also what screen readers and search engines pick up. In your html, it may look like this:

Example of alternative text

Where should I begin?

In construction, there are a set of standards all builders must follow. I’m not just referring to handicap entrances and bathrooms, but also the solid foundation on which every building project starts. So why don’t we have the same for our web content?

While it may not be realistic to go from never giving web content accessibility a thought to creating sites with AAA status, we need to start planning for it. Accessibility should be a part of your process from the beginning. Start small. Think about what your audience really needs. Are you targeting web users who are a part of the 20% of Americans with a disability? Are you trying to reach rural areas, senior citizens, or low-income communities who only have access to a phone for internet? During your project scope, get your team in the same room and take a few minutes to talk about potential accessibility bottlenecks.

Some websites may require additional thought when it comes to accessibility. Set what your organization's accessibility standards are. Then draw a line where standards stop and customizations begin.

“The core foundation of the web is that it is accessible to everyone regardless of where you live, what device or browser you’re using, and that it is unencumbered by process,” as Bryan puts it. “You don’t have to get approved to build a website or put your thoughts on the internet. I hope for a web that can continue like that.”

As web experts, it's our job to keep every website we touch accessible. A lot of times that might fall to any person within an organization—an account manager, online marketing strategist, designer, writer, content strategist, or developer. So let's figure this out together.

Thank you to Eileen Webb, Bryan Burgers, Justine Murtha, and Sarah Rhea Werner for sharing your thoughts on web content accessibility for this post. You are beautiful people.