A couple weeks ago, the ACS team attended An Event Apart in Washington DC. This post on accessibility is the second in a series about our takeaways from this web design and development conference. In case you missed it, check out our first post in the series on what makes industry conferences valuable.
A Story of Inclusion
For this AEA post, we’ll be highlighting Derek Featherstone, founder of SimplyAccessible. In “Where Accessibility Lives,” Derek led our journey through the eyes of an imaginary company called incrediWeb. This theoretical e-commerce startup was receiving user feedback that didn’t quite align with their perception of the incrediWeb site. For example, “the buttons are too close together” or “there is too much background noise in the video.” After several submissions of this nature, it became apparent to the company that their website had issues that made browsing (and buying) difficult for people with disabilities and personal restrictions.
The diligent team at incrediWeb knew accessibility was the answer, but they were faced with a whole new realm of questions… Whose job is this? Where do we start? What are we missing? How do we fix it? With virtually countless possibilities on the other side of the screen, it can certainly be daunting to plan for and satisfy all scenarios. According to Featherstone, the process can be broken down into three digestible steps:
- Forget Perfect – Aim for Better
- Start and Learn Quickly
- Research and Plan
From internal awareness to auditing their website to solving nearly 300 accessibility issues, incrediWeb utilized these steps to work toward an optimized experience for all visitors. It takes time – it takes testing – and it takes perspective, but the end result is well worth the effort. Derek left us with a quote he began his presentation with, now received with even greater meaning:
“Accessibility lives in people. Accessibility lives in process. Accessibility lives in tools.”
Website Accessibility in a Nutshell
Let’s touch on the basics. Essentially, Website Accessibility isn’t a black and white concept (and we’re talking beyond the parameters of 508 compliance here). It’s not something you either have or don’t. It’s something you work toward – one page, one image, and one pixel at a time.
There are many steps designers and developers can take to ensure a website’s content is easily readable and navigable to those with special browsing needs. For instance, you might assume blind people don’t use the internet. Well, they do. How do you think one of the world’s 285 million visually-impaired people would fare on your website? Fortunately, as online standards and technologies have evolved, so has our understanding of addressing challenges like this and many others.
Derek introduced the scenarios of paraplegia, quadriplegia, farsightedness, nearsightedness, color blindness, dyslexia, hearing impairment, and the list goes on. It may not be possible to serve every single user an equally brilliant experience on your website, but your goal should be better – not perfect. Take the first step TODAY and implement these five simple, universal accessibility best practices:
- Include descriptive ALT tags for all images
- Buttons and link text should have a clear call-to-action
- Provide generous spacing (white space) between elements on page
- Ensure foreground and background colors have significant contrast
- Create a logical tab order within menus, links and forms
It’s not difficult to make accessible choices in your code and design. The challenge is being aware of your visitors’ potential obstacles and addressing them effectively. Often, this requires research – something Featherstone believes in strongly. Your best guess might be better than nothing, but it’s not nearly as valuable as real feedback from real users.
ACS designers and developers have hands-on experience creating accessible websites. One of our non-profit clients, Child Care Aware of America, helps parents find affordable childcare nationwide. When building their new website, we took extra care to ensure the site was easy to use for everyone.
Although it’s important to “aim for better” as Featherstone says, you sometimes have to aim higher when it comes to accessible website design. Our team built the Child Care Aware of America website to be 508 compliant. This refers to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires government-funded websites to be accessible to people with disabilities.
We deployed all of Featherstone’s best practices when designing this website. For instance, we avoided vague calls-to-action like “Learn More” in favor of more descriptive statements like “Read about summer care.” Our designers also used colors with significant contrast, to make sure text blocks were easy to read.
Unfortunately, there isn’t an automatic test to determine if a website is 508 compliant. There are no robots programmed to review your site. A person takes a look at each site and decides on a case-by-case basis if the website meets the law’s standards. However, if you take the right steps, you can build an accessible and compliant website. In the end, we’re proud to say that the Child Care Aware website passed the test and is 508 compliant.
Accessibility for All
What makes the web great is its universality. It connects, empowers and enlightens people from all walks of life in every corner of the globe. However, for technology to truly bring humanity together, it must be accessible for all.
As you know by now, we tend to get a bit carried away when talking about the awesome power of the internet. We’re not saying a site that sells pineapple t-shirts is going to change the world, but it does have the opportunity to provide an equally-friendly user experience to each of its visitors – and that goes a long way.
We’d like to thank Derek Featherstone (@feather) for his insightful wisdom and passion for website accessibility. Its importance will only grow by the day, and we look forward to making it our personal priority moving forward. Stay tuned for our next AEA post about progressive web design!