It’s 2019. The Americans with Disabilities Act has been on the books for almost twenty years, the internet has been mainstream for a quarter century, and mobile devices have been rapidly adopted by the majority of the US population over the past decade. So why are accessible digital experiences still elusive for many?
In January 2019, Domino’s Pizza made headlines when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it must make both its website and mobile app accessible to people who must use screen-reading software . When the plaintiff, Guillermo Robles, tried to order a custom pizza online, the website did not work with his screen-reading software, which allowed him to miss out on a convenience that others get to use; in addition, the company offered online-only discounts, which he couldn’t take advantage of without being able to access online ordering.
Despite a federal court judge initially dismissing Mr. Robles's claim on the grounds that the government had yet to issue regulations about digital compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ninth circuit’s ruling determined that Domino’s still had a responsibility to provide "full and equal enjoyment" of its services to people who are blind or visually impaired. . This ruling will likely serve as a precedent in years to come and signals to digital producers why it’s important to create an accessible digital experience.
But what are the first steps in creating an accessible digital experience?
Digital accessibility by default is a win-win-win solution
Beyond any potential legal considerations, there are a number of reasons why it’s a good idea to start with digital accessibility as a default requirement. Obviously, an accessible digital experience is intrinsically better for business because it expands the audience of potential customers and stakeholders who can access content. But besides serving the bottom line, keeping accessibility at the forefront of design is a good practice as it allows all to fully participate in society, which is increasingly becoming more digital. Because many accessibility guidelines overlap with SEO considerations, it is also good to follow these standards, and they will improve your search performance. Accessibility is something that every digital producer should take seriously.
Here are some basic tips on how to make your digital experience accessible. Of course, this is a huge topic, so we encourage further research to ensure that you use as many features as possible that promote accessibility.
Possible conditions that can affect website use
The first step to creating an accessible digital experience is to know how, exactly, people with disabilities access websites. There are a variety of conditions that allow people to access websites in different ways:
- Vision: People with visual impairment still need to access information on websites. Some people use screen readers, while others have settings adjusted on their devices to change font size, and contrast colors to better read the screen. Keep this in mind when designing your website. In addition, many people with visual impairment, including deafblind people, use braille keyboards with their devices.
- Hearing: For people with full or partial hearing loss, closed captioning should be available on all audiovisual content on your website.
- Motor skills: For people with motor skill disabilities, assistive technology such as text-to-speech software or sip-and-puff systems allow them to use their devices without needing to type.
- Cognitive disabilities: According to w3.org’s page on cognitive accessibility, people with conditions such as autism, ADHD, dementia, and dyslexia should be able to navigate web content using different strategies, access information in text, audio, or other formats, and change the presentation of the content according to their individual needs or preferences.
Here are the guidelines from the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative for cognitive accessibility:
- Create content that can be presented in different ways (a simpler layout, for example) without losing information or structure.
- Provide users enough time to read and use content.
- Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are. Make text content readable and understandable.
- Make webpages appear and operate in predictable ways. Help users avoid and correct mistakes .
Using alt text to provide more information to end users is a great way to make your content more accessible. An alt tag is an HTML attribute applied to image tags to provide a text alternative for search engines . Besides being useful for search engines, screen readers use alt text to “read” images on websites.
Adding an alt text tag to your images is important. It will help screen readers convey what information the pictures contain to the person using the device. Make sure the alt tag gives context about the image it describes to users. People using screen readers have the right to understand what the images are, so be as descriptive as possible.
Digital experience design should be accessible
While it is tempting to make your website design fancy, you keep in mind that screen readers will need to easily navigate it, and also that people with cognitive disabilities will need to easily digest the content on the website without major difficulties.
Clear, structured headers allow for content to be easily digested by both screen readers and people with cognitive impairments. Headings should also be used in order, without jumping around, in order to prevent confusion.
Label your forms clearly in a way that makes sense and prevents confusion, and place labels adjacent to the fields they describe. Again, keep in mind that a screen reader will need to convey that the label and the field should go together in a way that makes sense to the end user.
Also, make sure that you only use tables for data that should logically be organized in a table, as this can confuse screen readers .
Make sure content is assistive-technology friendly
If you decide to use dynamic content—content that can change without the page it’s on reloading—make sure that screen readers will be aware of when the content changes, so that they can inform end users accordingly.
A helpful way to do this is to use ARIA landmarks. ARIA landmarks are tags added to content in order to clearly define it on the page. They will help assistive devices understand the content as it changes in a certain region .
Beyond simply being the right thing to do, in many ways, an ADA compliant digital experience is the gold standard in terms of usability, content portability, and search performance. Compliance testing is a quick and easy way to know if a digital experience was designed poorly and its content was entered lazily. If you have questions about this topic, or any others related to digital experience, we’d love to help out. Please contact us for more information and don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter for updates on new content and events.