Whether by choice (or by force), web accessibility is good business. Don’t wait.

A parking lot has handicap-accessible spaces up front. A public restroom has handicap-accessible stalls.

These accommodations are widely accepted obligations in the physical world. Everyone deserves fair and equal treatment when they visit your brand online as well.

What are ADA and 508 all about?
Simply defined, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the U.S. Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973 states that people with various physical, visual or cognitive disabilities need to be able to understand, navigate and use the functionality in your website—just as traditional users do.

Meeting ADA and 508 standards doesn’t have to be difficult. Access can often be remedied by simply including features such as text transcripts and video captioning, or by using alternative text for imagery. Ignoring these users’ needs sends a not-so-welcoming message about your brand. If that isn’t bad enough, it could even spark legal troubles. The Department of Justice (DOJ) is currently refining ADA requirements for the U.S., with the end goal of ensuring the internet becomes an accessible resource and tool for everyone.

Diving into the world of ADA and 508 compliance can be intimidating. There are different kinds of standards and different levels of compliance to consider. You need to determine the most relevant plan for your website. Let’s tackle it by stepping through the main points you will need to navigate through the ADA and 508 landscapes.

Learn the landscape
The first stop is to gain a basic understanding of the web accessibility landscape. You may be in a mandated compliance industry as determined by the DOJ. If so, your situation is fairly straightforward.

We created this quick snapshot to give you the lay of the land:

ADA – The Americans with Disabilities Act

Summary:  All electronic and information technology must be accessible to people with disabilities. Specific internet regulations are in progress and expected to be released in 2018.

Applies To:  All commercial and public entities that have “places of public accommodation,” including the internet. Even though the U.S. guidelines are not complete, you can still be vulnerable to complaints or lawsuits.

Section 508 – An amendment to the U.S. Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Summary:  All electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained or used by the federal government must be accessible to people with disabilities.

Applies To:  All federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding. These groups, which include government agencies, federally-funded nonprofits, higher education institutions, public K-12 schools and other large online organizations, are required to be 508 compliant.

Establish a benchmark goal
The ADA guidelines for the U.S. are still a work in progress (as per the DOJ). And you aren’t in a mandated industry under Section 508. Is there a standard or benchmark you should use to make your website accessible?

Enter Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG 2.0.

If you aren’t in a mandated industry, it’s safe to use WCAG 2.0 as your guide. WCAG 2.0 was crafted by the folks at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international community that develops open standards to ensure the long-term growth of the Web. The WCAG 2.0 is the current international standard—set forth to build an accessible website—that meets both 508 and ADA compliance requirements.

WCAG 2.0 offers four handy principles (called POUR, for short) that will help during design and development of a WCAG 2.0 compliant site.

POUR stands for:

  • Perceivable — Information and interface components must be presented to users so they can be easily seen.
  • Operable — The user interface must be workable.
  • Understandable — Information and the interface must be clear.
  • Robust — Content must be precise enough to be accurately interpreted and translated to a wide variety of media and assistive technology.

POUR contains a set of widely accepted conformance levels (A, AA, and AAA) you can safely rely on to guide your compliance decisions. Of course, your decision should also be made in collaboration with your legal team, but here’s a quick overview of each level of POUR conformance:

  • Level A conformity isn’t difficult, but it also provides the least benefit to impaired users. The focus of this level is making it easier for browser readers to navigate and translate a website. While this conformance is an improvement for many websites, it doesn’t make the website as accessible as the DOJ will likely target as ideal.
  • Level AA is a little more significant, and makes websites accessible to people with a wider range of disabilities, including the most common barriers of use. It won’t impact the look and feel of the website as much as Level AAA compliance, though it does include guidance on color contrast and error identification. Most businesses should be aiming for Level AA conformity, as it appears to reflect the level of accessibility the DOJ will expect. WCAG 2.0 Level AA also appears to be roughly equivalent to the standards in Section 508. However, WCAG documentation is more specific and more clearly defined than what’s included in Section 508.
  • Level AAA is the most demanding level of accessibility compliance, and it will significantly affect the design of a website. It also makes a website accessible to the widest range of people with disabilities.

Develop the implementation plan
Now that you have a goal level selected as your benchmark, your implementation plan will vary depending on whether you are creating a new website or retrofitting an existing one.

New website?
Build the website to be accessible from the start. The effort to build an accessible website is relatively the same as building a non-accessible one (maybe even less). So why not start off that way? The practice of building a website using modern web standards lends itself directly to making a website accessible and WCAG compliant. Talk upfront with your digital partner about what’s important for the brand experience and what must be functionally strong for users with accessibility needs. Critical things to incorporate in a new website build include a good hierarchy of HTML tags in the code, image ALT tags, designing for contrast (color blindness), and form labels and structure.

Existing website?
First, audit the existing website to see what is out of compliance against a benchmarking tool like WAVE (web accessibility evaluation tool) or PowerMapper. Put in your URL to see how your website stacks up. Both tools will report on ADA errors, warnings, A/AA/AAA conformance and color contrast issues. There are also Google Chrome and Firefox plugins (WAVE has one) for easy testing and integration assistance. After the audit, prioritize the results and work with your digital partner to implement the changes on a schedule from highest priority to lowest.

Maintain compliance goals over time
As websites evolve and change administrative hands, they can easily fall out of compliance. Put procedures together so your web content authoring team has a quality assurance process to follow. Regular monitoring with tools such as WAVE or PowerMapper, coupled with quality assurance (QA) or developer checklist reviews, can ensure nothing is going to get flagged for accessibility errors.

Here’s an example of the tasks a QA specialist or developer can apply against content updates before taking them live:

  • Are the correct HTML tags in place for website navigation, forms, pull quotes, headlines, images and body copy?
  • Do all images have ALT tags?
  • Will there be contrast issues for color blindness?
  • Does any website interactivity have a solid accessibility fallback if users can’t see the screen or use a mouse?
  • Do form fields have clear labels and are they coded correctly?

There is a lot to learn about ADA and 508 compliance, let alone how to fix issues once they are found using standards like WCAG 2.0, but the benefits far outweigh the investment. Building an accessible website is the right thing to do. It provides universal access to all users. Don’t let a lack of accessibility put the brakes on your otherwise great online brand experience.