Accessibility awareness remains low as deadline approaches
Beginning Jan. 18, 2018, government agencies across the U.S. will be required by law to make their websites accessible to the more than 60 million Americans with visual, hearing or other disabilities. Yet more than 87 percent of 430+ local government respondents to Vision’s 2017 What’s Next Survey said they have moderate, weak or no knowledge of federal web accessibility requirements.
Jurisdictions that do not comply with these guidelines risk lawsuits from private citizens, as well as legal action by the Department of Justice, which has taken the position that websites offering goods or services to consumers are places of public accommodation and must be accessible to the disabled.
Thankfully, there’s a wide variety of assistive technologies for people who have difficulty seeing a screen, using a mouse and hearing audio on a computer. And with the right resources and training, professionals in every local government agency can learn to write, format and maintain content that is optimized for these assistive technologies.
Getting started on the road to website accessibility
Agencies whose websites do not yet meet the new accessibility standards should start preparing now. They should begin by appointing an accessibility coordinator who understands the laws governing equal access to government services, Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG) 2.0 standards and common website accessibility issues to can help drive cross-department alignment.
Next, create and adopt a formal accessibility statement that outlines key standards and provides contact information for reporting issues. There is no need to reinvent the wheel; borrow from one of the forward-thinking cities that already posted its statement online, like this one from Rancho Cordova, Calif.
The next step is training. Unlike a wheelchair ramp for a building, accessibility of a website can erode over time as more content editors who aren’t accessibility-aware start to update content on the website. We recommend accessibility awareness training for all department heads and key personnel as well as more focused, hands-on training for content editors. Look for experts who are trained in web accessibility solutions, members of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals and have experience helping local government website content editors create and maintain content that meets the latest accessibility standards.
Here are some guidelines for creating accessible website content:
- Plain language: Content should be written with short, simple sentences that are easy to understand. Avoid jargon and legalese, and use active verbs.
- Layouts: Use responsive design to ensure pages automatically resize for tablets and mobile devices.
- Images: Add concise “alternative text” (aka, alt tags or alt text) descriptions that can be read by screen readers and other assistive technology used by visually impaired website visitors.
- Headings: Every page should have a primary (H1) heading, telling users what the page is about and allowing them to navigate each page quickly.
- Contrast and color: Create links that stand out from surrounding text; test text and background color combinations for users with color blindness.
- Multimedia: Provide captions or transcripts for audio/visual content for users with hearing impairments; make sure video and audio files do not auto-play.
- CAPTCHA alternatives: Use logic-based problems or simple human-user confirmations.
Maintaining an accessible website
Getting and keeping government websites compliant with WCAG standards is an ongoing process that cannot be outsourced. If best practices are not embraced and followed by all content editors, an agency’s newly accessible website will have non-compliant content soon after it is launched. An automated accessibility checker that regularly scans the website can flag any major barriers to accessibility and help identify and assist content editors who may be struggling to comply with the standards.
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Martin Lind is vice president of services and business development for Vision, a government website development and software solutions firm.