Accessibility and “ADA-compliance” are top-of-mind for the municipal organizations we serve, and rightly so. Accessibility is built into who your government organization is. It’s part of your mission, and it's apparent in the details of your physical building. You undoubtedly have ramps and elevators, appropriate signage, and helpful staff to guide visitors. No matter their disability, everyone can enter and find what they need. Just like your government building, your website needs to be accessible by all.
COVID-19 accelerated the need for accessible online interfaces that everyone can take advantage of. And as a public organization, you have an enormous audience who needs to connect with your site and your content.
Making your website truly accessible is a meaningful responsibility with wide implications. Yes, it’s imperative to understand web accessibility content guidelines and put them into practice. But you’ve also got to cultivate organizational empathy so your site can benefit your entire community — no matter their abilities, background, or circumstances.
Understand Which Requirements Apply
When it comes to online experiences, we find clients are often confused about what standards they need to meet and which legal requirements apply. Some cite “Section 508,” a law that requires federal agencies to provide equal access to all services, including those offered online. Others ask about “ADA compliance,” referencing the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, which sought to ensure that all individuals, regardless of their abilities, have the same access to locations and services. This includes government services at all levels, both in-person and online, but the legal details of how it applies continue to evolve in real time. In March of this year, the Department of Justice finally released long-delayed guidance on applying the ADA to websites that it expects to continue refining.
Clients who’ve done more accessibility homework will reference the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards; these standards also naturally evolve with time. However, once updates are published, WCAG standards are “stable and referenceable.” That means accessibility guidelines are spelled out clearly and in detail to avoid confusion — and create accountability. There is no penalty for not complying with the WCAG standards; they are not legal requirements. But in most cases, adherence to these best practices is the best way to ensure ADA and/or Section 508 compliance.
Adhere to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Standards
You’ll need to decide what WCAG level of conformance your organization will strive for: the minimum level (A), the mid-level (AA, which is selected most often), or maximum level (AAA). No matter what level of conformance you choose, you’ll need to adhere to these four web content accessibility principles.
1. Accessible Content is Perceivable
Perceivable content is easy to recognize with one or more of the five senses. In order to do that, your site should offer alternatives to visual and auditory content. Tools like video transcripts and closed captions can help make your content perceivable. Your site also needs to be compatible with technology like screen readers.
2. Accessible Content is Operable
If your content is operable, users can navigate the functionalities on your site, no matter their disability. Here is evidence that your content is operable:
- Buttons are easily clickable by all users.
- Your site menu works on mobile in a clean way.
- All functionality is available from a keyboard.
- Enough time is allotted for all users to complete tasks.
- Hyperlinks are clearly labeled.
3. Accessible Content is Understandable
Users have to be able to perceive and operate your content, and they also must be able to comprehend it. Understandable content is:
- Written in plain language and at an appropriate grade level. In general, an eighth grade reading level is right for most users. The Flesch-Kincaid readability formula uses sentence length and word count to help you accurately determine grade level.
- Consistent and predictable. Navigation and form labels should be consistent across all pages of your site.
- Clarifying when needed. Images, captions, video, and audio can all help users understand meaning and context.
4. Accessible Content is Robust
Robust content is adaptable to different technologies, so this principle must be protected by your website developers. Your content should work well on different browsers and devices and interact with screen readers and other assistive technologies.
Achieve Web Accessibility Through Content-Based Strategies
Robust technology makes content accessible in one way, and a strong content strategy supports accessibility in other ways. Both are important and necessary. Content that is clear, orderly, and descriptive is every bit as important as back-end programming.
Your Content Should Be Clear and Orderly
Clear and orderly content is formatted well. It uses information “chunking,” bullet points, bold text, and headers (H2, H3, H4) to make information scannable and easy to read. Headers are more than formatting tools; they're also a path for a screen reader through a page. If you use headers out of order, the screen reader will read your page out of order. Depending on how your site is set up, sometimes formatting affects keyboard navigation as well.
And don’t forget: plain language and appropriate reading level help make your content clear and understandable for everyone.
Your Content Needs to be Descriptive
Descriptive content enriches everyone’s experience. A recent New York Times article elaborates on the importance of alt text, which is a written description of images a user can’t see. In an image-heavy world, the visually impaired are at a huge disadvantage. In short, an unfathomable amount of images online have missing or inadequate alt text.
Alt text and captions are critical for those who have permanent or temporary visual impairments. Even those with 20/20 vision struggle to see image details on a phone in the sun, and voice-powered interactions are also increasing the need for high-quality alt text when an image isn’t an option.
Commit to Web Accessibility By Practicing Empathy
You want to build and maintain a site that works for everyone in your community — that’s how you build trust and help those in need. Being inclusive is the way you reach diverse audiences and create equity ( and work toward achieving Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion goals). Inclusivity doesn’t insist you be everything to everyone, but it does insist there is something for everyone.
And there’s no inclusivity without empathy.
Empathy is usually thought of as a trait of individuals, but organizations have it, too — in varying degrees. Cultivating empathy requires consideration of what’s generally true about human beings and what’s true for only some human beings. You don’t need to do hefty research to grow empathy in your organization — good questions reveal what you need to know.
Organizational Empathy Considers Both the Universal and the Unique
Your organization should never lose sight of what all people who use your site could experience. For example, almost any user to a municipal site is probably somewhat rushed, hoping not to spend too much time on the task at hand. The scenarios for this kind of time crunch are not difficult to imagine and relate to.
You also need to understand what particular individuals’ day-to-day lives are like and anticipate how that affects their interactions online. What is it like to be visually impaired and seek an answer online? To be a commuter in need of construction updates before hitting the road? To be a parent looking for free enrichment opportunities for their young children?
Empathy is Fostered by Asking Good Questions
Your team should have a habit of asking empathy-building questions like these:
- What else are users doing at the same time that they're trying to accomplish a task on your site?
- What devices are they using to access your site?
- What barriers might be preventing people from using your website?
- How could you make someone feel more welcome on your site?
- Why might using your website be really stressful for users?
Questions like these can turn empathy into a process you can use to thoughtfully build content. Even before finding concrete answers, the questions themselves prompt habits of mind that can lead your organization to a better understanding of your community and more inclusive content.
Website Accessibility Gives a Mutual Reward
Certainly, no organization sets out to be a cold-hearted bureaucracy. But there’s no doubt government organizations can be perceived that way by citizens, both in their buildings and on their websites.
Making an individual’s online experience easy when they expect a struggle is powerful. When you attend to people’s needs with truly accessible content, there’s a big payoff: they’ll trust you