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Designing Manufacturing Websites for Everyone & Avoiding Accessibility Lawsuits

Blind person using computer with braille keyboard

I’ll start with a question: do you know if your website can easily be accessed and used by someone with a disability? Many marketers don’t know that guidelines exist for developing an accessible website, let alone that if their website is not designed and maintained to be accessible by people with disabilities, that they’re actually breaking the law. It would be no different if you owned a restaurant that didn’t have a wheelchair entrance, for example.

In fact, in 2018, the number of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuits filed against companies with inaccessible websites was 30% higher than it was in 2017. There were over 470 cases filed in Q3 alone! The damages levied against site owners by these suits range from tens of thousands to many millions of dollars, not to mention the cost of defending this sort of suit and the bad press that comes along with it. The issue finally came to a head and to the attention of mainstream media as Beyoncé and her company were sued in early January, 2019. Mary Conner, a blind woman, filed a class action suit against Beyoncé when she could not make a purchase or otherwise use the inaccessible website. While many of the lawsuits have involved popular consumer brands like Target and Disney, numerous B2B manufacturers in the paper products, furniture, clothing and food manufacturing industry have also been targeted.

The fact is, in the US, nearly 13% of the population has a disability of some kind. This accounts for millions of people with visual, auditory, mobility and cognitive disabilities. And while there has never been a better time for assistive technologies such as screen readers and other devices that help disabled users enjoy the web, if your website isn’t built to at least Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 guidelines, those assistive technologies can’t help. Most of the concerns around a website’s accessibility revolve around blind and visually impaired users, given that the web is primarily a visual medium. Secondary accessibility concerns are often around providing alternative content to help deaf users read the content in audio and video files. Still others go further in helping users with cognitive disabilities get more out of this incredibly important resource that everyone should be able to enjoy and benefit from.

What is the ADA and does it apply to my website?

The ADA or Americans with Disabilities Act is a broad law that applies to all entities and organizations, both public and private, for profit and not, but excludes federal agencies. It states that all goods, services, information and communication must be equally available to absolutely everyone. Section 508, a subset of the ADA law currently only applies to federal agencies, but can also potentially apply to those organizations that receive funding from federal agencies. Section 508 also specifically references ICT or Information Communication Technology. It requires that all technology and content be as accessible to those with a disability as those without.

Whether your business is covered by the ADA (as are all businesses who sell goods and services), or Section 508 chances are high that your website is required to be accessible by everyone.

What are the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)?

Thankfully, there is a set of guidelines that help define what we as web developers and especially website owners need to do in order to make our sites accessible by the largest number of devices: the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG. There are several iterations of WCAG, and we are currently on version 2.1. There are also several levels of compliance from A to AAA, with AAA being the most stringent. Sites that meet the AAA standard of version 2.1 of the WCAG help ensure that sites are accessible on mobile devices, by people with low vision, and by users with not only vision or hearing loss but also cognitive disabilities.

Later, we’ll look at some of the key things that need to be implemented on a website in order to make it accessible by all.

So how did we get here?

Way back in the 1990s, when the web was just an infant, browser manufacturers like Microsoft and Netscape were in an arms race to create the most compelling web browsing experience. In the process, they kept adding more and more proprietary features to their software, which made developing and testing websites extremely cumbersome. Getting a website to behave in a similar fashion in each browser required a ton of bloated browser-specific code which slowed sites down for users and made it nearly impossible for disabled users to use the net.

Fast forward to the mid 2000s and you now had a push by the web industry to set standards for all browser makers to follow using semantic markup that separated style from content. I spent several years developing a web standards-based curriculum at NSCAD University. We pretty much won that war against the browser makers and got them on side with the content and development community. It’s a good thing, too, because just as web browsers started displaying websites properly without a whole lot of custom code for each, the explosion of mobile devices came along. This meant that we had to find a way to make websites work as well on phones and tablets as they did on desktops and laptops.

A big part of the web standards project—and the subsequent responsive design push—included building sites in a way that would make those sites easier to access by disabled users by default. In fact, a properly built responsive site is a very solid step on the way to a fully accessible site, although it doesn’t cover all of the bases. Responsive sites are designed to degrade gracefully from desktop browsers to mobile and tablet devices, and when the HTML code is structured semantically to add meaning to the content being used on the site, it provides a perfect foundation for assistive technology and devices.

Disabilities in America

Part of the reason that I’m so passionate about accessibility—aside from simply wanting everyone to be able to experience the most important new medium in a century—is that my family has had a brush with a severe hearing disability. By the time my oldest daughter was 10 years old, she had had 13 surgeries on her ears. Ear infection after ear infection had built up a massive amount of scar tissue and the ENT specialist honestly couldn’t say how bad her hearing loss would be, just that it would likely be ‘severe’. Surgery was scheduled to remove her hearing bones on the left side. My wife and I quietly talked about what steps we could take to help our daughter deal with partial deafness. We were concerned about how it would affect her school life and prospects for a career. I remember talking about how important technology and the web would be to her success later in life, assuming that she was able to access it.

Thankfully, once the surgeon started work to remove the hearing bones, they realized it wouldn’t be fully necessary and instead tried to clean up the damage that was there. Now 15, she has lost a good portion of her hearing in one ear, while, miraculously, hearing in the other ear has been largely normal. She handles it very well, and knows what she needs to do in order to ensure that she can hear the teacher in class, for example. And other than the times when she’s intentionally trying not to hear her mother and I when we’re asking her about her chores, she manages to live the life of a pretty normal teenager. Thankfully, she has been able to thrive without the need for assistive technology—at least for now.

That’s not the case for millions of Americans.

The American Community Survey (ACS) estimates that one in eight people in the United States live with a disability. As the population ages, the percentage of people with disabilities will continue to increase, with a large number of baby boomers and gen xers remaining in the workforce. Over a third of Americans with disabilities are actively working, with deafness and blindness being the most common.

Many of the positions we see regularly as buyer personas for the manufacturers we’ve worked with could easily be held by someone with sight or hearing loss. These positions could include engineers, scientists, researchers or clerical staff within purchasing departments, any of whom could be within the buying group at a potential customer. In fact, we know that many buying committees have eight or more members as it is, so the odds of selling to someone with a disability are greater than you think.

Beyond that fact that it’s the right thing to do, don’t you want to make a good impression on anyone who could influence or directly control a major purchase from your company?

Prevalence of assistive technology

In some ways, assistive technology has opened possibilities for disabled workers that previously didn’t exist. Driven by the democratization and proliferation of computing devices, both mobile and desktop devices now have built in technology allowing for easier access, especially by blind and deaf users. I’ve had conversations with several blind people who describe their iPhone as utterly essential for day to day life, including their work, and a massive game changer compared to their lives before the iPhone.

What kinds of technology are we talking about here? For the blind, we can consider text to speech as one of the most fundamental of tools. Users with hearing issues need to have audio and video content captioned or transcribed, often in real-time. There are also text to braille machines and other forms of content conversion that can make content on a PC or mobile device accessible. Many assistive tools these days are software based, and some come pre-loaded on computers and touch-based devices, but there are still many users who opt for hardware devices that are dedicated to making their lives easier.

A number of tools for use in or in conjunction with a web browser help to eliminate distracting visual elements, enlarge text, and adjust contrast ratios so that users with low vision, dyslexia or other learning difficulties can more easily access the web. However, these types of software have a much easier time converting and digesting the content of a site if it is structured and built in a semantic fashion, knowing that some users will not see or be able to interact with all of the flashier features of a site.

Despite the fact that there are more tools than ever at our disposal, we still have to think about creating web properties that optimize the experience for everyone.

What does it mean for your website?

Some of the more fundamental things required to make a site accessible under WCAG include the following:

Keyboard navigation

If you’re not able to use a mouse, touchpad or touch screen, the keyboard is a remarkably effective tool for navigating through a website. However, a number of enhancements need to be made under the hood to allow blind users to get to the content they’re interested in. This includes being able to tab to links and navigation items as well as being able to skip all of that to get straight to the content. You can imagine how frustrating it would be using a screen reader that has to list off all of the menu items before you could hear the content further down the page.

Text alternatives

All content that is not text-based, i.e. photographs, illustrations, diagrams or video, requires alternative text that appropriately describes what is being shown in the visual. Many web content editors often overlook the importance of good alt tags, and instead opt for the easy way out, describing a photo as simply “image” or “photo”. Instead, the alt tag should use as many words as necessary to describe the image so that a blind user can understand what is there. Similarly, don’t add alt text that simply adds cruft for unimportant images, and instead opt to simply use a blank alt tag.

For video content, you can opt to utilize described video, which, if you don’t realize you’re watching it, can seem disconcerting at first. However, for blind users it can open a whole new level of content accessibility and understanding.

Audio alternatives

Similarly, if your site relies on content in video or audio format, such as a podcast, be sure to add full captions or transcriptions of that content so that users who can’t hear will still be able to consume it. Audio transcriptions are remarkably inexpensive using sites such as rev.com. Youtube can be setup to automatically add closed captions, although you’ll want to review them to ensure that they are correct.

Contrast ratios

Any foreground element sitting on a background needs to have a minimum contrast ratio that allows it to be easily seen by users with varying degrees of vision. As we progress from level A to AAA, that ratio changes. For example, AA requires that normal text have a contrast ratio or 4.5:1 and 3:1 for larger text, but in AAA those change to 7:1 for normal text and 4.5:1 for large text.

Page hierarchy

Another component of the overall page structure is ensuring that all content is marked up in a hierarchical way so that headings, sub headings, lists and other elements are obvious. This additional context helps users with screen readers to know where they are, not just within the site, but within a specific page.

PDF content

If your organization regularly publishes PDF files for inbound marketing resources or as technical specifications, you should know that it can be very difficult to make these documents accessible to users with disabilities. Wherever possible, convert all PDFs to interactive web pages. You’ll make that content more readily available to all users and also potentially help your site rank better for important keywords.

How does it apply to marketing and social media content that lives beyond your website?

As noted above, providing captions and transcriptions on audio and video content is an excellent way to ensure that content housed beyond your site on platforms such as Youtube or SoundCloud are also accessible—but did you know that Instagram and Facebook both offer the ability to add alt tags to images, just as you would on your website? Although we may think of these platforms as primarily visual mediums, ensuring that your content can be understood and consumed by everyone, everywhere, is important.

Additionally, ensure that any marketing or sales emails that you send are compliant and accessible as well.

How do you get started?

Getting your site to meet or exceed an accessibility standard is not necessarily an easy task. If you are currently in the midst of a new site build or website redesign, there’s never been a better time than now to ensure that accessibility is considered in the redevelopment. Ask your agency if they are familiar with and capable of implementing WCAG-compliant code, and make it part of the success criteria for the new site build. If they are unsure, find an accessibility consultant who can help. If you want to see for yourself, you can use any of a variety of WCAG testing tools to find out what’s working and what isn’t.

When it comes time to enter or edit content on your site, ensure that everyone on your team tasked with this is aware of the guidelines, especially as it applies to image alt tags, contrast ratios and captioning.

If you’re dealing with a legacy site, becoming compliant may be more difficult than when you’re starting from scratch. Hire an accessibility consultant to provide a list of recommendations and revisions to the site, and then work with your site developer to implement the required changes. Some of these changes will be more pressing than others. For example, if your site cannot be navigated by keyboard, you should turn your attention to this before moving from a 4.5:1 to 7:1 contrast ratio.

Finally, once your site has been brought into alignment with the recommendations, have it re-assessed to ensure that there are no other concerns or impediments. Consider purchasing screen reading software or hardware and test the site yourself to see what it’s like to navigate or read without the aid of a mouse or touchscreen.

What’s next?

Teach your team so they can continue to implement and edit content in an accessible way. Make sure that all of your social media accounts leverage accessibility features so that you add value to anyone looking for your company in any modern medium.

Talk to your web design and development agency today and make sure your site is set up to be accessible. Making it that way doesn’t just mean that millions of disabled users will be able to use your site, buy your products, or enjoy your content—it may also keep you out of court.

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