In a not too distant past, we experienced the “responsive revolution,” where all websites underwent a sea change of moving from static, desktop oriented layouts to fluid layouts that adapt to every screen size. That revolution’s impact was made even greater when Google announced they would prioritize responsive sites over their desktop-only counterparts. Today, we are undergoing a similar revolution, but this time it is in the discipline of web accessibility, which determines how those with disabilities can use a website. Towards the end of 2018, this topic garnered more attention than ever before, and became fully mainstream when the courts awarded a blind man victory in a case against Dominos. Since then, there’s been a higher level of pressure on businesses to ensure their websites meet certain accessibility guidelines.
Over the past couple of years, we have been advising our agency partners to learn more about website accessibility. To this end we have consulted with Lindsey Gemmill, Front-End UX Web Designer and an IAAP Certified Professional in Web Accessibility (CPWA), to help guide our partners in incorporating it into their design process. Lindsey agreed to answer some questions around accessibility and how it relates to a business’ website; questions that we found it difficult to get clear answers for when relying on research alone.
Lindsey Gemmill, CPWA
Creative & Accessibility Director
Lindsey, let’s start with learning a little about your background and experience. How and why did you get into accessibility?
The path towards gaining my certification was certainly not a linear one. I started learning about accessibility about five years ago, as the “new trend” to pay attention to in website design. As someone who has always been interested in alternative approaches and perspectives to the way I do my job, I decided to do more research. I was trying to understand what this was if it was just a phase, and who benefited from it. I immediately connected with the inclusivity of accessibility and wanted to better understand how to incorporate it into my approach to designing digital products. Each phase in my career placed varying levels of importance on including accessibility into website builds, and I was ultimately given the opportunity to take my knowledge further by getting my certifications. I am thankful for the number of people involved in my journey to becoming certified and enjoy helping other people understand it’s importance.
Give us some context; what does it mean for a website to be “accessible” in the first place?
In order for a website to be accessible, it needs to perform well with “non-standard” methods of using the internet. This means people who use screen readers, voice technology, navigate with a keyboard, use high contrast mode, and so many other alternative approaches to consuming content.
There are different levels of accessibility compliance. Can you clarify the levels and provide examples of which type of website needs which level of compliance?
The levels are tiered in A, AA, or AAA. In order to achieve each level, the previous level before it must also be fully met. There is no direct correlation as to what website needs what level of compliance, unfortunately, but the majority of accessibility experts recommend striving for AA. AAA standards are extremely strict, and many find a lot of roadblocks when attempting to meet AAA standards. Most sites that should look into AAA accessibility are high-activity government websites, where the content on the site is required to be able to be used by every citizen of the United States. Currently, the 508 compliance standards only legally apply to government entities and any business that interacts with a government entity on any level. This is where the lines get blurred, however, because non-government businesses are still finding themselves at risk of lawsuits if it is easy to prove access to important content isn’t available or providing all users equal opportunity to consume it.
Why do you think website accessibility has become a growing concern?
As inclusion becomes a bigger and bigger movement in America, and the world as a whole, people are recognizing that the majority isn’t the only thing we need to pay attention to. Not only is it the “right” thing to do, but it also broadens your audience reach, and allows people who may not have been able to use a website prior to meeting accessibility criteria suddenly become repeat customers and users. The most obvious answer to this question, though, is that people are honestly scared of getting sued. In the end, it saves you more money to retrofit a website, make enhancements, or sometimes even start over, than it does to deal with the cost of a lawsuit.
I remember when “responsive design” was the hot topic and Google even said that they would prioritize mobile-friendly results over non-mobile. Have you seen something similar with accessibility?
Website accessibility hasn’t quite reached the “hot-button” level of responsive design yet. It’s on its way there, but right now Google and other companies aren’t prioritizing content based on the accessibility of a website. The cloudiness around the standards and when to meet such criteria is what is slowing down the traction of accessibility’s importance. More people are understanding it should be done, but they don’t know where to start so they just push it aside.
We get a lot of requests asking for us to “develop an accessible website,” but sometimes our options are limited by the website design. Does making a website compliant begin with the design?
It starts before you even get to the computer, honestly. You have to have the right mindset and approach to creating an accessible website experience. Understanding user behavior is the ultimate key to accessible websites. The way it looks visually certainly plays a part in it, just as much as the organization of items on the page, and the way the page is built structurally. One thing is not more important than the other, in my opinion, when it comes to accessibility. It’s an all or nothing approach.
Is there a big difference in workload between retro-fitting a website to be more accessible vs. integrating these practices when creating a site from the beginning, or is the process about the same?
It really depends on the current state of your website, the amount of content you have, and what you plan to do with it. An accessibility audit can reveal the severity of accessibility issues and help determine the best course of action. Sometimes it’s better to start over, but there are definitely times when it’s not too much effort to enhance what already exists.
Let’s say we make a website that is mostly AA compliant, but there are some missing items; contrast issues or alt text, for example. Does that website fail accessibility tests across the board? In other words, is compliance an “all or nothing” deal?
Unfortunately for website owners, it is an all or nothing approach when it comes to accessibility. There are ways of getting around the immediate lawsuit, though, by maintaining proof that you are consistently keeping up with accessibility enhancements. This is why it is extremely important that content authors have accessibility training. You can hand over a completely accessible design, or development, of a website, and a content author writes a blog post and changes a heading color, puts headings in the wrong order, or forgets alt text, and suddenly your website is no longer deemed accessible.
You’ve mentioned in our conversations that you feel this is ultimately a humanitarian issue. Can you speak to that some? What are some of the major benefits of having an accessible website?
I spoke to this a bit before, but universally it doesn’t make sense to not consider every possible avenue of interacting with a product before revealing it to the world. Now that there is a lot more evidence that people access websites in a variety of ways, it just doesn’t make sense to not account for that percentage of users. It may not be the majority, but at this point, it is an intentional decision to not include these users in website planning. It gives the majority an unfair advantage that can be avoided.
What are some resources for designers, developers and consumers, to get more information about accessibility practices and the latest information about best practices/tools?
Honestly, the learning material for accessibility can be a bit overwhelming. Deque University has done a great job of breaking it down into more digestible chunks, and they have a lot of free resources to help you get started, but their paid courses really helped me get to the next level. Sites like https://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG21/ and https://webaim.org/ have been reliable sources for me as well.
Like responsive usability, accessibility is going to continue to grow as a critical component that website designers and developers will need to keep top-of-mind as they approach projects. As Lindsay so well stated, it’s the responsible thing for us as curators of the digital medium to consider, ensuring the internet evolves to be as inclusive as possible, resulting in a usable internet for all.