Today, complying with accessibility regulations is not optional; it is a “must”! That means, your website needs to be designed so that folks with various types of physical or cognitive disabilities will be able to access the information or perform the functions offered on your website. Not complying could result in litigation and fines, not to mention losing out on a large segment of potential users.
While there is no formal government set of rules to determine exactly what “compliance” means, the closest thing we have is the WCAG 2.1 guidelines. These are industry-accepted and litigation-tested rules to define how accessibility-compliant websites should be designed.
As you can imagine, there are a huge number of rules to follow. Through research and lots of seminars and classes, I’ve distilled the rules to the most important items in the list below. These are areas where I strive for accessibility compliance in my sites.
Often there are exceptions that are not compliant for various reasons, that are signed off by the client. Accessibility compliance for most real websites is usually not a “yes” or “no” but somewhere on a continuum.
This list is by no means a complete list of requirements for WCAG compliance, but it does include the most important items to make your website accessible to people with disabilities and to avoid litigation (disclaimer: I am not a lawyer!)
- Text at least 16 px in size. (There is no standard, but 16 px is generally agreed to be a safe minimum size. )
- Minimum color contrast rules are followed
- States are not communicated just by color (i.e., underline links)
- All links are keyboard-accessible
- All navigation (menus) are keyboard-accessible
- All dynamic elements (i.e., accordions, tabs, etc.) can be operated by keyboard
- Keyboard focus is visible
- <a> tag is used for links
- Links in body are distinguished from surrounding text (usually by underlining)
- Link text is descriptive
- Only one h1 per page
- Headings should be in sequence
- Heading levels should not be skipped
- Images have relevant alt text or captions unless purely cosmetic
- Images do not have title attributes
- Video does not auto-play
- Video can be paused
- Video has accurate transcript or captions (read how to edit YouTube captions)
- Fields have label tags
- Fields are keyboard-accessible
- PDFs are accessible or have HTML equivalents. Note that making PDFs accessible is the responsibility of the client. Check out this guide on how to make PDFs accessible. Here are PDF techniques for WCAG 2.0 from W3C.
As I mentioned, this is not a comprehensive list, but rather some of the “biggies” that can have a really obvious effect on your site’s accessibility.
- This Medium article is a good overview of accessibility laws.
- The A11y Project has an excellent checklist for compliance.
- WebAIM’s accessibility checklist.
- Here’s an “easy checks” accessibility checklist from the W3C, and a more comprehensive accessibility checklist from W3C.
- Here is a trusted organization providing Web Accessibility Specialist certification.
- TPG ARC is a great online testing tool and will generate reports of accessibility failures. It’s free but requires a credit card.
- deque has a great free Chrome extension for checking website accessibility.
- On Divi sites, I use the Divi Accessibility plugin to help with compliance and identify violations.
- I use this Windows app from TPG to check colors of designs before turning them into websites. Has a color picker so you can pick colors off of any app.
- Need an accessibility statement? Here’s a tool from W3C that generates an accessibility statement based on your inputs!
- If you want to test using a real screen reader, download the free NVDA screen reader for Windows. Tip: to turn it off, press Insert-Q. You’ll thank me later.
Some Common Website Features that Are Not ADA Compliant
I don’t know of a third-party slider carousel that meets WCAG guidelines. The accessibility professionals who I’ve asked have told me not to use carousels on sites that need strict accessibility compliance.
Most social embeds and embedded ads are not accessible. Animation effects may not accessible, and auto-playing videos are not allowed.
Any linked PDFs need to be re-generated with accessibility in mind, and all embedded videos need captions or transcripts.
Here’s an article on how embedded YouTube videos and Google Maps are not completely accessible, strictly speaking (though most of my website clients are satisfied with using them on otherwise accessible sites).
A Note About Overlays and Instant Compliance
You might have heard of services that claim to make your website “100% accessibility compliant” instantly by adding a button or “overlay”. The vast majority of accessibility experts see these services as snake oil which don’t work. Worse, they may make your site an even bigger target for accessibility litigation:
nearly all of the functionality provided by these tools has no impact on your level of WCAG conformance whatsoever. Furthermore, these overlays provide little or no additional legal protection for your website. In fact, in recent lawsuit filings, screenshots of these tools are being used to build the claim against websites that are not also seeking a holistic approach to ADA compliance. It is also a common belief that these tools may increase your risk with regards to security, and many company’s security policies prohibit the installation of widgets like these.Michele Landis, Kelly Heikkila, Jason Webb, Accessible360
So obviously, I don’t advocate using services, whether free or paid, that promise instant accessibility simply by installing a plugin or code snippet. As the quote says, it takes a holistic approach to many aspects of the website itself, as well as offline resources like videos, embeds, and PDFs.
Here’s an even more damning article from NBC News about website accessibility overlays. Finally, here’s a pretty convincing fact sheet about whether overlays are legit or not.
Staying in Compliance
It is very easy for a website to drift out of compliance as people add content. New font colors are added that don’t meet the minimum contrast guidelines, for example. Or, someone adds new images without adding alt tags. Accessibility compliance is not a one-time deal; any updates to the site must be made with accessibility in mind if you want to stay compliant.
There is actually no formal government certification process you can go through to have your website definitively declared “100% compliant”. There are just a set of industry-accepted guidelines such as WCAG 2.1. Website compliance is usually not “yes or no” but rather a continuum.
Let me know if you have any questions or comments about this topic! – Brian