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Tackling Your Accessibility Deficit

How to find a way out of your site’s deep accessibility gaps

I’m in my thirties (that’s as specific as I’m willing to get here), which means I went to school before the Internet Age. Back then, school supplies included giant pink erasers, the OG of no. 2 pencils you sharpened by turning a crank, and looseleaf paper you stuffed into your Trapper Keeper (if you’re Gen Z, I’ve definitely lost you, haven’t I?). You found library books using a card catalog, and located places using an atlas or a globe. If you wanted to get a better look at something, there was no pinching or zooming. You moved closer.

Obviously, today’s students live in a very different time. Starting as early as preschool, through K-12 and straight through college, technology is integrated into every facet of a student’s education. And this hasn’t just changed for students. Educators are also a part of this digital transformation. School websites are integral to the learning experience. Educators use them to deliver the curriculum in engaging ways; they’re used for grading student work and sharing grades with parents on an ongoing basis; they communicate important information about weather delays, school incidents and emergencies, meal programs, and after-school activities. Quite simply, these websites are mission control for all things related to a student’s education. There’s no avoiding them—that is, unless you’re forced to.

Now imagine this scenario for a moment. What if you could no longer use your school’s website? Not because it disappears, but because of an unexpected trauma, or a disability you were born with. Imagine that due to circumstances entirely beyond your control, you’re unable to access assignments, see lunch menus, register for classes or interact with your instructors in the same seamless way your peers can. There’s no way around it: you’d be at a disadvantage.

This is why web accessibility matters, in education and every other sector, and why your organization should definitely care. Not only because of legal compliance, but because everyone who visits any of your digital platforms should have equal opportunity to use these technologies that have made our lives simpler, quicker, and more convenient—regardless of ability or disability. No one should be at a disadvantage, in any area of life, but especially in a learning environment.

So if we’re in agreement about why web accessibility matters—that ethically it’s the right thing to do, not just the required-by-law thing to do—we can move on to the good stuff: the how and the what. More specifically, what can your team do about it—especially if your resources are few, and your budgets are tight.

The good news: you can do plenty to close your website’s accessibility deficit and you can start today (which, if you ask me, is the very best time to start).

But first, what the heck is web accessibility?

I never want to assume everyone understands the core of what web accessibility is, so first, a quick overview. The easiest way I’ve learned to explain web accessibility is this: it’s making a website usable and understandable for all visitors, regardless of ability or disability. Think about any brick-and-mortar business you visit in your day to day. These physical buildings have accessibility requirements—by code they are required to have access ramps or elevators to bypass stairways, Braille on signs, restroom stalls that accommodate mobile assists (to name but a few).

Similar requirements exist in digital environments and ecosystems. An international body called the World Wide Web Consortium (or W3C—more on them in a minute) created regulations to ensure that organizations’ websites are perceivable, operable, understandable and robust for all. For instance, an individual with a visual impairment might use a screen reader to review website information. If your website’s code is not screen-reader compliant, your visitors won’t be able to get the information they seek, or perform the tasks they wish to perform. Worst case scenario, this could lead to a formal complaint against your organization. Best case scenario, they’ll simply leave and take their business elsewhere. And if you happen to run a business where consumers can purchase goods or services, you’re already well aware of the expense of losing that customer. Not a great best case scenario, is it?

So how do you account for the abilities of the 56 million Americans who identify as having a disability?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (or WCAGs), that’s how. Created by the W3C, the WCAGs is a detailed checklist for how to make your website accessible. Easy, right? Not exactly.

Your accessibility gaps can be closed

If your site was not designed and built with accessibility in mind, it’s easy to get overwhelmed at where and how to start addressing your accessibility deficit. Not to mention, the bigger your site—and the more people who have access to its content management system—the more daunting this task becomes. Designing, building and writing with accessibility in mind does not have to be a struggle, but an accessibility deficit on an existing site can be an intimidating beast.

Yet, it is a beast you cannot ignore. Ever. It’s time to get your armor out, suit up, and prepare for an ongoing battle you’ll never outright win. If it helps, imagine yourself as Daenerys Targaryen, and web accessibility as the Iron Throne. An endless battle for glory! In the fight for accessibility conformance, the best thing you can do is work towards taming the beast. And tame this beast you must, because unfortunately the consequences for not doing so can be time-consuming and costly.

Failure to follow the WCAGs may result in a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act—which are on the rise. In 2017, there were 814 Federal accessibility lawsuits filed—an average of two lawsuits per day. In 2018, that number increased to three per day. Since January 2017, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has resolved 2,300 complaints with positive charge. Even Queen Bey herself isn’t immune.

But like I said, I’m not here to scare you or overwhelm you. You—yes, you!—can tame this beast. The most important thing is that you get started. As soon as possible. Like, now. Here’s how to do it.

First, tackle template issues.

Finding and fixing accessibility errors in your templates is a perfect place to start your journey towards compliance. Skip the time-consuming work of hunting down every single issue hiding on each individual page and start by reviewing and testing your templates. The beauty of this approach? When you fix one, you often fix many.

Back in the day, I spoke to a team who had over 10,000 conformance issues on their site. For some of you that’s probably an unfathomable number and for others it’s likely laughably low—you can only dream of having a mere 10,000 issues to fix! Regardless, the fix one, fix them all strategy still works. For that team, focusing on fixing issues living in their templates decreased the site’s accessibility issues by 60% in just one week. No joke. They started where they could make the largest impact with the least amount of effort. Smart, right?

But how the heck do you find and fix these template errors? Lucky for you, there’s an app for that.

Meet your new best friends

You’re not alone in this battle with the beast. SaaS tools like Siteimprove, Monsido and DubBot can help immeasurably, providing a birds-eye view of any accessibility issues your website might have. These platforms, and many others, provide you with a holistic perspective of your site that isn’t possible with manual testing or crawlers that only review page by page.

Say you have 5,000 ‘A’ issues affecting your website—like missing alt tags—and your website is 5,000 pages in total. You can safely make the assumption that that issue is living inside one or more of your templates. Fix the templates and presto chango! You’ve just eliminated a whole lot of issues in a single easy step.

It should be noted that if your organization can’t fund an automated tool like those mentioned above, there are free services that can provide help in identifying template errors, like aXe, WAVE, and A11y.

Don’t forget manual testing

Until robots can truly function as humans, there’s no substitute for a living, breathing person using your website (at least not yet). Manual testing is still the most accurate way to ensure your website is accessible. Automated tools are great, but they will only scan a site the way they were coded to do so. If they’re told to scan right to left or bottom to top, that’s exactly what they’ll do. There are no unique experiences involved in their scans; no accounting for comprehensiveness or certain human factors. As great as automated crawlers are, this is one of their biggest shortcomings. Manual testing will always be the best way to test because it’s conducted by humans—and let’s not forget, they are the ones ultimately using your site.

And if you double up and use a combination of manual and automated testing? Well, let’s just say that beast had better watch its back, ‘cause it has met its match.

Next, fix your most-visited pages

What next? Let the data guide you. Your website analytics can quickly show you which pages are most important to your users—in other words, which pages they visit the most. After identifying the top visited pages, run a crawl and fix any flagged problems. I’d also encourage your team to manually test these pages. In addition to reducing your chances of a complaint, it’s also good business. Statistically, about 20% of users to a website have some sort of accessibility challenge. If one of your most important pages—say, an enrolment or sales page—were to become usable for even 10% more users, what could that do for your enrolment numbers?

When using this approach, don’t forget that your most-visited pages for internal audiences are often different than for external audiences. For instance, in the case of a higher education site, your current students, faculty and staff would frequent different sites than your prospective students, faculty and staff. I would recommend setting up an internal IP address filter in your analytics tool so you can separate internal audiences’ website traffic from external audiences.’ Identify the ten most-visited pages for both user groups—twenty pages total. Focus on the compliance of those pages first.

Then focus on your most problematic pages

This step is going to force you to face those much-dreaded automated tool accessibility Bubbles of Shame again. First, a story about that: during my time selling an automated tool, I clearly remember how clients would react after running their first crawl and seeing the bubbles of accessibility issues pop up. Occasionally there was swearing involved. More often, there was silence. Long periods of stunned silence. I would often begin to wonder if they’d hung up on me (I’m sure some of them wanted to).

Though I totally get that reaction, I encourage you to refuse to be shamed by the bubbles of shame. Embrace them. Accept them for what they are: a report card for your site. They tell you exactly where you need to focus your energy next—specifically, the pages with the highest number of A and AA issues. Identify the top five or ten ‘problem child’ pages and fix them. Depending on your experience, how much time you have and the capabilities of your CMS, it might take you a week or two to fix, but who cares? You’ll make real headway in the battle of taming the beast.

Even if you don’t have a subscription tool in place, you can use free systems at your disposal to identify pages with lots of errors and fix them. It’s a more manual process, but it’s still entirely possible—and it won’t take as long as you think. Engage single page checkers like aXe or Wave and the browser extensions from Monsido or Siteimprove, and KAPOW! You’ll be taming that beast in no time.

Don’t let it happen again

The techniques I’ve described will help you chip away at your existing accessibility deficit through achieving technical accessibility. Yet, it is imperative to move beyond applying techniques to existing design, code and content and towards processes that take accessibility in mind every step of the way instead of tacked on at the end. WebAIM outlines a process to ensure that your website is people centered by outlining four key attributes your site needs to be user accessible:

  • Perceivable through either sight, hearing, or touch. For example, a blind  user will not be able to perceive an infographic so alternative text is required.
  • Operable through multiple input methods, particularly beyond the use of a mouse. “Keyboard accessibility is one of the most important principles of Web accessibility because it cuts across disability types and technologies. Most of the alternative and adaptive devices used by people with disabilities emulate the keyboard in terms of functionality.”
  • Understandable through clear language, supplemental text for media formats, and functionality instructions.
  • Robust in implementation, supporting a wide range of technologies including web browsers, devices and screen readers.

What to do if you’re facing a compliance complaint

If you’re here because you’re already facing a lawsuit, or maybe a complaint from the Office of Civil Rights, I always encourage calling in some experts. One great resource is Accessible 360. They understand the legal side of accessibility and can help support organizations through remediation. It’s kind of like getting audited by the IRS—you can do it alone, but you’ll be in much better shape (and way less stressed) if you have an accountant on your side.

Accessible 360 can also be used prophylactically—that is, they can help you prevent compliance issues and litigation by ensuring your site is accessible in the first place. They have a fantastic technical team that manually checks your organization’s website for accessibility issues. Remember—manual testing can’t be underestimated, but can be difficult to do comprehensively if you don’t have access to equipment like screen readers. Accessible 360 is a recognized expert in this area.

Our team can also help. Modern Tribe’s team of designers, strategists, and developers are backed with a strong understanding of (and over a decade of experience with) web accessibility. For us, WCAG compliance isn’t a checklist that we retroactively run through before launching a site. It isn’t a tacked-on feature, or an afterthought. It’s something so deeply imbedded in our process from the very beginning—from content strategy and information architecture to site launch and beyond—it’s second nature. For us, it’s like a language in which we’re fluent; we don’t have to translate from one language to another. Like true native speakers, we think, create, and build with compliance in mind.

Whichever way you tackle your accessibility deficit, I hope you do so because it’s the right thing to do for your site visitors—not because it’s the legally-required thing to do. We know it’s intimidating for some. It may seem insurmountable at first, but like any mountain you climb, it begins with a single step. You just have to start.