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Why Free Tools Just Aren’t Enough to Achieve Web Accessibility Compliance

As web designers and developers, it’s our job to be well aware of trends that may affect our clients. One of the important developments that should be on our radar is the increasing need for web accessibility.

This need stems from website owners’ fears of increasing accessibility lawsuits. The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) affirmed that websites and apps are considered places of public accommodation. Hence, laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act that have provisions that require accessibility are now considered applicable to these digital channels as well.

Last year, the US Supreme Court also upheld a decision of its lower court that ruled in favor of a blind man who sued Domino’s Pizza. The plaintiff claimed that he was not able to use the pizza chain’s website and mobile app and that the company was therefore in violation of the ADA.

Many others are following suit, filing cases against companies using similar grounds. Noncompliant businesses can get fined $55,000 to $75,000 for their first violation according to the ADA. Simply dealing with suits can already cost them just as much in legal fees.

Clearly, site owners have to do something to address the issue.

How Free Tools Fall Short

As a quick fix, some site owners have turned toward free tools and plugins that claim to make sites accessible. It’s pretty understandable why site owners would rely on these. They don’t cost a thing, and they’re pretty quick to install or integrate. If you’re a WordPress user, for instance, you can simply search for several free available accessibility plugins that you can install with just a few clicks.

To be fair, these plugins do improve accessibility in some ways. Some plugins add panels or widgets with functionalities that allow users to tweak visual elements including the ability to change fonts, alignment, spacing, colors, and contrast. Visually impaired users can adjust these settings in order to make site content more readable to suit their particular disability.

However, these free plugins actually fall short of what’s required by law to be considered compliant. Thus, relying solely on these plugins still exposes site owners to potential lawsuits.

The DOJ references the Level AA success criteria of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as to what must be met to achieve compliance. These criteria require implementing specific functionalities to ensure that a wide range of people with disabilities are able to access these sites.

These are just beyond what these free tools offer. The visual tweaks that plugins allow are a minor part of these requirements. To meet the remaining parts, sites must also feature keyboard navigation, screen reader optimization, and proper tagging of images and form labels, among others.

In addition, these plugins can give site owners a false sense of security. For now, the only way to guarantee a strong defense against ADA lawsuits is for sites to demonstrate that they really do adhere to the WCAG.

How to Achieve Compliance

Designers play a crucial role in improving web accessibility. Design improvements and new functionalities are clearly needed to be implemented for compliance. Here are some ways designers can help make websites become more accessible:

Get familiar with the WCAG

In order to know what changes need to be made to websites, we should be familiar with the WCAG and its principles. The four main design principles are:

Perceivable: Can the information contained on a page be perceived by users with different disabilities?

Operable: Is the interface simple enough for disabled users to navigate and interact with?

Understandable: Is the content clear and understandable and does the site help users avoid mistakes by being predictable and intuitive?

Robust: Can the site be used with current and future technologies such as screen readers and other assistive devices?

It’s good to dive deep into the success criteria as well. For example, Level AA success criteria contain provisions such as the recommended contrast ratio between the text and the background. Level AA requires at least 4.5 to 1 depending on the font size. These details can essentially serve as a designer’s checklist for things to incorporate into the design.

Design with accessibility in mind

Designing with an accessibility-first mindset allows you to provide a solid base for site owners to continue compliance. With a compliant design, administrators and content developers only need to work on adding compliant content. This is much better than having to audit and remediate an already live website.

By knowing the various success criteria, it’s also easier to map out a user interface that takes these into consideration. You can readily avoid pitfalls such as solely relying on images to communicate text information. While it’s still possible to make use of images for buttons, the WCAG requires that these functional images have appropriate alt-texts. As an alternative, designers can simply use markup and styles to create buttons.

You should also consider how you call attention to certain behaviors. Often, we rely on visual cues. For example, an input field’s outline can change to red to indicate a validation error in the input. Simply relying on color can make it difficult for color blind users to recognize. Instead, designers can add other cues such as labels or instructions to indicate the error.

Help in auditing and remediation

Active sites that aren’t initially designed for accessibility need to undergo auditing and remediation. All site elements and content have to be reviewed for compliance. Unfortunately, most active sites can have hundreds or even thousands of pages of content, making auditing and remediation challenging.

It’s a good thing that most designers now adhere to the separation of concerns, so updating the design for accessibility may mean simply working changes to templates rather than adjusting styles for each page.

When done manually, auditing and remediation for complete compliance can take weeks or even months to accomplish. Fortunately, there are now efforts that leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to automate these processes. Designers and agencies looking to remediate multiple websites may want to look into such solutions.

Why Accessibility Matters

Considering how confrontational people have become these days, the threat of web accessibility lawsuits is very real. Site owners should commit to making their sites compliant. Most free tools actually fall short on what’s needed for sites to be considered compliant. Designers may be facing tough challenges when helping their clients out.

However, it’s also important to recognize why web accessibility truly matters. It’s about inclusion and making sure that people with disabilities — and there are about a billion of them around the world — get to use and enjoy the internet. So, instead of thinking that working toward accessibility can be quite the bother, consider your efforts as having a positive impact on the world. Designing for accessibility is doing the right thing.