The purpose of the government’s Section 508 Requirements is to insure that information technology is accessible to people with disabilities. For the purposes of this document, the information technology will mean “websites and web applications.”
Section 508 Reference: https://www.section508.gov/content/learn/standards/quick-reference-guide#1194.22
What is an accessible website?
This is broad reaching and the standards continue to be refined. It encompasses the ability to read and navigate a site, not only by means of a standard computer setup (display, keyboard, mouse), but also through alternative mechanisms such screen readers.The purpose it to enable those users who may not be able to see a screen or use a standard keyboard, to be able to view and access websites and the tools hosted on the internet.
The needs are vast – being able to accommodate a wide range of disabilities with a wide range of assistive devices across various technologies (computers, readers, browsers, code, operating systems). For the web, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has developed the WCAG (Web Consortium Accessibility Guidelines). These guidelines are evolving, and are geared towards designers and web developers. The WCAG 2.0 is the current standard: http://www.w3.org/WAI/WCAG20/quickref/
WCAG Reference: https://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/wcag
How do we know if our site is accessible?
The World Wide Web Consortium has developed guidelines and many organization have developed tools to test and verify websites. The tools can help identify underlying issues, but there is no one tool that tests everything. Many validations must be done manually. And many times the “fix” needs to be done by changing the underlying structure of the website, that is, the code.
The variations in assistive technologies (e.g., numerous screen readers), computer configurations, operating systems, web and application code, make the process of verifying a site’s accessibility for all audiences, a very complex task.
What can we do?
As an editor or content manager
A large part of making a site accessible is based on how the content is structured. Well written content will naturally follow these guidelines:
- Organize and structure content with headings and subheadings. In HTML, make sure that headings are used in order with a page title as H1, top level sections as H2, subsections as H3 and so forth.
- Insure content is ordered logically with the most important information first. For example, a conference title, date and location should be presented before a conference description.
- Avoid referencing content that requires the user to “see” the content layout. For example, “Select one of the options in the sidebar” should read something like: “Select from one of these options:” with each option written out.
- Create lists with real bullets or numbers, versus using spaces, line breaks, hyphens or returns.
- Minimize forms and the number of fields required. Add labels to all form entry fields. The shorter the form the better
- Use descriptive links that help the user understand where the link goes or what it is about. Avoid using the words, “click here” or “learn more”.
- Avoid acronyms and slang. Review the content and ask would this make sense to someone not familiar with this organization or subject?
- Make sure all images have descriptive text either in “alt” text or in a caption or by using both.
- Make sure information is dually coded (use at least two options such as: color, font weight, italics, underline or an icon). Although color can highlight information, make sure it is not the only indicator. For example, a warning message might be in red text but also have a warning icon with it.
A well written article was recently published by Mailchimp, Writing for Accessibility, and it provides an excellent summary and additional resource references.
As a site manger / web master:
As a site manager or web master, there are a number of checks that can performed and functionality that can be added to the site. These include:
- We can provide a mechanism to easily adjust the font size on a page
- We can check the contrast readability via a tool like:
We can check our design for color blindness readability via a tool like:
- We can check for field labels, underlines on hyperlinks, and the use of skip links and landmarks to aid in page navigation
- We can follow guidelines to provide an overall site review: http://www.w3.org/WAI/eval/preliminary.html
And we can provide a mechanism to adjust a number of these features (font size, contrast, etc.) via a tool or like “WP Accessibility” which is a WordPress plugin that is available for WordPress sites as used on: RAISE Center.
As a site designer / web developer
We can use checklists as a design guideline and we can run tests that can help validate a theme or template before it is used in a website. Here is a great infographic provided by WebAIM.
Or we can use one of these tools to aid in refining a current template or design for better accessibility:
- Cynthia Says Portal – Online Web accessibility evaluation tool
- WAVE – Online Web accessibility evaluation tool
- AChecker – Online Web accessibility evaluation tool
- PowerMapper – Online Web accessibility tool that has a free check option, but a more extensive evaluative purchase option
There are options for learning more about insuring online accessibility for all roles from editor, to site maintainer, to developer:
- W3C offers course outlines and references to materials: Web Accessibility Tutorials and Presentations
- There are online options available at the government site: Section 508 Online Training
- Google offers an online Introduction to Web Accessibility
- Many organizations offer paid courses (e.g., WebAim)
Insuring accessibility is a complex task.
First, follow the guidelines provided.
Second, if you are an editor or site maintainer and you use one of the accessibility testing tools, you may find the test results lengthy, detailed and confusing. For those errors that exist in the code of the website, these will need to be reviewed with your web designer / developer. These errors may be inherent in the structure of your theme or web template. In other words, to correct the accessibility warnings, may mean trading off site accessibility with functionality or “look and feel”. It may be helpful to group these issues / warnings and determine what changes can be made across the site to improve the accessibility (e.g., update a page template or change a standard page layout, or update the color scheme).
Third, it is important to realize that achieving accessibiilty may also require your web developer to customize the code in your theme or template. Customizing a purchased template or theme can have serious ripple effects, such as impacting cross browser functionality, mobile functionality or the ability to update your theme or plugins automatically (e.g., through WordPress).
The bottom line is that it extremely difficult to insure a website and all its functionality are complete accessibility to all needs. Use the tools and guidelines available to make your site the best possible, and continue review the site as changes are planned to continually improve it.