The Bare Minimum for Web Accessibility

May 9, 2022

How accessible does your site need to be?

Technically (or legally rather), web accessibility is usually defined in relation to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Most federal courts treat WCAG 2.1 (Level AA) as the target conformance level. And within the WCAG framework, even one violation is enough to be noncompliant with that level. 

This can be a very difficult standard to meet. And to be clear, most businesses don’t come anywhere close. WebAIM, an accessibility organization based out of Utah State University, publishes the WebAim Million Report annually. This report analyzes the top million sites on the internet for compliance with easily identifiable accessibility issues. And each year, the report shows that over 95% of these prominent high-traffic websites have accessibility violations. So if your business falls short of that standard, you shouldn’t feel bad.

But in real life, thinking about accessibility as a binary is a terrible attitude. Even if very few sites achieve full accessibility, it still matters how accessible you are. We don’t advise businesses to set a final target that is less than WCAG, but we do believe it is very valuable and important to make the effort to become more accessible. And we will always try to support businesses in improving their accessibility posture even if we can’t take them all the way to the finish line.

Everyone has to start somewhere. We are often asked where organizations should focus their initial efforts. This post is our attempt to sketch out a bare minimum; this isn’t enough but it should go a long way in improving your site’s user experience for all users while also reducing your risks of being sued under the ADA.

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Testing with WAVE

WAVE is an automated scan engine produced by WebAIM. Unlike other accessibility scanning tools, WAVE does not require using developer tools or license fees and has a relatively small learning curve. Using it is as simple as pasting a webpage URL into the WAVE site. Because WAVE is so easy to use, it is also a favorite tool of surf-by plaintiffs looking for a quick payday. They can also just paste in a URL and get a list of accessibility violations with no real testing effort required.

There are many potential accessibility issues that WAVE cannot find. But the ones that it can identify tend to be showstoppers. Fixing them can vastly improve the user experience for all users including those with disabilities. And as a bonus, having a clean WAVE report will keep you off the radar of surf-by plaintiffs.

Content accessibility issues to prioritize

WAVE scans for a number of accessibility issues and features, which it displays using icons overlaid onto the site. For our purposes, you should focus on the icons categorized as Errors and as Alerts. We’ve put together brief explanations of some of the most important content accessibility issues that you can address immediately without developer assistance. You should prioritize these issues in remediating your site.

Alternative text

All images on your site must have an “alt” attribute, which is used to describe the image contents for screen readers. Most popular CMS systems support alt text out of the box, which means that you only need to ensure that the site uses the functionality and that you populate the alt text correctly. Potential alternative text issues include:

  • Lack of alternative text for an image
  • Lack of alternative text for a linked image or image button (which should describe the link destination or function)
  • Incorrectly providing an alternative text for decorative images: in this case, the alt attribute should remain present with an empty value (i.e. alt=””)
  • Unhelpful or redundant alternative text including:
    • Alt text that is the same as nearby text
    • Descriptions that contain text such as image, graphic, or photo
    • Alt text that is the same as the image filename
    • Multiple nearby images with the same alt text

Page metadata

  • All pages should have a metadata title, which is critical for SEO and can also help screen reader users better understand what page they are on. All CMS support this feature out of the box, but it is important to ensure that the page title is populated (which WAVE can check) and informative (which is up to you to verify).
  • The language of the page should be encoded so that screen readers can announce the page in the appropriate language. This is added by default on most CMS platforms, but may need additional configuration if your site has multiple languages.

Headings

  • Each page should have headings (numbered from H1 through H6) to provide structure for the page and make it easier for screen readers to find the relevant sections
  • It is especially important for a page to have an H1 as the main heading (generally for the page title)
  • Heading levels should also be in hierarchical order without skipping levels. For example, you cannot have an H4 heading under an  H2 heading (without an H3 in between).
  • You should ensure that the page headings accurately describe the relevant sections. (WAVE cannot test this.)

Other issues

  • Buttons should have label text (or alternative text) to describe the purpose of the button.
  • Links should have descriptive text (or alternative text in the case of linked images) that make clear the purpose or destination of the link. Avoid vague labels like “Learn more” or “Click here”.
  • When linking to PDFs, you should verify first that the PDF itself is built with accessibility in mind. It is generally preferable to make the content available for display within the website rather than using a PDF.
  • Linked or embedded videos should have closed captioning
  • Text size should be larger than 10 pixels.

What to prioritize for your developer

Some of the important accessibility issues flagged by a WAVE scan will likely require help from your developer. Even if your developer is not yet very familiar with building accessible experiences, they should be able to quickly understand and address the issues below:

Form issues

  • Form fields need properly coded labels to ensure that they can be properly announced by screen readers. Including the field name as placeholder text within a field is insufficient.
  • However, these labels should not be used for other form elements like submit buttons
  • Field groups (like checkbox or radio options) should be enclosed in a fieldset element with a legend element to describe the purpose of the field group

Page layout

  • Important page sections like the header, navigation elements, and footer should be encoded to allow for easy in-page navigation by screen readers
  • For screen reader users and others that navigate by keyboard, it can be tedious to tab through the full set of navigation menu links and other header items on each page. Adding a hidden link to skip to the main section of the page can save a lot of time and effort for these users.

Color Contrast

Text and background colors have a minimum contrast ratio set by WCAG. This ensures that the text can be easily read, especially by those with low vision or color blindness. A WAVE scan can find most instances of low color contrast (but does occasionally have false positives). Developers can adjust the site styles to ensure compatibility with the minimum contrasts (but might need a designer to recommend appropriate colors.)

Accessibility table stakes

When it comes to the issues that show up in a WAVE scan, most are what we might consider accessibility table stakes. Furthermore, they are almost all relatively easy to fix. You likely would not even need a developer to handle most of them. And by taking care of these easily discovered and high impact accessibility issues now, you can make a big impact on the overall user experience while significantly reducing your legal risk.

How to approach a larger site

Depending on the size of your site, it may be feasible to scan the whole thing in an afternoon. But on any site, once you get past the sorts of global accessibility issues that can be handled by a developer at once, you move into the realm of content accessibility that needs to be handled on a page by page basis.

Our recommendation is to start with the homepage and move from there to the other prominent pages in your main navigation. For e-commerce sites, it is also important to test all the critical steps necessary to make a purchase such as the cart or checkout.

Once you have handled the most important pages, you can move deeper into the site. It is not necessarily feasible to handle an entire site at once. There are monitoring tools we can provide to identify the pages with accessibility violations and help you develop a strategy for eventually getting through the whole thing.

There's no time like the present

Recoding a website can be difficult, but initially taking care of this small subset of items can pay huge dividends right now and it need not be expensive. Ideally this will be a part of a larger journey to target more complete accessibility, but even if you stop here, you will make a big impact. Access Armada can work with you to develop a strategy to quickly tackle your automatically detectable issues and reduce your risk of being targeted in a lawsuit.

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