Website Accessibility is a Non-Negotiable

Humans can be incredibly complex, unpredictable, and difficult to understand creatures. Because everyone has an inherent right to their individual beliefs, preferences, and perceived limitations, we often disagree with others. While differing opinions are an opportunity for growth and reflection, it’s the harmony of agreement that truly deepens human connection. Most can agree there will always be a need for community, creative expression, and emotional fulfillment – just to name a few. In today’s digital age that provides unlimited knowledge at our fingertips, another shared belief is that everyone has a right to accessible information. Reasonably so, the conversation around accessibility is here to stay – it is not a fad or buzzword that is fleeting or short-lived. Access to a phone or computer should go hand-in-hand with obtaining information. If you have the former, then you should have the latter – regardless of disability. 

We sat down with one of Philosophy Communication’s Digital Designers, Abby Conrad, to talk about ADA-compliant design and why it plays a critical role in inclusivity and accessibility. 

What is ADA-compliant design and why is it so important?

In a sense, ADA design is universal design. Whether you are creating a website, a social media presence, an email blast, or a PDF, ADA-compliant design makes something accessible for everyone. In the past and even still, many designs are created for people without disabilities. This may be because ADA-design is argued to sometimes rob designers of full creative potential or maybe, due to lack of conversation around the topic, it is unbeknownst to many people the sheer amount of humans living with disabilities. Whatever the case may be, it is essential that ADA-compliant design is always at the forefront of designers’ minds. 

Aside from one’s inherent right to attaining information, there’s a reason why the discussion around website accessibility is becoming increasingly important. The number of people who are living with disabilities is growing. According to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control, 16% of the world’s population and 26% of the U.S. population have a disability, which can range from physical, visual, audial, mental, visible, invisible, intellectual, etc. That’s over 1 billion people worldwide and around 86 million people in the U.S. who may be unable to access websites that are not designed with accessibility in mind. 

Less important from a human rights lens, but relevant to a business perspective, website accessibility could help your product or service reach a wider audience and positively impact your business’s reputation and brand image. According to Forbes, e-commerce retailers lost an estimated $828 million during the 2021 holiday season because their websites were not accessible.

Is ADA compliance mandatory for all websites? 

While websites are not explicitly included in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), most sites people visit every day have to be ADA-compliant on some level. As many courts in America consider ADA compliance mandatory (laws differ state-to-state), in Colorado, ADA compliance is required for websites that are funded by state or local governments. All government agencies are required to implement accessibility plans by July 2024. State agencies that do not comply with the web accessibility standards face penalties including hefty fines. 

How does a company or institution create a website with ADA-compliant design elements?

Consider the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) the ultimate manual for making Web content more accessible to those living with disabilities. WCAG is available in three versions, 1.0, 2.0, and 2.1. While version 2.0 entirely replaced version 1.0, 2.1 is just an extension of 2.0. Though these guidelines address a wide range of disabilities (visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities), a website that follows WCAG often improves the user experience (UX) for users overall. 

In reality, nothing is totally black and white. Like many standards or regulations meant for a general population, guidelines can often fall short, highlighting the inevitable gray areas. This is true for WCAG as well, however, these guidelines are an effective starting point into creating a website that is accessible to everyone. WCAG identifies design elements, such as color, saturation, brightness, font, images, and suggests methods that further support accessibility. Keep in mind, depending on what medium you are working in (example: website vs. PDF), the WCAG may differ, although there is a good deal of overlap between varying modes. 

For websites, there are three levels of conformance: 

  • Level A is the minimum level. This level sets a minimum level of accessibility and does not achieve broad accessibility for many situations. Some notable Level A requirements are:
    • Navigable with a keyboard
    • Video captions
    • Meaning is not conveyed through shape, size, color, etc. alone

  • Level AA includes all Level A and AA requirements. Many organizations strive to meet this level, which is used in most accessibility rules and regulations around the world. This conformance level allows for a website to be usable and understandable to the majority of people, with or without disabilities. Some notable Level AA requirements are:
    • Color contrast is balanced (specifically 4.5:1) 
    • Status updates can be conveyed through a screen reader
    • Alt text or a similar solution is used for images that convey meaning
    • Headings are used in logical order

  • Level AAA includes all of Level A, AA, and AAA requirements. Compliance at this level makes your site accessible to the maximum number of users and makes the UX experience easy. This level is especially useful if your content is catering to the elderly or people living with visual, auditory, or intellectual disabilities. Some notable Level AAA requirements include:
    • Sign language interpretation for audio, video, or pre-recorded content
    • Color contrast is balanced (at least 7:1 in most instances)
    • Web pages do not contain anything that flashes more than three times in any one second period.

Though we’ve only scratched the surface of WCAG, it’s probably already apparent that learning about the full extent of WCAG is a rabbit hole. However, understanding what WCAG is and its compliance levels is a small but important step down the path of better serving the entire online audience and creating information that is accessible to everyone.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve seen when it comes to non-compliant ADA designs? 

Missing alt-text for images, poor color contrast, keyboard traps, ignoring heading tags, and omitting video transcripts, and the misuse of WAI-ARIA are some things you may see on a non-compliant website. The good news is that there is a streamlined way to diagnose your website and its accessibility shortcomings. Did you know that there are plug-ins you can download to audit your website and identify opportunities that can increase its accessibility, depending on your desired compliance level? Based on the content of your website, these plug-ins will inspect readability, graphics, structure, orientation, and clickables – just to name a few.

Here are a couple of Abby’s plug-in recommendations: 

Some rudimentary but foolproof ways to comply with ADA-design start with color and text. Choosing accessible colors by implementing a color contrast checker (Adobe has a free one) and a grayscale checker (for those with color blindness) and using large text in graphics are small but mighty wins towards accessible information for all. 

What does the future of ADA-design potentially look like? 

In a world where advancements in technology grows by the second, refocusing design priorities around accessibility sets the landscape for incredible capabilities.

  • Imagine a website that automatically adjusts to your eye prescription, eliminating the need for reader glasses when browsing the web. 
  • Computer vision enables computers to derive information from images, videos, and other media. Though this technology has been around for a while, recent developments in AI have opened doors to perfect this process and make it more commonplace across websites. 
  • Haptic feedback, also known as tactile feedback, is a technology that provides users with physical sensations or vibrations in response to their interactions with a device or interface, making it easier for those with visual impairments to navigate a website. Think: vibrations and button-clicking sensations.
  • Be prepared to see more and more agencies selling ADA-design as a service.

Like most disruptive innovations, there are, of course, barriers and challenges to the widespread implementation of this level of ADA-compliant design. If the government, organizations, and institutions lack awareness and understanding of the importance of ADA-design, the conversation of accessibility will struggle to stay relevant, resulting in a trickle-down effect of insufficient funding and resources for universal adoption and decreased legal requirements. 

Bottom line: exciting things are on the horizon for website accessibility. With its increasing prominence and a recently earned seat at the virtual table, emerging and innovative technology brings new potential to improve the digital experience for not just people living with disabilities, but all users. 


Are you looking to improve your website’s accessibility? Our team of experts would love to hear from you.

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