In this digital age, the world is at your fingertips as long as you can see a screen, use a mouse and hear audio on a computer or mobile device. But what if you can’t? What if you’re one of the 60 million Americans with a disability that prevents you from using the Web to perceive, understand, navigate or interact with digital information, including your local government website? But website accessibility doesn’t have to be a barrier.
Beginning January 18, 2018, all federal, state and local websites must meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0 AA) adopted as part of updates to existing federal laws governing equal access to government services – Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Jurisdictions that do not comply with these guidelines risk lawsuits from private citizens, as well as legal action by the Department of Justice, which has taken the position that websites offering goods or services to consumers are places of public accommodation and must be accessible to the disabled.
The good news is that we have the power to revolutionize the way people with disabilities access local government information. All it takes to make the Web accessible is the right training and proper considerations during content creation, curation and editing.
We’ve identified three key website content areas where agencies can make adjustments to help their customers find and understand the information they need from their local government’s website – regardless of age or disability.
Content is Key to Website Accessibility
Over the past few years, our team of website accessibility experts has conducted Content Strategy and WCAG 2.0 Accessibility training for dozens of agencies, and helped more than 1,000 local governments’ staff handling site content think differently about the information they create for citizens.
What we’ve learned is that there’s a common misconception that compliance with WCAG 2.0 AA standards can be achieved by simply implementing accessible technology, or assuming a vendor will handle it. While the right content management system provider and a compliant website design are great first steps, content is the real key to digital accessibility compliance.
It’s about how your local government writes content, how it captions videos and tags images and how it uses content headers.
#1 Descriptive Links Increase Website Acceessibility
The text you hyperlink can be as important as the page you’re linking to. Visually impaired customers often use technology that reads aloud the links on a page, allowing them to go directly to what they’re looking for.
To better serve them, and comply with new regulations, describe the information available in the hyperlinked text. For example:
- Instead of: “Click here to access our parking ticket payment system.”
Change to: “You can access our parking ticket payment system 24 hours a day.”
- Instead of: “The budget we adopted for 2017 can be found here.”
Change to: “We adopted our 2017 budget in February.”
#2 It’s Essential to Sequence & Format Headings
Headings provide structure to content on a webpage, clearly describe the information that follows and allow users to scan and navigate through each section to find what they need quickly and easily. In addition, headings enable screen readers — assistive tools used by the visually impaired to access Web content — to browse from heading to heading via keyboard shortcuts, similar to how the TAB key goes from link to link.
When structuring your content hierarchy, it’s important to remember:
- Every page should have a primary (H1) heading, telling website visitors what the page is about.
- Heading levels must be in order, and levels should not be skipped.
- Placing words in bold font, increased font size or different text colors are not substitutes for proper headings.
#3 Alternative Text for Images
Images are great for conveying information to customers who can see. Assistive technologies like screen readers require alternative text (“alt tags” or “alt text”) to properly convey content to Web visitors. Here are a few tips regarding website images and alt tags:
- Think about the context before deciding on an appropriate alt tag for the image.
- Decorative images – such as stock photography – do not need alt tags.
- Alt tags should be descriptive, yet concise.
- Alt tags can be complex. Access WebAIM’s Alternative Text Page and see the George Washington image example under “Context is Everything” for more information on appropriate alternative text for images.
Why WCAG 2.0 AA Cannot be Outsourced
With the January 2018 deadline approaching, creating and maintaining an accessible website is a must. Helping website visitors who have visual disabilities, difficulty hearing and problems browsing with a mouse access your website will soon be the law. It’s vital to providing comprehensive service to your community and is simply the right thing to do.
Compliance with website accessibility standards is an ongoing process, however.
If your local government’s content editors do not embrace this fact, your accessible website will quickly fall out of compliance. Because this is a deadline-driven technology event, like Y2K, you’re likely getting calls from companies claiming to take care of compliance for you. Unfortunately, this cannot be outsourced. Everyone in your agency who creates or edits website content needs to be trained to meet website accessibility guidelines.
Martin Lind is Vice President of Services and Business Development for El Segundo, Calif.-based Vision, a national leader in government website development and software solutions with more than 700 government, non-profit and education clients in U.S. and Canada. For more than 20 years, Vision has created cost-effective solutions that increase government efficiency, build transparency and empower citizens to be informed and involved.