Did you know that Ontario businesses and organizations that employ more than 49 people are required to make sure their website meets Ontario's accessibility regulations? It's true, as of January 2014, all sites fitting that description need to be AODA compliant.
But how do you know your site is meeting regulations? If you're not familiar with the legislation or the technical specifics of it, it can be difficult to know if you're website is meeting these goals. So let's take a look at some of the ways you can check your website for accessibility and some of the most common issues websites face with AODA compliance.
Basic browsing and navigation
A big part of making sure your site is accessible boils down to basic functionality. An example would be navigating your website through a text version of the page as read by an automated assistive device. This can be a taller order than you might think.
Try going through your site with a screen reader. There are multiple Chrome extensions you can use to try this, and most phones include a voice-over option that will read text on screen. While this seems like a ready-made solution, you may be surprised at how incomplete and difficult it can be to browse a typical site this way. Unless the site has been designed with this kind of use in mind, the read-out may just be a jumble of unrelated lines and confusing directions.
Close your eyes and see how easy it is to navigate just going to the voice directions and options. Does the site provide enough direction and context for vision impaired users to know what they are browsing and what options they have?
The next step is to test how easy it is to navigate your site with just keyboard controls. Many of us take the ease and precision of a mouse cursor for granted, but for users with vision-impairments or motor difficulties, the mouse is not a viable solution – they need to be able to navigate with button presses on a keyboard.
Of course, this can be a problem when your site has elements that can't be selected by tabbing through the page. Think about things like online forms and shops, can you fill them out or select purchases just using keyboard control? How about when using keyboard control and a voice-over app? Anything that asks you to click on an image, or dismiss a pop-up may render an entire page completely unusable for a visitor that cannot use a mouse. That isn't an inconvenience, that's inaccessible.
Some small considerations can make it much easier to browse by keyboard. Visual indicators of what links/buttons/text are currently selected can make a world of difference when trying to navigate by tab. Making sure all menu items, forms, and elements are accessible through tabbing and keyboard inputs is essential and will ensure that EVERY user can equally make use of your site. Shortcut options like "skip to content” and "back to home” are also life savers for keyboard users, dramatically cutting down on the number of redundant steps it takes to navigate a page.
Describe all visual media and provide alternatives wherever possible
A lot of emphasis is placed on the visual design of most sites, and with good reason. Images can be a great way to establish mood, tone, and quickly convey info – unless of course you can't see them. For vision-impaired users, this over-reliance on images is a major liability, robbing them of context, nuance, and information other users can absorb at a glance.
This is why it is important to provide a text description of every essential image on your site. The rules for knowing what is considered essential can be a little confusing, but in broad strokes, any kind of supporting image, diagram, or logo should be noted and described. This is done with what is known as an alt tag.
Alt tags are descriptive pieces of text that will not be surfaced to users browsing the default site, but will be read aloud by assitive devices. This can help provide crucial context that might otherwise be missing in a version of a page that does not include images.
The same is true for audio and video materials. If your site has content that is delivered only through an audio file, you should provide some kind of transcript or detailed description of the content. Ideally, video content should contain close-captioning and descriptive options for the audio and visually impaired, this is required for a AA-level compliance grade. Right now, AODA compliance only requires an A-level grade, but that will change in the coming years as the province's multi-staged adoption policy continues. Being ahead of the curve never hurts.
Contrast, documents, and other quality of life considerations
Visually-impaired does not necessarily mean "blind.” There are many people out there who have diminished vision ability, or struggle with colour blindness but can still see a screen. To help these users, it's important to provide enough visual contrast between different elements to make them readable and clear. Text should stand out from the background. Links, buttons, and downloads should be clearly marked with a recognizable color (and ideally a separate font that makes them identifiable). Again, this is another factor that will be required in AA-level compliance.
Part of making text visible is making sure it is big enough to read. Better yet, make the size adjustable for the individual user. Modern websites built using current techniques and code should be able to provide the user with options to increase the size of a page's text, which is a great way to provide full usability to vision-impaired users while maintaining the site's default design.
Lot's of businesses and organizations make heavy use of PDF and document files on their websites. It should be noted though that these documents contain their own accessibility standards and requirements. They need to be readable for text-to-speech programs, navigable, and so on. Remember, you're responsible for insuring that ALL the content you provide on your site is accessible to all users.
Also be aware of any interactive elements your site contains or actions that require speedy reactions or input. While interactive maps, guides, and flow charts can definitely make your site stand out, they can also present a major obstacle for the vision or motor-impaired. If you have interactive elements, provide a text description of the content. Similarly, make sure nothing on your site has strict timing windows (passwords that need to be entered within a certain time frame or forms and keys that expire after a minute or so, etc). Be wary of auto-playing elements that may interfere with voice-over navigation.
Make a plan
If all of this sounds like a lot of work, you're not wrong. It is. But, it is an important part of not only ensuring your site is compliant with regulations, but ensuring that your business or organization is serving everyone with equal care, respect, and dignity. AODA compliance isn't just a business goal, but a human one.
Review your site, make a list of potential trouble spots (navigation difficulties, complicated tables, unsupported documents, etc) and scope out a plan to address them. You may need to consult with your designer to make some of the requested changes. If your site is on the older side and the list of challenges is extensive, this may be a good opportunity to think about a redesign or upgrade.
In the end, you don't just want your site to pass compliance today, you want it to pass now and in the future. That is much easier to do when the site is built on the proper foundation.