Improving accessibility requires a mix of training, leveraging technology and embracing the philosophy that continuous attention will ultimately makes the digital experience of all constituents better.
The pandemic has driven every organization to depend on digital, making it critical that online services are accessible to everyone. However, many government agencies are still struggling to deliver a more equitable digital experience, despite 26% of adults in the United States having some form of disability. Rather than thinking there is a quick fix, public-sector entities must embrace the philosophy that creating an accessible website is a journey, not a destination. Otherwise, Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility litigation and fines will continue to grow.
Delivering accessible digital experiences is hard. Often, the threat of legal action pushes a government agency to look at the accessibility of its digital properties, but this does not result in delivering inclusive websites. Instead, it can drive agencies to look at an overlay and quick-fix tools that offer automated plugins to make websites compliant. However, while this approach fixes some problems, it fails to address accessibility issues in the source code, which leaves many constituents unable to navigate and access information. In addition, some overlays can't adapt to specific assistive technology, such as screen readers. When it comes to accessibility, a set-it-and-forget-it mentality doesn't suffice and can increase the risk of litigation, in addition to providing an inequitable digital experience.
Rethinking how to address accessibility
For public-sector agencies to deliver accessible digital properties they should embrace the following steps:
1. Mindset shift. Accessibility is an iterative process, similar to DevOps, requiring a mindset shift. Once teams embrace that accessibility is a journey, it will improve. As with any transformation, getting buy-in to a new philosophy can be helped by highlighting that a more accessible website will reduce the time spent dealing with constituents' queries. Another benefit is that when accessibility becomes part of the initial design and code specification, it becomes easier for departments to stay ahead of evolving standards. In addition, iterative accessibility is the most cost-effective and equitable approach.
2. Training. Because accessibility must be considered when adding content or functionality to a website, training is required. Every person that contributes to digital properties needs training to help them understand accessible design and content principles. This includes elements such as using high-contrast colors, providing text alternatives to audio and visual content, avoiding flashing animations and including labels for buttons so people using a screen reader can navigate the site.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide a roadmap for designing inclusive sites, and training should focus on helping teams understand how to implement the recommendations. As standards continue to evolve, training will be required to keep skills and understanding up to date.
3. Technology. Numerous technology solutions can aid accessibility efforts. Teams should look for a product that can evaluate and continuously audit the level of accessibility across all digital properties and provide detailed reports about any potential issues or errors per to WCAG guidelines. Technology can also help ensure that content is written at a level that constituents understand. Any solution should provide a roadmap for what to fix with specific details around how to resolve issues. Agencies should be sure they select a technology partner committed to optimizing accessibility rather than just ensuring compliance.
4. Continuous testing. Accessibility testing must be part of the software development lifecycle. Real-time accessibility testing is essential to identify and fix issues before they impact users. The testing should focus on all digital assets and look at end-user journeys in addition to code compliance. One tactic is to launch an accessibility "sprint" to fix known problems quickly and improve the quality of the experience. Another best practice is to have human testers with disabilities or test with assistive technology, like screen readers. This ensures agencies meet the needs of every constituent.
5. Start today. Many departments push out accessibility as deadlines and standards change. Rather than waiting, they should immediately analyze and prioritize the changes that will have the most significant impact, along with some quick wins. By creating a steering committee to champion accessibility, an agency can remain at the forefront of digital practices.
A vital part of creating a more inclusive society is ensuring equal access and functionality to all services. Too often, however, the reality for users with disabilities is akin to a “Where's Waldo” hunt experience. Improving accessibility requires a mix of training, leveraging technology and embracing the philosophy that continuous attention will ultimately makes the digital experience of all constituents better.