Accessibility for New York State Municipalities

Here's the content of our July 2018 article, which will run in Talk of the Towns magazine:

WHAT IS WEB ACCESSIBILITY?
The concept of web accessibility, at its most basic level, is pretty straightforward: by taking a few extra steps and considerations during the website development  process, developers can allow users with vision, hearing, dexterity, and other physical challenges to access web content like the balance of the population.

Generally speaking, websites are planned, designed, and built for the 80% of the population that has what would be considered typical vision, dexterity, and hearing. That is to say, most web designers and developers create websites that work for the majority of the web’s users—but not for everyone. This leaves up to 20% of the population unable to access the web like they need to.

Years ago, standards were developed and introduced in order to help this 20% access information online with the use of tools like screen readers, assistive browser plugins, and video captioning. Web developers simply need to follow some basic programming rules and best practices in order for these assistive tools to work properly on a given site. Unfortunately, almost nobody does this—and the end result is that the vast majority of websites have real, current accessibility issues.

WHY MIGHT THIS BE AN ISSUE FOR MY ORGANIZATION?
Recent developments in the way Federal courts view the Americans with Disabilities Act has left a number of businesses caught off-guard and scrambling to ensure that they are a compliant with web accessibility rules—without fully understanding what needs to be done to alleviate the problem.

A decision in late 2017 by a Federal judge in Florida*, ruling in favor of a visually-impaired user who could not properly access a grocer’s website, has paved the way for similar lawsuits across the country. At the moment, there are over 850 cases pending in Federal courts regarding this issue, and there are more making their way through state courts as well. Increasingly, businesses and organizations are being asked –or ordered, in some cases—to ensure that their sites are as accessible as possible to the entire population. The costs associated with litigation and remediation can quickly skyrocket. For example, the aforementioned grocer was ordered to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees in full—and to set aside an additional $250,000 for fixing their accessibility issues.

Beyond the fear of an increase in legal exposure, there are a few additional factors that should be remembered when considering your site’s accessibility status:

  • By not taking steps to ensure accessibility, you’re potentially leaving 20% of the community you serve unable to access the information they need online.
  • By adopting an accessibility policy, you’ll be falling in line with Federal and state guidelines. For example, the State of New York states the following: “minimum accessibility requirements (in New York State Policy NYS P08-005) for web-based Information and applications developed, procured, maintained or used by state entities. The goal of the policy is to encourage a more inclusive state workforce and increase the availability of governmental services to all members of the public.”
  • You’ll be preparing your organization for future requirements and advancements in accessibility laws and requirements.

THE SOLUTION
The good news is that the vast majority of websites are already on their way to being considered accessible, and simply need a short-term, focused effort on some code changes in order to bring them into compliance. In fact, in my company’s experience, we’ve found that as many as 90% of websites fit into this “close to compliant” category.

Bringing a website into compliance with standards does not mean, in most cases, spending hundreds of hours or tens of thousands of dollars on remediation. Rather, it involves an assessment by a web accessibility expert, a modification plan, implementation of the fixes, and a plan to monitor and maintain the site’s accessibility features over time. Most of the fixes involve simply ensuring that a website’s code and content follows best practices for modern website design and development.

SELF-ASSESSMENT
If you want to take a quick look under the hood of your own website in order to gain an understanding of where your site stands, you can do so using some free, easy-to-use tools found on the web. Here are a few to try:

  • The WAVE web accessibility tool: https://wave.webaim.org/ - simply enter your website’s URL in the site for a quick overview of where your site stands.
  • Lighthouse app from Google: You can add the Lighthouse app to your installation of Chrome to run a more thorough test. Learn more about Lighthouse here: https://developers.google.com/web/tools/lighthouse/#devtools
  • Tenon.io: https://tenon.io/ -enter your site’s URL here as well for a more thorough check.

NEXT STEPS
We recommend taking the following steps toward web accessibility:
1. Understand where you currently stand on the accessibility spectrum by running one of the tests above or by contacting an expert for an opinion;
2. Repair the errors in your site’s code and content in order to resolve the outstanding issues (or hire a web developer to do so);
3. Be sure to have a web accessibility page on your website (we think that Capital One’s page is excellent: https://www.capitalone.com/about/accessibility-commitment/)
4. Have a plan in place to check your site regularly to ensure that new updates to your site haven’t caused any new accessibility issues;
5. Keep up-to-date with the latest standards and recommendations to ensure that your website is as accessible as possible to as many users as you can.