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Basic Facts and Resources You Need to Know Now About Web Accessibility

WordPress ThemesLast night I gave a presentation for an amazing group of web designers and developers in Portland, Oregon. I spoke about web accessibility, a long time passion of mine. My co-presenter was Winslow Parker from the Oregon Commission for the Blind who has been teaching screen reading and computer techniques to the blind. He’s also a long time expert and consultant for JAWS Screen Reading Software. He also happens to be blind, so his passion for his work is tightly mixed with his passion for life and accessibility.

Glenda Watson Hyatt, author of How Pour is Your Blog free ebookAs I stood before the crowd at WebTrends, beside me in spirit are two of the world’s passionate leaders in web accessibility. Glenda Watson Hyatt, author of Blog Accessibility and the free ebook, The POUR Ebook: Standards, Tips, and Techniques for Meeting Web Accessibility Standards, and Aaron Gustafso, author of Adaptive Web Design: Crafting Rich Experiences with Progressive Enhancement, a life changing book for an web design and app developer.

There are some critical things ALL WEB DESIGNERS and WORDPRESS THEME DEVELOPERS must know about recent changes in the laws from the Americans with Disabilities Act and US Government. I do not capitalize those words lightly.

Web designers and developers are unfortunately uninformed or aren’t getting the news, so many site designs and WordPress Themes and Plugins are non-compliant, though many have been for many years. The problem is “how would you know the difference?” There are tests I’ve listed below that will check a website and design for compliance.

Government sites have been warned about compliance for almost a decade, but commercial businesses, non-profits, and educational institutions are still not getting the message. In “Web Accessibility: Required, Not Optional” by the University Business Magazine, the author explains that the upcoming EDUCAUSE annual national conference will have many sessions dedicated to compliance with web accessibility rules and regulations, encouraging and helping schools update their websites and online teaching sites.

“One of the biggest problems with accessibility is that it tends to be a quiet problem,” says Glenda Sims, the HighEdWeb conference chair and a senior accessibility consultant at Deque Systems, Inc. Issues with inaccessible websites are, by nature, invisible to the eyes of the vast majority of web visitors and most web developers. With tighter budgets to manage, emerging technologies to implement, and other “more visible” issues to tackle, many institutions have let web accessibility slip off of their to-do lists and have overlooked for too long their obligation to comply with the laws and regulations in place.

Many institutions have let web accessibility slip off of their to-do lists.

As findings from a 2008 study conducted by the WebAIM on behalf of the National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE) show, only 3 percent of web pages randomly selected from the websites of 100 institutions were deemed accessible by demonstrating full compliance with the federal standards of Section 508. This poor performance in terms of accessibility looked even more heartbreaking when compared to the conclusions of a similar study done by the NCDAE 10 years earlier. In 1998, like in 2008, 97 percent of the web pages didn’t meet the basic web accessibility standards.

The article points at Google Apps, a popular resource today for many teachers, being non-compliant and in violation of the federal laws that prohibit educational institutions to “acquire, offer, or recommend technology that is inaccessible to those with print disabilities.” With legal action pending, Google jumped and cleaned up their programs and now require all of their apps and programs to run through extensive accessibility testing.

The Title II of the United States Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (amended in 1998) required schools, government agencies, and commercial companies require equal opportunity access to public spaces. Section 508 states that all technology purchased and for use by these groups must also comply with equal opportunity access for the disabled, so this is not a new ruling. It’s been around for decades, updated to accommodate the new digital world. The probationary status is now gone and the law is now in full stature.

This isn’t news, yet many in the web industry are hearing it for the first time.

Notes from Lorelle’s Web Accessibility Presentation

The following are my notes from the presentation with links to online resources to help web designers develop accessible websites, and a few things you need to know now in order to comply with recent rulings on web design for accessibility.

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.
Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

From the Sydney International Olympics accessibility lawsuit:

SOCOG said: “Our site is too big to make accessible. It will cost too much to retrofit.”

Court said: “If you did it right in the first place, it would cost you less, open the site to everyone, and be search engine friendly.”

As of an ADA ruling in 2010:

By March 15, 2012, all businesses serving the public, store front or web, must meet ADA accessibility guidelines.

Failure to comply could result in fines up to or exceeding $100,000.

A brief and incomplete list of companies sued in the past few years for not meeting accessibility standards on the web:

  • Netflix
  • Southwest Airlines
  • Ramada
  • WebTV
  • Target
  • International Olympics Committee (Sydney, Australia)
  • Disney
  • MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Transportation)
  • Attorney General, State of Connecticut (inaccessible online tax forms)
  • AOL
  • Facebook
  • Berkeley University
  • John Marshall Law School

The acronym “P.O.U.R.” means Perceivable, Operable, Understanding, and Robust, the key elements in developing an accessible website as explained by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines ( WCAG ) 2.0.

Accessibility Associations and US Government Resources

The following list features agencies involved in creating legislature and offering support services for accessibility, in buildings, businesses, communities, and the web. While they may not represent the policies and laws in your community, in fact they might be weaker, the United States has followed closely the aggressive policies of other countries and now others are following their example. For some of the strongest laws on accessibility rights for everyone, including the disabled, check the laws in Canada and Britain.

While some of the following groups were created as part of the US Government’s Equal Opportunity and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), these and others are often volunteer run and supported and they need your help. From helping to create and support policy to simple fact, grammar, and rest checking across the website. One of the tasks most in need of help is cross checking all of their resource link lists. Many are years out of date with links to dead pages and closed projects, and many new projects aren’t listed. Please consider volunteering some of your time to help these groups improve their online resources, and please spread the word about the services they offer to your readers.

Web design and accessibility specific groups working on moving the web forward with accessibility standards in place include:

Tools and Resources for Validation, Testing, and Developing Accessible Websites

There are many tools on the web, free and commercial, for testing and validating websites for accessibility standards. Some of these are woefully out of date, developed by grant programs or volunteers. With the impending deadline, new and/or updates to these need to be in place to help the web designer test their site designs and code. WHDb created the 100 Killer Web Accessibility Resources: Blogs, Forums and Tutorials List which offers an extensive list of tools and resources as of 2008. There are also many add-ons for web browsers with validation and testing capabilities that I have not listed here.

The following are the ones I talked about in my presentation and are fairly up-to-date but not necessarily HTML5 or CSS3 ready. I’ve noted the ones that are below.

Articles on ADA Standards for Web Design

With the impending deadline, web designers are starting to sit up and take note, but leaders in the web design and accessibility fields have been talking about this for a while. So learn from their thoughts, experiences, and expertise to help you transition to meet the new rules next year.

This is not a complete list. If you have some links and references you would like to see added to this list, let me know!

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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen.


  1. Posted July 15, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Girl – you are singing my song! Some more resources for you:

    Guild of Accessible Web Designers
    (Effectively archived now but still full of useful stuff)

    PAS 78: A guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites (UK)

    And of course:

  2. Carol
    Posted July 16, 2011 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    Interesting that the list of organisations sued includes the International Olympics Committee (Sydney, Australia). I assume this was for a website based in the U.S. and intended for U.S. persons since, as far as I understand, websites outside the U.S. are outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law.

    • Posted July 16, 2011 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      An Australian sued the Sydney committee and the IOC (hard to separate the two on the website) for inaccessibility. It had nothing to do with the United States, but it set precedence around the world as the IOC serves an international audience, thus must offer the highest standards to meet or beat the rules in EVERY country in the world. Since few at the time had any legal criteria for accessible websites, and Australia’s laws covered websites, a case was viable. The United States started taking legal actions based upon that case.

      As for the residence country of the other big name companies, I don’t know where they are as much as the fact that they have been sued and are well known companies with a strong web presence, which is why I put them on the list. I have many resources in other articles on this site to international organizations and guidelines. This presentation was specifically to US based web developers and designers.

    • Posted July 18, 2011 at 3:00 am | Permalink

      A braille user called Bruce Maguire successfully sued the Olympic committee under the UK Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). AS DDA was a much younger law than ADA, it already covered electronic communication – making the case much easier to try. As Lorelle correctly states, it set a global case precedent which was followed, a few years later, in other countries. If you want to look at US-specific cases, the Priceline and Ramada cases were amongst the first successful suits under ADA.

      • Posted July 18, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

        @esmi, you rock! Excellent. I followed those cases closely at the time, eager to see which way they would go, and they went the right way. The web was designed to be universally open to all, and I’ve stood by that “all” for a long time! Thanks!

  3. Posted July 22, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Lorelle, do you have a specific resource saying that the ADA regulations are in-general required for websites in March 2012? From what I read from the ADA website (more specifically in the Federal Register), while the ADA “takes the position” that certain public entities are required to have accessible web sites, it is not specifically codified into law? (search for “web” in that document to find relevant passages). I can see that there are plenty of court cases decided in that direction, and that’s great, but I’m just wondering if there’s actual law specifically applying to websites (except in narrow cases, like government organizations).

    • Greg
      Posted July 22, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      Dougal: The document you referenced from the Federal Register is a final DOJ regulation and is the kind of positive law you were asking about. The preamble explaining the DOJ’s position is a helpful guide, but the real important part is in the actual regulation’s definition of “auxiliary aids and services,” which now includes “accessible electronic and information technology.” This means accessible websites, documents, and other technology. Public accommodations (i.e. private entities open to the public) and public entities (i.e. state and local government) must provide effective communication with persons with disabilities and auxiliary aids and services help achieve that. The new regs say: “In order to be effective, auxiliary aids and services must be provided in accessible formats, in a timely manner, and in such a way as to protect the privacy and independence of the individual with a disability.”

      And the court cases are law as well, albeit not of legislative/quasi-legislative birth.

    • Posted July 22, 2011 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

      Fact Sheet — Highlights of the Final Rule to Amend the Department of Justice’s Regulation Implementing Title II of the ADA under Effective Communication covers web accessibility, though lightly in that brief. There is a lot of confusion over “communication” which is what Greg is talking about. It opens the door for legal action as it is clear and fuzzy over specifics of web design. From the list of references in the article, most leaders in web development and design are taking this deadline seriously.

    • Greg
      Posted July 25, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink

      For what it is worth, the DOJ is working on regulations to spell out standards of web design for entities covered by the ADA. The proposed (i.e. draft) regs are due out at the end of 2012. Until then, there are helpful standards under 508 and WCAG 2.0, but I highly recommend supplementing any categorical standard with a performance standard backed up by user testing. This is because categorical standards can lead to false positives and, because they are in stone, they do not adapt with emerging technology. So, the ultimate inquiry is not just whether the design complies with the categorical standard, but whether a user with a disability can access the same information and engage in the same transactions as a person without a disability with a substantially equivalent ease of use.

    • Ward
      Posted July 27, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      Hi Lorelle,

      I was at the talk at Webtrends – Thanks much! It was highly informative. My question is, from the Fact Sheet link you posted –

      On March 15, 2012, compliance with the 2010 Standards will be required for new construction and alterations.

      This specifically states “new contruction and alterations” which sounds like to me that pre-existing web entities need not be altered to meet these new guidelines. Am I correct on this?

      • Posted July 28, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

        That reference is about buildings not web pages. The laws around accessibility have long stated that “public” as in government usually, and businesses that work with governments, are required to have web pages that meet accessibility guidelines, like the WCAG and 508. The change comes under “Effective Communication” and requires all businesses to have websites that meet those guidelines. It isn’t hard, they should have already done that, and while they might not be subject to the building penalties, they could be, as well as subject to law suits supported by the ADA, et al.

        I’ve never understood why it is so freakin’ hard to add a title to a link and alt to an image when writing content, and some simple stuff when building the design that meets web standards for accessibility. Any twit with a peek under the hood can tell you that a Flash driven site is search engine unfriendly until very recently, so why would anyone do that…it was lazy and easy. That’s not the best definition of a hard working web designer.

        This isn’t hard stuff. I’ll be writing more about it, but trust me, ALL sites on the web, especially business sites, must meet all web accessibility standards if I were in charge. If your site is hosted along with your business in the UK or Canada, you’d be doing all these things years ago. They are really simple and all websites should comply.

  4. Posted April 16, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Great post, Lorelle, and thanks for the mention of PAS 78, esmi.

    Just to let you know that PAS 78 was superseded by BS 8878 in December 2010.

    BS 8878S continues PAS 78’s emphasis on providing guidance to non-technical website owners for the whole process of commissioning, procuring and producing accessible websites, but updates it to provide advice on :
    – web 2.0’s much wider purposes for websites (e.g. multimedia sites, Software as a Service sites) and the move from provider-produced content to user-generated content (e.g. blogs, Facebook, YouTube)
    – the increasing range of devices on which websites are viewed (e.g. smartphones, tablets, IPTV)
    – the increasing use of non-W3C technologies to produce websites
    – the increasing use of “off the shelf” website builder tools to create websites rather than bespoke development
    – the increasing use of on-site accessibility personalisation tools like CSS style-switchers
    – the changing organisational structure of web product teams and key personnel impacting product accessibility, especially the growing role of web product managers

    BS 8878 is well worth checking out, and you can find the official slides from its launch, case studies of organisations using BS 8878, detailed blogs on its use by SMEs, tools and training for applying the Standard, and news on its progress towards an International Standard at

    Jonathan Hassell
    Lead-author of BS 8878

  5. Posted April 20, 2014 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Bruce Elgort and commented:
    Here are some great resources that my colleague Lorelle VanFossen has put together regarding web accessibility. Have a read and let me know if web accessibility is part of your design work.

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