With today’s proliferation of technology tools, it’s easy to assume that web content is readily accessible in a multitude of formats to anyone, anywhere, anytime. For Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, the reality of web accessibility is still a hit or miss and relies on the greater awareness and commitment to such equity.
According to the National Institute on Deafness, roughly 37.5 million people over age 18 have some degree of hearing loss. By 2050, the World Health Organization expects that number to rise to 2.5 billion. And yet, over 90% of websites are still deemed inaccessible.
Not incorporating accessible content excludes a significant portion of the population. For people who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing, transcripts and captions of audio content are essential, rendering website accessibility non-negotiable.
Image Source: World Economic Forum
Hearing loss can range from mild to moderate to severe. Some individuals are able to hear sounds, but are unable to decipher speech patterns, particularly when audio quality is low. With audio and video content dominating the internet, ensuring total web accessibility allows an equitable online consumption experience for everyone.
To be compliant and accessible, websites are required to follow ADA and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). However, web accessibility is more than a mere requirement. It is a social responsibility of those who design and develop websites, tools, and applications as web accessibility enables people with disabilities to actively participate with online society.
Published in 1990, the ADA is a civil rights law that provides protection against discrimination in all areas of public life, including websites. This means people with disabilities can partake in the digital world with ease and convenience. While the ADA does not explicitly mention website accessibility as part of its jurisdiction, subsequent legal rulings have established that businesses must accommodate individuals with disabilities on the internet just as they do in physical places of business.
Under the law, website content must accommodate those who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing, blind or have a vision impairment, as well as individuals with speech disabilities, learning limitations, photosensitivity, and beyond. A website that is not accessible not only fails to meet the needs of a sizable number of its users, but increases the legal exposure to an accessibility lawsuit.
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Non-compliance is not tolerated under any circumstance—be it ignorance or a website being “under development”. To be sufficiently compliant with the ADA and other accessibility laws and guidelines, a website must include: (1) a website accessibility testing and remediation plan, (2) an accessibility statement, (3) periodic manual audits of website accessibility, and (4) an available grievance procedure.
All local or state government agencies and private employers with 15 or more employees are required to adopt an ADA compliant website design. Businesses that exist to service the public such as transportation, education and telecommunications must also comply with web accessibility guidelines.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a set of web standards that aim to make the internet a more inclusive and accessible space for users with disabilities. The wide range of disabilities that fall under this umbrella include visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning and neurological impairments.
The guidelines are organized under 4 principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. To meet standards, each guideline is rated against success criteria, of which there are three levels of compliance: A (must support), AA (should support), and AAA (may support). The AA level is considered the legal minimum.
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Elements of an Accessible Website
Recognized as the international industry standard, the WCAG 2.0 outlines the following recommendations and policies concerning web accessibility.
The information and user interface components of a website should be presented to users in ways they can perceive.
Alt tags are a text alternative for an image file that succinctly and accurately describes the subject of the image, allowing users to understand it, even if they can’t see it. They serve as cues for people who are blind or have visual impairments. Likewise, well-written alt text can create a fulfilling and inclusive experience for people who rely on assistive technology, like a screen reader.
Other forms of text alternatives like captions help make video content readable. Including a transcript below a video or audio element also enables users to read content at their own pace. For Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, having access to captions or transcripts levels the playing field and creates a more equitable digital experience.
Color should be implemented with consideration, and not as the only visual means of conveying information. In addition, a high enough contrast level between text and its background is highly recommended along with text that’s resizable without the loss of content or functionality.
All the functionality of the website should be available through a keyboard interface. This means, for users who struggle to use a mouse, the tab key on their keyboards or voice commands should be enough to navigate the content.
WCAG 2.0 guidelines dictate that “web pages do not contain anything that flashes more than three times in any one second period.” Moving, flashing, or blinking content such as advertisements, videos, carousels can create problems for users with cognitive impairments.
Helping users navigate and find content is an accessible necessity that makes websites operable. Clear page titles, well-organized content, easy-to-understand website architecture, descriptive link text (as opposed to “click here”), and clear headers are all specific techniques that improve a site’s operability.
Video Source: YouTube
The way the information is presented and the layout of the content, should be easy to understand. In particular, technical content or jargon should be limited or even avoided altogether.
Beyond making text readable, navigation should be both constant and consistent. When interactive elements, such as a form are used, error messages or clear instructions should prompt users to correct fields where invalid entries or incorrect formats have been entered.
The principle of robustness states that “content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.” Content must be accessible via different mobile devices and web browsers too. With responsive design and cross-browser compatibility, this can be easily accomplished.
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Website Accessibility Barriers for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing People
Content generation that utilizes visual and audio mediums has increased exponentially in recent years. While this style of content has shown to increase interaction among the mass consumers, it often comes with barriers for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people. For example, audio and multimedia content such as podcasts and videos with sound—that do not include captions or transcript—exclude hearing-impaired audiences.
Media players that fail to display captions and do not allow volume control also dismiss the needs of those who cannot hear. Many web applications and web-based services only use voice interaction, which lacks accessibility on obvious fronts. Whether it’s the hammer of the ADA, or activism from the Deaf community, awareness for accessibility needs continued reinforcement.
Image Source: WSI
Improving Web Accessibility for Deaf and Hard-of-hearing People
To accommodate diverse needs, content in textual form alone is no longer enough. To ensure equal access, follow these suggestions.
1. Incorporate Captions Into All Video
While a transcript is typically sufficient enough to meet accessibility requirements for audio-only files, adding captions to video content is beneficial. Ideally placed at the bottom, so no content is blocked, the captions should be easy to read and accurate. If you are using an automated tool to create captions, be sure to review the captions for errors. Synchronizing captions with the audio is equally important, so Deaf and hard-of-hearing people can follow along.
2. Check Caption Accuracy
Multiple programs exist to help you caption videos. However, auto-captions aren’t necessarily the best way to deliver on accessibility since they are not 100% accurate. While automatic speech recognition (ASR) technology is a useful gateway tool for generating captions, the key to caption accuracy is human proofing. Solutions like Ava start you off with 99% accuracy to make your final review and edits less labor intensive.
Image Source: Rev
3. Text Transcripts
To mitigate the barrier that content with sound poses for those who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing, use transcripts. Include a verbatim record of everything the speakers say. The text transcript should also identify who is speaking and note in brackets any other significant sounds that are part of the recording such as laughter, applause, audience questions, long pauses, etc.
4. Don’t Overuse Slang and Puns
Common phonetic sounds and phonetic abbreviations that may be easily deciphered by those with normal hearing, can be difficult for individuals in the Deaf community to comprehend. The same applies to using a multitude of synonyms as sign language uses very few, and is more dependent on facial expressions and body language.
Image Source: Groovy Post
5. Limit Background Noise
Ensure that you have high-quality foreground audio that is clearly distinguishable from any background noise. Provide an option where background sounds can be turned off. Alternatively, and if feasible, don’t include background noise at all. In addition, it’s recommended that you include decibel levels below 70 dBA for all audio elements.
6. Choose a Media Player with Extensive Functions
Media players that incorporate these functions make your content more accessible for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people:
- Options to stop, pause, and adjust the volume of the audio content (independently of the system volume).
- Options to adjust the text style, size, color and position of the captions.
- Options to change the speed of the video.
- Inclusion of an interactive transcript that highlights text phrases as they are spoken.
Offer sign language for videos, using a sign language expert or an interpreter, by providing a recording, or through selective video edits.
8. Hire or Consult More Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Web Designers and Content Creators
Employing Deaf or hard-of-hearing people as part of your web team can provide insight into how the website needs to fully function to be completely accessible.
9. Make Sure Content is Flexible
iPhones, Apple Watches, and other mobile technologies are a game-changer for Deaf or those who are hard-of-hearing since they prove helpful in navigation and are suitable for curating information. Create content that can easily be enlarged for screen magnifiers.
10. Test for Accessibility
Here are four testing tools to help determine website compliance with accessibility regulations:
- WAVE identifies problems and provides a solution to fix them. In addition, it provides accessibility information with error icons and indicators on the web page.
- aXe is a free, open-source accessibility testing tool that enables functional testers with minimal accessibility knowledge to perform step-by-step manual accessibility tests. It can identify and resolve accessibility problems while a site is being developed.
- WebAIM can be used to check your text and background colors to ensure that they comply with WCAG standards.
- NV Access a free screen reader for Windows, helps developers track focus objects on the screen. Developers can also view the screen reader output as text by its speech viewer.
The Path to Web Accessibility & ADA Compliance
While the path to Web Accessibility and ADA compliance may appear daunting, the legal ramifications for sites riddled with accessibility barriers are far more damaging. For many businesses, the catalyst to initiate accessibility has been fueled by the rise of lawsuits—unfortunate, but seemingly effective.
Despite increasing awareness surrounding the importance of web accessibility, there is still a significant lack of practical information and transparency on how to implement best practices for accessibility. While website accessibility laws are still a gray area, companies that recognize the ethical responsibility to design websites with inclusion in mind pave the way for progress. Promoting public policies and ADA laws are encouraged to foster awareness for web accessibility and support an equitable web future for all.