Several months ago, I was honored to become a certified accessibility professional. This certification, which is near and dear to my heart, aims to ensure that everyone, regardless of ability or disability, has access to information. I’ve been excited to make use of this certification at RK&K. Similar to our work ensuring transportation solutions are accessible to all, RK&K partners with clients to make their digital ecosystems more accessible. This means collaborating with clients to ensure their websites, mobile apps, and other digital communications can be consumed by people of all abilities. This meaningful initiative was sparked by an amendment to the American Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which served as a catalyst for improved accessibility for information and communication technology.
The Critical Importance of Digital Accessibility
In 1998, the American Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was amended to include 508, which requires federal agencies to make their information and communication technology (ICT) accessible to people with disabilities. This means that federal agencies must ensure their ICT is usable by people with disabilities unless there are undue burdens.
Specifically, Section 508 requires federal agencies to ensure that their ICT allows employees and members of the public with disabilities to have access to and use of information and data. This access must be comparable to that available to employees and members of the public without disabilities.
Currently, this applies to federal organizations, independent regulatory agencies, and federally funded organizations.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers website accessibility under Title III. While website-related lawsuits have increased over the past few years, there is no clear definition of an accessible website. The rulings vary state to state.
Predicting these factors and trying to limit obstacles provides greater opportunities for engagement, and that person may be more likely to return.
The Curb Cut Effect
Well-designed digital products and services are more user-friendly for everyone, not just people with disabilities. They are easier to use, more efficient, and enjoyable.
The curb cut effect refers to the phenomenon of features that are intended for people with disabilities benefitting a larger group. On a sidewalk, curb cuts benefit not only wheelchairs, but parents pushing strollers, bicycle riders, and workers pushing heavy carts.
Another example is closed captioning. Originally intended for those with hearing impairments, closed captioning benefits a wider array of people. Those who do not natively speak the language can get better context by reading the captions. A particularly quiet scene that is otherwise unintelligible can be read instead.
Including accessibility within your workflow produces a similar effect: people who are otherwise without a disability will find it much easier to comprehend.
Most barriers to access are unintentional. Making digital ecosystems (website, documents, social media) more accessible improves the experience for people with or without impairments. Examples of access improvements include:
Inadequate color contrast is a frequent problem. Color contrast is the difference in brightness between foreground and background colors. Valid color contrast benefits people with visual impairments, such as the colorblind or low vision. But it benefits those without impairments by making text and other page artifacts easier to pick out. Thankfully, there are tools that automatically check the color contrast.
If the information is presented as text, people who have difficulty comprehending that text should be given the alternative of having a piece of software such as NVDA or JAWS read it to them.
Alternative text, or alt text, is the text read by screen readers providing a description of the image so that those with poor or no vision may understand what is being conveyed. Also, the alt text will show if the image fails to load or does not load. In places with low-speed internet connections, alt text can show in place of the image when images are set to not load by default.
Alt text can also improve the search engine ranking. When search engines crawl your website, they look at the alt text of your images to understand what they are about. This can help your images appear higher in search results for relevant queries.
Video and Audio Accessibility Options
Accessibility expands beyond words and picture. Don’t forget about video and audio!
Captions are text version of the spoken audio, plus a description of important sounds, synchronized with the video. They are essential for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and they can also be helpful for non-native speakers of a particular language.
Transcripts are a written record of the speech that takes place in an audio or video recording. They are helpful for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and they can also be helpful for people who want to follow along with the video or audio but cannot watch or listen to it at the same time. As an additional benefit, transcripts allow a user to backtrack for further clarification.
Audio descriptions are a narration of the visual content of a video or audio recording. They are helpful for people who are blind or visually impaired, and it can also be helpful for people who are watching or listening to the video or audio in a noisy environment.
Many streaming services offer audio descriptions. A service such as the Audio Description Project keeps a curated list of all titles and which service have audio descriptions.
RK&K Provides Solutions for Clients
RK&K is proud to have partnered with valued clients to support improved accessibility for digital content. Recently RK&K provided website accessibility audits for the City of Charlottesville for their Fontaine Streetscapes project. As part of the firm’s work on the multimodal design project, our team provided enhanced digital accessibility features to the project’s website and supporting public documents. By ensuring compliance, the website can better operate within the guidelines of accessibility and the overall user experience Is improved.
The team also collaborated with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to complete document reviews to ensure compliance with current accessibility standards. This opened the documents to a greater audience and ensured that documents can adapt to changes in software, hardware, and user preferences. It also allowed everyone in the digital space to participate.
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Accessibility is the right thing to do because it allows people with disabilities to participate in society on an equal basis. When websites, apps, and other digital products are accessible, people with disabilities can use them to communicate, learn, shop, and access information just like everyone else.