By Jon Avila, Chief Accessibility Officer at Level Access 

Over the course of my career, I’ve spoken with countless organizations that recognize the importance of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other global accessibility laws—but are unsure how to balance digital accessibility with competing demands. These organizations are keenly aware of the legal risks of non-compliance. Many have received demand letters or been served lawsuits citing ADA violations in their digital experiences. And they want to avoid future legal action.

A woman uses a laptop computer. She has gray hair, wears glasses, and has a thoughtful expression.

However, when I explain that the best way to mitigate legal risk is to provide a barrier-free experience to users, these same organizations often struggle to take action. They have a hard time finding the resources to tackle accessibility in addition to other compliance priorities, like privacy and security.

I understand this concern. Teams today face tremendous pressure to use their resources as prudently as possible. But unless they reliably address accessibility, organizations will continue to invite costly, time-consuming legal action, and they won’t have a defensible position when they’re targeted. They’ll also undermine their progress toward other business objectives. In fact, accessibility issues can expose users with disabilities to privacy and security risks, not to mention result in a poor overall user experience—or even a total lack of usability.

Here’s the good news: bringing digital experiences into alignment with accessibility requirements doesn’t need to be daunting. The key is to think like a user. In this piece, I’ll explain how tackling accessibility through the lens of an end user’s journey, and taking a focused approach to testing and remediation, allows organizations to swiftly and sustainably meet their ADA compliance goals and open their experiences up to a wider group of users.

What does ADA compliance really mean when it comes to digital accessibility?

Many teams think they need to test and fix every barrier in their digital experience, in a one-time marathon, to achieve ADA compliance. This misperception prevents them from making accessibility a consistent priority. In fact, I’ve worked with organizations that, determined to fix everything, request an audit of their entire digital experience, only to realize they don’t have the internal resources to address most issues identified. Understandably, they become disillusioned, and assume accessibility compliance is simply out of reach.

The reality is, the ADA doesn’t include specific technical standards for accessibility. The U.S. Department of Justice has cited conformance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as a benchmark for ADA compliance in its private enforcement actions. But the law itself is ultimately concerned with three key factors:

  1. Digital experiences are usable for people with disabilities.
  2. Organizations maintain the accessibility of their digital experiences over time.
  3. Organizations provide effective communication to users with disabilities (e.g., information communicated on a digital experience is communicated in a way that people with disabilities can perceive, operate, and understand).

This blog will focus primarily on providing guidance for meeting the first requirement, usability for people with disabilities, though that doesn’t make the other two requirements any less important.

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The fast track to ADA compliance and better user experience: User-first thinking

Because of the ADA’s focus on ongoing access, I advise organizations working toward ADA compliance to find a realistic and sustainable approach to testing, and fixing, their experiences. That approach doesn’t involve evaluating and attempting to remediate every page at once. Comprehensive testing is valuable to gain a baseline understanding of an experience’s accessibility—but when it comes to remediation, what really matters is that visitors can successfully use that experience to complete their goals. What are the core pages that matter most to your customers? What tasks might they need to complete?

As you begin to plan for testing and fixing specific parts of your experience, center areas that are important to users. These typically include components and templates that represent key functionality and / or are used across your site or product, such as a menu or search bar, as well as high-traffic pages like:

  • The home page
  • The contact page
  • Pages dedicated to your product(s)
  • Pages that provide a physical location for your organization

But don’t just think about the individual pieces of your site. Beyond specific pages, consider the pathways that are crucial for users. Prioritize your key user flows, or the journeys users take to complete core tasks, such as:

  • Searching for and comparing products
  • Completing a purchase
  • Contacting support
  • Logging in
  • Requesting account statements

When you ensure that users have barrier-free access to the information and functionality they value most, you’ll be well on your way to mitigating legal risk—even if you still have certain issues left to resolve.

Putting a user-first approach into practice

We’ve established that the ability for people with disabilities to use your site is the most important factor in ADA compliance—and by prioritizing the parts of your experience that users care about most, you can make working toward compliance much more manageable. Now that you have your priorities in order, you might be wondering how to approach testing, and remediating, your key components, pages, and user flows.

For the most accurate results, that reflect real users’ experience, testing should be performed manually by accessibility experts and native users of assistive technology (AT) like screen readers and speech recognition, screen magnification, and content resizing technology. And it should include evaluation of specific use cases, in which a user with a disability attempts to complete a user flow with a specific technology.

Testing by real people is critical because current automated testing tools cannot detect all issues. I was recently working with an organization that had performed automated scans of their website and found very few barriers. However, when I attempted to navigate this site with a screen reader, I was immediately blocked by a keyboard trap and hidden content. The organization was completely oblivious to these issues, since they were undetectable by automation.

Unless you’re purposefully creating a baseline and planning to follow up with more focused re-testing of specific areas, it’s wise to approach manual testing incrementally, taking care to test only what you can realistically fix. For organizations with limited resources, this is an effective way to ensure the budget you put toward testing pays off in material improvements to your digital experience. It also means accessibility doesn’t need to disrupt your product roadmap. You can approach remediation in bite-sized pieces—for example, focusing on the pages in one user flow at a time—while continuing to pursue other development priorities.

Every incremental improvement will not only help you reduce your risk, and create a defensible position if you are targeted, but ultimately result in a more equitable experience for users. And, eventually, you can shift your focus from fixing issues to proactively preventing them in the first place—which is the most efficient way to ensure accessibility and compliance. We’ll explore this in more detail in the next section.

The essential guide to user-first accessibility testing

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Compliance isn’t a checkbox

When they’re first approaching digital accessibility, organizations often assume ADA compliance is a one-time box to check—that is, that once their digital experience is usable for people with disabilities, it will remain accessible and compliant for good. However, digital experiences are constantly changing. In fact, business leaders I speak with often underestimate just how frequently their websites are updated with new content by creative teams, or how updates to widgets or third-party tools they use impact their sites’ accessibility.

Every update has the potential to introduce new barriers for users that put brands at risk of a lawsuit. For example, after settling a web accessibility lawsuit in 2016, fast casual dining franchise Sweetgreen recently became the target of another suit because it allegedly failed to ensure its site remained navigable for customers with disabilities.

The dynamic nature of digital experiences makes it especially critical that organizations approach compliance as an ongoing practice, rather than a one-time project. And maintaining accessibility, in alignment with the ADA’s requirements, typically involves more than testing and fixing in a manageable way. To start on the path to sustainable, continuous accessibility, I encourage teams to:

As part of a user-first approach, you should also aim to incorporate the perspectives of users with disabilities into your experience creation process. In practice, this could involve:

  • Including users with disabilities in focus groups for UX research.
  • Creating user personas that include users of AT, users of keyboard-only navigation, and other people with disabilities.
  • Accounting for the behavior of AT users, keyboard-only users, and other people with disabilities in the acceptance criteria for user stories.

When you thoroughly account for the different ways that users interact with your website, app, or product as you design and build, you’ll have fewer issues to fix later. And you’ll provide more intuitive experiences for users.

Enhance usability and ensure compliance with an expert partner

At first, achieving, and sustaining, digital accessibility can feel challenging—but by focusing on users’ experience, you can ensure you’re on the most efficient path toward lasting compliance. And with the right partner, you’ll have all the tools, services, and support you need to achieve your goals.

Level Access has over 25 years of experience helping organizations of all sizes and maturity levels meet their accessibility compliance obligations. Our experts will:

  • Help you understand how people with disabilities use digital technology, and how accessible your digital assets are at a baseline level.
  • Work with you to identify the templates, components, pages, and key user flows that matter most to your audience.
  • Manually test these pages and flows using a variety of assistive technologies (AT), delivering actionable results.
  • Support you with prioritizing and remediating any issues we identify.
  • Equip you with advanced automated monitoring tools, training, and other resources you need to sustain compliance.

Ready to start your journey to lasting accessibility and compliance? Contact a member of our team today.

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