There are three reasons to start paying serious attention to how accessible your digital content is.
- It’s the right thing to do.
- It’s the proactive approach in providing value to and engaging your entire audience.
- It’s the law.
Meet the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. This is the civil rights law that prohibits any form of discrimination based on disability. And while many people view it through the lens of providing ramps, accessible bathroom stalls, and parking spaces, the law very much applies to online and digital offerings.
While there’s no need to panic, there were 2,352 lawsuits filed for lack of digital accessibility in 2021. It’s time to stop overlooking the subject, and instead dive in! But at the same time, the motivation should not be the threat of lawsuits. The motivation should be what associations seek to do every day…provide as much value as possible to their members.
Opening Yourself Up to the Topic of Accessibility
Higher Logic’s Nancy Hahlbeck is a certified ADA coordinator. How does someone become a coordinator? Before her certification, she was consulting with a lot of local and state government clients and started getting calls from these municipalities asking if their websites were ADA compliant. Because this topic started dominating her client conversations, she decided to dive in and begin the certification process.
Getting certified is not necessarily easy, and it does take time. But for Nancy, it wasn’t just about helping her clients, it was about becoming an ally to these users. It was obvious there was a clear need for deeper knowledge, especially at software companies. And it was obvious more and more companies and organizations were wanting to start taking action on accessibility. She joined us to share more about how associations can become accessible on The Member Engagement Show.
Prefer audio? Listen to the full episode here.
You Aren’t Going to Get Everything Done At Once
As you would expect, organizations have a lot of initial questions about accessibility and the ADA. Listen to what Nancy heard most from her clients.
“I think a lot of the questions that I have heard come from a space of really wanting to learn and know more, but they’re almost always worded incorrectly, which just goes to show the lack of educational resources that people have had access to learn more about this. So a lot of what I hear is, you know, is my website accessible, is my portal accessible – and accessibility is not a really a yes or no. It’s very much a spectrum. You know, whether your system is highly compliant or if it’s at a low level of compliancy. So I think a lot of it is just the questions that I hear are just based around, ‘Please tell me if I’m passing or failing.’ And it’s a lot deeper than that, but there are so many small steps that you can take that we’ll get you comfortable with having those conversations and asking the right questions, I think, to eventually get those answers they’re looking for.”
As you heard, every association has to start with their current knowledge and understanding of these issues, no matter how low that might be. This shouldn’t be discouraging. Because even those who come to believe they have a handle on accessibility are challenged by ever-changing trends, technology, and forces that require regular reassessment and adjustment.
Maybe one year you score high on accessibility, and you’ve got a highly compliant web presence. But then you hire someone new who’s never had to add alternative texts or page description, and your score quickly decreases as a result. Every single touch that goes to your portal online is going to affect that metric. Technology has brought a lot of tools and opportunity where managing ADA compliance is concerned. But the sure thing about technology is that it will change, and new technologies will replace it. You keep finding yourself back at the drawing board.
Sound stressful? Listen to what Nancy says next. It will make you feel better.
“So I think first, we all need to take a second and just breathe because it sounds scary. And I think that’s why a lot of organizations sometimes shy away from it entirely, and don’t really dive in, because the web is a big place, and putting content out there, you wanna make sure that it’s accessible and legal and all of those things. I would say first, just take a step back and realize that it’s a lot of small steps that get you to a good place.”
The Steps to Begin Your Accessibility Journey
Now that you’re developing an interest in accessibility and ADA compliance, you’ll be happy to find there’s an embarrassment of riches out there in terms of free online resources. Just a few to get you started:
- The federal government’s ADA website
- The ADA National Network
- Digital Access and Title III of the ADA pdf
Step One: Familiarize
As with any new subject, a lot of your apprehension will dissipate once you’ve familiarized yourself with the language and terminology of accessibility. Ever start a new job and felt wobbly the first couple of months because you were unfamiliar with the company’s insider acronyms? These things take a little time. Type “tools to make my website accessible” into your search or address bar. Right away you’ll see a lot of words you aren’t used to using, and you’ll notice some occur again and again. Those are the main ones to research and familiarize yourself with. Once familiar, things become a lot less scary.
Step Two: Get Help
Find an advocate or mentor. There are people who will examine your website for free. The point is to have someone readily available to talk to and ask questions of as you move through this journey, because you’ll get more practiced, and your questions will get harder.
Step Three: Get Organized
How do you get your staff to buy in to the project of improving accessibility? One of Nancy’s favorite things to start off with is finding and sharing real world statistics of the community of persons with disabilities, the percentage of their local population with a disability, the percentages in their industry, etc. You can find resources, like the census, not just about how many folks live with a disability but what types of disabilities those are. You can determine, “Should we start with closed captioning, or will alternative text help the most people the soonest?” Nancy then puts real people behind those numbers. If 13% of your city has a disability, just how many people is that? This can lead to an eye-opening statement such as, “There are 13,000 individuals in our city who really want to use our services and might not be able to!”
If things go as they typically do, you’ll see a shift in the team you’re trying to get on board. Suddenly, it’s not a technical issue, it’s not just another task or checkbox, it’s something meaningful that needs to be done for real human beings. The result is a sincere desire to improve…for them.
From there, accessibility doesn’t have to be a topic you cram into one month or one week of training. Approach it in phases. Maybe it’s a lunch and learn every couple of months. Maybe it’s a hands-on session once a week. The goal is to naturally integrate this training and awareness into your organization’s life so that it doesn’t feel like some initiative that will disappear in time and becomes an embedded part of what the organization does.
Step Four: Self-Assessment
One of the best things you can do is run your website or platform through a screen reader. Even if you just pop it into one of the free browsers, you can see how many errors are on your website. That gives you an idea of how much needs to be done. For instance, if you find you have a logo on every page that doesn’t have alternative text, that might be 500 errors, but it’s one fix. You can see how much of a lift is required to reach an improved level of compliancy. If you’re working with a vendor, you can always reach out to them and ask what they’re doing on the accessibility front. Allow them the freedom to be honest. They may just be starting their own ADA awareness and journey as well.
From a technical aspect, you can employ hackathons. If you have folks that like to break things, you could put together a team from your technical staff and say, “Go run these through screen readers or try to find any non-accessible PDFs.” Some people will find this kind of mission fun and a nice departure from what they do day to day.
The Job is Engagement, So Why Have Barriers to Engagement?
Here, Nancy says it’s not really about getting a passing grade. But she does warn us about the one thing that can really get you into trouble.
Put together an accessibility statement. It’s not written in stone. In fact, you can count on it changing over time. But it should provide list of browsers in which your system works best. Some info for mobile users. But most importantly a contact they can reach out to if they’re having trouble accessing some of the content. If there is no one to reach out to or if there’s only some generic email that shares something from the knowledge base, they probably aren’t going to have any success using your system.
Also, it’s important to put your intentions into your accessibility statement. Tell users what you’re working on and trying to accomplish in this area. The more specific you are, even including anticipated delivery dates, the better. “Our goal is to have all PDFs accessible by July 4 of next year.” This illustrates that you are aware of accessibility issues, that you care, and that you are putting serious effort toward it.
You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to get it 100% right. But the time to start doing the things you can do to make your products and services available to every single member is now.
Corporate Communications & Content Consultant
With backgrounds in TV, radio and theater, Mike Stiles took the lessons learned in storytelling and audience engagement to enterprise content strategy and writing services. Before serving his own clients, he was Manager Global Content Strategy for IHG. Prior to that he was with the Oracle Social Cloud where he led content and created, produced and hosted the Oracle Social Marketing Minute podcast and ran the thrice weekly blog. Clients have included Oracle, P&G, Delta, PayPal, the CDC, Equifax, IHG, UCB, Fiserv, and many others. He is author of the eBook “Showtime: Brands as Content Producers.”
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