How web accessibility empowers governments to deliver inclusive citizen experiences
Delivering unequal citizen experiences is a human rights issue. It doesn’t matter if it’s within your website or inside your office building. Accessibility is what makes the world go around. Consider this: over 1 billion global citizens are living with some form of disability. Hence, 15% of the world faces barriers while accessing private/public services. Even in a developed nation like the United States, the number of disabled citizens has crossed 300 million.
All over the world, governments have grown sensitive to those with visual, hearing, speech, and other impairments. They don’t want to leave anyone behind while providing access to public services. Today, the digital world is fast catching up. It has become critical to give every citizen an inclusive web experience. Any failure to make their digital assets accessible to disabled citizens is a severe violation.
Who are your users, and what are their disabilities?
Let’s look at three use cases of disabled citizens. These are just a few types of citizens who use federal websites to fulfill their responsibilities and avail their rights
Nancy is 70 years old. She became a wheelchair user after a spinal injury that left her partially paralyzed. Due to her condition, she has to use the Internet to fulfill all her citizen duties and responsibilities. She visits a federal website to pay her State taxes. Unfortunately, after logging in, she doesn’t have sufficient time to enter her tax details. The web page gets timed out every time she tries to fill out the online form. Nancy is frustrated after unsuccessfully trying several times.
Bill is an army veteran. He lost his arms in combat while serving overseas. With the State ready to provide disability benefits, he must complete an online application process. In his condition, Bill has no choice but to rely on voice commands to navigate the government-run website. While submitting the eligibility details, he is unable to upload the document using voice inputs. There is also no eye-tracking support to help Bill proceed further.
Eddie is a 24-year-old college student. Eddie is a visually impaired citizen - with partial vision loss. While checking his student loan payment details, he notices a major discrepancy. After getting unsatisfactory responses from the bank, Eddie tries elsewhere. He logs into the State Attorney General's website to get clarity on consumer financial protection. But he can barely read a single line on the web page due to clashing contrast between foreground text and background colors. A dejected Eddie adjusts the laptop screen's contrast level. But it doesn't seem to help.
It's the law: Current regulations of web accessibility
W3C is renowned as the bearer of international standards for the Internet. It published the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in 1998. Providing broad guidelines, W3C aimed to educate on how to code and design accessible websites. A decade later, in 2008, WCAG 2.0 was launched. It provided a more extensive range of recommendations to ensure web content accessibility.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 limits any disability-based discrimination. It covers employment, public entities, and accommodations to telecommunications, and other miscellaneous provisions. In recent times, the ADA’s scope of coverage has grown to cover web accessibility. It states that “governments must furnish auxiliary aids and services” such as video captioning.
Section 508 (1998) is an amendment to the Workforce Rehabilitation Act (1973). It pressurized federal agencies to make their digital assets accessible to disabled citizens. Section 508 governs all systems used by federal agencies to serve the public. As of 2018, federal agencies have been expected to adhere to WCAG 2.0 standards.
4 basic guidelines of WCAG 2.0
WCAG 2.0 standards expect government websites to follow four major guidelines:
Perceivable: Citizens can perceive your website either via keyboard/mouse or screen readers.
Operable: Citizens can navigate every part of your website to perform all essential functions. For instance, filling up forms, accessing multimedia-related content, and others.
Understandable: Citizens can enjoy an unambiguous reading experience. For instance, easy-to-read content formats and predictable operation of web components.
Robust: Citizens can use assistive technologies like screen readers and magnification software.
3 principles to deliver citizen-first web experiences
Design principles for web accessibility
The visual UI elements of government websites play an essential role. Unless the core design is accessible, no amount of development can fix poor web experiences.
- Manage contrast ratio to separate foreground text from background colors
- Don't use colors to convey information
- Add descriptive labels for all form fields
- Use fixed heading levels to reduce clutter in readability
- Allow users to pause animations or auto-playing sound
Content principles for web accessibility
Content compatibility is a crucial part of the web accessibility roadmap. Citizens must be able to use any type of assistive technology to read every piece of content.
- Make the content short and simple - avoid complex paragraphs or long sentences
- Use headings to organize content and deliver more clarity in meaning and structure
- Create short and relevant page titles that describe the content on the web page
- Add descriptive link text to offer context on link target
- Write text alternatives for images and include captions and transcripts for multimedia
Development principles for web accessibility
There are specific coding methodologies and techniques that fall under W3C’s ARIA authoring practices. Developers must use them to create smooth navigational and functional experiences for citizens.
- Use semantically correct markup (HTML5) - inbuilt keyboard accessibility and better SEO performance
- Offer smart text sizing options based on various screen sizes
- Activate preference settings for auto-playing audio or video
- Use WAI-ARIA to provide meaning for custom widgets and buttons
- Provide alternatives for CAPTCHA like pre-authorization or human intervention
Meeting expectations of digital-first citizens
In recent years, the US Department of Justice has taken action against many States for web accessibility violations. They include Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Iowa. Added to that, several businesses across the country have been sued for non-compliance. After all, the number of digital-first citizens is at an all-time high.
Despite the enormity of the problem, there are no strict universal laws. Governments are often left to fend for themselves to address the digital needs of disabled citizens. According to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, only a mere 12% of government websites have a perfect accessibility score.
Web accessibility is certainly the need of the hour. It has become the first and last frontier of giving modern citizens a fully inclusive experience.