Website Accessibility: What You Need To Know

How to have an accessible website for everyone

When your website is designed to be accessible to all people, you will reach more customers, reduce liability, and increase conversion rates. Amber Hinds joins Kim to discuss how not to get sued over ADA compliancy issues and how to create a great website experience for your visitors.

Learn about accessibility requirements and how to protect yourself with Equalize Digital’s free Accessibility Checker. A free WordPress plugin is available to help web developers and content mangers stay in compliance. Website accessibility affects every freelancer and small business owner that has a website. Don’t miss this episode! Visit https://equalizedigital.com/ for more information on the Accessibility Checker and WordPress plugin.

Full Episode Transcript:

Kim Merritt:

Hi, everyone. And welcome to the Freelance Economy podcast. I am Kim Merritt, The URL Doctor, and my guest today is Amber Hinds. She is the CEO and Creative director at Road Warrior Creative, a traveling agency, specializing in online presence optimization for businesses and social good organizations. And she’s the Founder and CEO at Equalize Digital, a website accessibility consulting and accessible website development firm that is working to build a more equitable web for people of all abilities. Amber, thank you so much for joining me today.

Amber Hinds:

Thanks. I’m glad to be here, Kim.

Kim Merritt:

So I always like to start with, you know, how did you get to where you are today? What what’s your business journey and your story of entrepreneurship?

Amber Hinds:

So I started working as a freelance – a freelancer in 2010. My, I have four daughters, and my oldest daughter was about nine months old. I had been working in higher ed doing admissions and marketing for graduate education programs. And I had to travel a fair bit for that. I’d go to the graduate school fairs at all the undergraduate colleges and the college I worked for actually had a campus in California and a campus in upstate New York and a campus in New York City. And I traveled to all of them. Like her first flight with me was when she was 11 weeks old. And I used to take her with me initially because I’d go to California for a week at a time. And, and then I realized this isn’t really sustainable and not the way I want to parent. And so I started I quit my job and I was staying at home with her, but I still needed to make some money.

Amber Hinds:

And so I started doing some freelance work and I freelanced sort of part-time until 2015. And in 2015, my husband and I, I remember we were pushing our kids – we had two at the time – we were pushing them in the stroller, taking a walk and talking about our plans and our future. And a big thing was we really wanted to be able to travel. And he was working. He had worked a lot in restaurants and he was working in K-12 food service at the time. And he only got two weeks vacation a year. And we’re just like, we can’t do anything while you have this job. And so we decided in 2015 that we were going to grow the business to support our whole family so that he could also work in it and we could have the freedom that entrepreneurship brings with it.

Amber Hinds:

So we decided that at the very end of 2015, and by May of 2016, he gave us notice at his job. And we’ve grown. Now we have a distributed team that’s in three different states. And that, that was under all under Road Warrior Creative, hence the traveling agency and the name and sort of the inspiration there. And during 2020, we sort of had a conversation and we’ve made this pivot and we’re putting a lot more focus into our rebrand with Equalize Digital, which is a separate business. But I think the longterm trajectory of our business is to just do work under the Equalize brand. And this really came up because starting in 2016, we started doing a lot of work on the accessibility side. So building websites that are usable for people of all abilities whether they have any sort of physical or cognitive impairments or differences than a typical user. And so we had started doing a lot of work there and we really realized this is an area that we enjoy and we feel like there’s need. And from business perspective, I think it’s a little bit easier for us to scale and grow. And so last year we rebranded as Equalize Digital or launched a separate sister company. And and that’s sort of what brought us to today.

Kim Merritt:

So I’m curious, was there a particular incident or somebody you knew that kind of led you in the accessibility website direction?

Amber Hinds:

Yeah, there’s a, there’s a couple things. The first one was that in 2016, we got hired to do a website for a department at Colorado State University. And any government funded, if they’re federally funded in the United States, websites have to be 100% accessible. So that would include public universities. So that project I’ll admit was a little bit of trial by fire. And it was, it was early on too in that the university was still trying to figure out how they were going to handle all of that. Like they were starting to transition into being better about accessibility. So it was sort of nice because we were working with them and, and kind of like collaboratively figuring it out. So that was what I really first started learning about accessibility. And then we had the opportunity we’ve had the opportunity to engage with a few people and I have I have an acquaintance who is blind and really hearing from him what his experience was on websites.

Amber Hinds:

That sort of thing. Motivated me to really start focusing more on it and seeing it as something where we could really contribute and help make the world better. We’re actually a Certified B Corporation. Which means, you know, we have an external party who’s reviewing us. We have in our operating agreement that we’re not just for the benefit of our shareholders. We’re also trying to do something greater for the world, though we are not a nonprofit, we’re a for profit company. And and I think that that’s really part of why the accessibility resonated with me.

Kim Merritt:

It’s such a timely coincidence for me to have you on right now. We just, my, my company, The URL Doctor, where we make e-learning content for companies that want to teach and train online. And we just finished literally yesterday with a client out of Ontario and the e-learning content and videos. And course that we made for them had to be AODA compliant, which is Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Everything in Ontario has to follow that law. And we had to have closed captioning. We couldn’t use some interactions that require somebody to drag with a mouse. And it was my first experience in, in, in being associated with anything that had accessibility as part of it. I’m curious here in the United States, what is the definition of website accessibility and what does it entail for a company that has anything online?

Amber Hinds:

So outside of what we previously talked about with federally funded projects, the vast majority of disability claims related to websites fall under the ADA, which is the Americans with Disabilities Act. And that, that doesn’t specifically state website as, so this is where it’s in sort of a weird gray area right now. There’s some legislation proposed, I believe in the Senate that is supposed to better clarify how the ADA applies to websites. But that said, there is now sort of a case law precedent that websites are for all businesses are required to be accessible, and there’s no official standards in the ADA, but most people tend to use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG which are internationally agreed upon standards from like a committee that all gets together and they help to build, like, what are these set of guidelines that we could use, that you could measure a website against in order to determine if it is accessible or not.

Amber Hinds:

And, and so that’s sort of the basis in the United States of how we measure accessibility. But I think one thing that’s really important to note on the accessibility front is that it’s really about usability and there instances where there could be websites that have no obvious WCAG violations, but they’re still not really accessible because maybe the not just the way they’re organized makes no sense, and people get confused and they get lost, or you know, there’s certain elements that are confusing or not consistent or something through pages. So so that’s, that’s one of the interesting things is that accessibility, it’s a little bit like meeting these guidelines, but it’s also just following good practices for usability and like user journeys and that sort of stuff through the content that you create on the web.

Kim Merritt:

So who is the audience for web, I mean, web accessibility, are there, are there particular segments of our population that we’re, I mean, obviously, you know, some with, with disabilities come to mind, but are there particular segments of the population that this is really trying to hone in on?

Amber Hinds:

So the first versions of the WCAG guidelines really focused on people that were blind or visually impaired, or had low vision or people who are deaf or hard of hearing. In the 2.1 release of guidelines, which was a couple of years ago, there was a lot of, a lot of new guidelines added this specifically targeted people with cognitive disabilities. And there are also some guidelines that are targeted to people with epilepsy because some, there are certain forms of epilepsy that can actually seizures can be triggered by lights or rapid flashing. And so like if you’ve got a slider moving too fast on your website or something that’s blinking too rapidly, that could actually cause someone to have a seizure. They’re the new version that they’re working on – not the 2.2 version, which will come out over the summer, but there’s a new version called for 3.0, which is called silver.

Amber Hinds:

And that one actually has a lot of targeting towards like anxiety. For example, if you are on a checkout page or some page like a sales landing page, you frequently see those countdown timers that are like, you have X number of minutes or days or whatever that might be. Those can actually be like for some people, those can be almost debilitating. It can cause them to freeze up and they can get very anxious and, and that kind of thing. And so, so there’s a broad range of what a lot of people might think of, like someone who is blind, they obviously can’t see, or someone who has a mobility issue, so they can’t use a mouse. And they can only use a keyboard or maybe they are don’t have use of their hands at all. And so they use a sip, a sip and puff device where they blow with their mouth into a device, and that allows them to control, or they use voice to text in order to control their devices.

Amber Hinds:

So there’s that, but I think the other thing too, is that accessibility also helps people that we might not typically think of as disabled, or they’re not technically disabled. So for example, someone who is a English or whatever language, second language learner, if a lot of accessibility features make it much easier for them to use translation tools on pages. And so, like, for example, not having images that have text on them because the translation tool isn’t going to translate any text on an image, but if you actually have the words there in HTML, then a translation tool can do that. So, so, so that helps someone who’s an English language learner or someone who’s dyslexic. They might have a hard time reading. Like sometimes it’s helpful for them in that cases. Also a lot of it helps with speed. So people that are in rural areas or on mobile phones with limited cell connection, it can help make the website fully load for them as opposed to, if you’ve got all these crazy movement and actions and lots of JavaScript files coming in, that sort of thing. So it really helps a broad range of users.

Kim Merritt:

So as a freelancer with a website or a small business owner, or even as a web developer, my company, The URL Doctor, I mean, we design WordPress websites. We have for 13 years, it’s kind of how we got started, although it’s not our main focus any longer, but how as a web owner how do we, how do we (A) look at our website and say, okay, is this accessible? And if we find that it isn’t, what do we do about it?

Amber Hinds:

Yep. So there’s a couple of different ways to tell if your website is accessible, that don’t require any any sort of expertise. And the first place to start is with a scanning tool. So there’s some free ones available on the web. WAVE is a very popular one, and they have browser extensions that you can use, or you can just go to it’s wave.webaim.org, and you can put any URL and it’ll scan that single page and come back with here’s problems, here’s potential problems and, and an audit of the page. Another one that we really like, which I think is a little bit more thorough than WAVE in some ways is axe, and it’s from Deque. And that one is a browser extension that it puts the report in the dev tools. So that’s maybe slightly less user-friendly for someone who’s more of like a marketer or a content manager, because you have to know how to access the developer tools panel in your browser.

Amber Hinds:

So there’s those, if you have a WordPress site, we actually launched a plugin in December called Accessibility Checker, which puts – it does scans right in the post or the page, and shows a report right on that page. So sort of like a good parallel is the Yoast SEO plugin, which helps people figure out how to make their content better and it’ll tell you, here’s what you missed or what you need to fix to make your SEO better. Our plugin does something similar for accessibility, and we have a free version of it on wordpress.org. And then we also have a pro version.

Kim Merritt:

Oh, that’s awesome. Now I’m super excited to find out about that because that’s something that I do use Yoast. I, I love that for SEO. And, you know, this is really something, and I’m embarrassed to say this, but this is really something that even as a web designer, going back years has not been something. I mean, we’ve had occasion where we’ve had clients that have had an older demographic audience where we’ve bumped up the font size and we’ve put more white space in. And, you know, that type of thing, but that was really the extent of it. It was not anything that our clients requested. And it wasn’t anything that, that we were really paying strict attention to. And I’m, I’m finding, you know, we’re getting more and more in to it and more people, more companies are asking which is good because the web should be accessible to everybody. So I love to hear that everybody’s asking for this, but it can be somewhat daunting from the business owner standpoint of, Oh my gosh, what’s it going to take for me to get up to compliance on? Now this! Everybody I got all these compliant things coming at me from all different directions,

Amber Hinds:

Like privacy, and,

Kim Merritt:

Oh my gosh. Yeah. And, and does this just this correspond or crossover with privacy in any way?

Amber Hinds:

Yeah, it definitely does actually. So the thing that is really important to know, there’s two areas where accessibility overlaps with privacy and the main one is, is if your website is not accessible and someone has to use it and they are let’s say visually impaired, they can’t see or it doesn’t work with their screen reader. Then they may have to ask someone to help them. And in certain situations they might be like, let’s say they’re at, at a public library or something like that. They might ask someone who’s there, that’s not their family member, or even they might ask a family member. And sometimes people have family members who take advantage of them. Right. And so it exposes their, if they’re like, I need you to help fill this in it. Could, they have to tell their social security number to someone so someone can put it in a form, or, I mean, we want to be cautious about accepting those, but there are legitimate forms that ask for that information, right.

Amber Hinds:

So you, or credit card numbers, if they’re buying something online and there, they aren’t able to finish the checkout process, they might ask someone else, can you type this in for me? And that puts them at risk of having their data stolen, that sort of thing. The other area where it could be a problem is specifically for blind users, if your forms are not labeled well, it’s possible that they could accidentally put sensitive data in a field on the form where it’s not obscured. So, you know, typically like on passwords, the password field hides it. So you can’t see as you type it, but if they get confused and they’re putting the password in the wrong box, then it could either save it in the browser, or it could be visible to anyone who’s looking over their shoulder. As they walk by, you know, they’re sitting in a Starbucks or something.

Amber Hinds:

So, so that’s something to really think about on the privacy side, if you have a requirement, particularly if you’re accepting any sort of PII, personally identifiable information. So that could be anything on the e-commerce side. Any sort of HIPAA compliant information, if you’re like a doctor’s office or building websites for clients that are doctor’s offices then really accessibility matters a lot on the privacy side. And, and I think the thing, you know, going back to your original point about, you know, it seems overwhelming and all of that, I think the thing that, that is really helpful to keep in mind is that, well, accessibility, there’s some tools out there that claim like, just install this code and they’ll fix it. And, and they don’t usually, and they don’t also stop you from being sued. It’s not, it’s not just install a line of code, but it’s also not something that is overly complex or super hard, even if you’re not a developer.

Amber Hinds:

It’s more of the way I like to think about it is it requires conscientiousness and being really thoughtful about what you do. So our plugin is great. We really tried to make it a, a teaching tool. So it will flag things for you. And then we have, if you’re not sure what this means, like, why is it telling me about color contrast? Or why is it saying I have skipped heading levels? What does this mean? You can click information. And we have very long articles to try and help people learn how to do that. But, but over time you start to learn. It’s sort of like with Yoast, you start to get a feel for, Oh, okay. When, when I need to fill out a meta-description, I just know what this is. And I just go and I fill it in, in the box.

Amber Hinds:

It’s like over time, you learn how to use that. And so, so our tool was sort of created to help content creators in the box. And then if you’re not a developer, I think what comes to play then is you sometimes have to make decisions about maybe I don’t use this certain block or widget because it has problems in it. Or you could go to the developer of it, particularly if it’s a premium plugin that you’ve paid for, or if it’s part of your theme and you’ve bought your theme and you could say to them, you know, this is a problem that’s coming up, would you be willing to fix it? And they might just fix that as part of your support problem. So I, I think there’s also like there are themes that are accessible. They call them “accessibility-ready.” So there are no accessibility problems in the theme. So then really it’s all just about how you add the content. So even a non-developer, if you start with an accessibility-ready theme, you can control keeping it accessible by adding the content in the right way. And so that’s really, you know, it’s about being thoughtful and less – I think if you just take it page by page, you know, that it it’s, it’s a lot less overwhelming, I think.

Kim Merritt:

So you mentioned about being sued. So what is the area of this that, Hey, as a business owner, as a web owner or as a freelancer, I would love for my site to be accessible versus what does it have to be to not get sued? What, what situations are there that I could get sued over what my website is or look like?

Amber Hinds:

So I’ll say there are two different groups of people or types of people that do lawsuits in the United States, under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And the first one is kind of what we’re starting to call in the industry is drive-by lawsuits. So these are people that have run a scanning tool on a website. Like they run the WAVE tool. That’s really popular for them to use. They, they run the WAVE tool on the website, they find their issues. They have, they work with a law firm that sends out these all the time. They might even send out five in one day, right to the, like the same plaintiff will send out multiple in one day, like, and, and their goal is really to get money. And, and, and sometimes they’ll ask, like, they’ll ask you fix the website and we want money for damages, right?

Amber Hinds:

So there’s that type of lawsuit. And then the second type of lawsuit is things that come from, like, for example, there’s a case against MIT and Harvard that’s pretty well known about captioning. And it came from a national association for deaf people. And, and their goal is not as much, like we want to get money. It’s, let’s make a point. And let’s set a precedent that you have to have captions on your videos on YouTube. And, and, and so those, like there’s two different cases there. The first one, the best way to not get sued in that group is to not have any WAVE recognizable errors on your website. So if you run your website through WAVE and there are no errors, and then you also have, this is something that an attorney told me recently is that they’ve found that if, if you have no WAVE errors and you have an accessibility statement in the footer of your website, that goes to a page that says, you know, we’re, we believe in accessibility, maybe your website is not fully accessible.

Amber Hinds:

Maybe, you know, certain, you know, I’m missing subheadings, or I, you know, we have color contrast issues that we’re working on a rebrand, but it’s not live yet. Right? So you list out, this is, this is our commitment to accessibility. We’re working on becoming WCAG compliant. These are some of the things we’re working on. And if you have any problems here is how you contact us for help… That in and of itself, no WAVE errors and an accessibility statement is like a really great defense, like a proactive defense, I should say, against receiving a demand letter or getting sued by that first group of people, because those people are looking for fast cash options. The, the second group of people are people where there may be WCAG violations. There may not, but there may be other usability issues. And a lot of times those people are less interested in getting money as they are in.

Amber Hinds:

Like, I want to be able to use your website or use your content. So I want to work with you. And a lot of times those don’t actually end up in a lawsuit. They become like structured negotiation with an attorney where there’s some sort of remediation plan and the person or group that made the complaint in the first place want to be involved in helping to test the solution. So those ones, obviously it’s the same deal. I think if you have an accessibility statement and you have no easily scannable errors, you’re protected, but it is possible if there’s other things, because they’re, they’re only about 30 to 40% of accessibility errors can be scanned for. So you also need to do things when you’re testing your website, like using only your keyboard, like your tab key and your arrow keys to move through the website. And can you do all the things do you get lost, that sort of thing. So it’s, you know, there could, there could still, you could still get complaints there, but if you’re are going to get a complaint, that’s a complaint you want, because this is someone who really is just like trying to figure out how to use your website. And then if you work with them to make it usable for them, it’s going to go away.

Kim Merritt:

Right? Right. So is ADA compliancy on a website? Is that a law then in the United States that any of us could be sued for our websites?

Amber Hinds:

So as of right now, precedent has been set that yes, websites have to be accessible because they’re considered places of public accommodation and all places of public accommodation are required to be accessible. And the other thing that is important to note is that this is sort of like privacy laws wherein even if you, your physical business. So my business is in Texas, but my website can be accessed by people in California. In California, there – last year, there were a lot of lawsuits under California, has the Unruh Civil Rights Act, related to website accessibility. So I can still get sued in California, even though I’m not a California business. I don’t, I don’t do business there. I think, I think the way the business owners have to look at it too, is the broader your reach, probably the greater risk you put yourself in, of receiving a complaint.

Amber Hinds:

So if you, if you are a small business that I don’t know, you’re a plumber and you don’t run any ads, you just have a website. Like the likelihood is probably very small. You know, it’s like a six page website. You probably don’t even have a blog, right? Like the likelihood is very small. You still should have an accessible website, but the reality is the likelihood is small. If it’s an e-commerce. So the vast majority have been, e-commerce like over 70% in the last year were e-commerce and then restaurants also a lot are getting sued and not necessarily just chain restaurants, they could be mom and pop restaurants. So that’s, that’s the one sort of gray area, but I’d also say if you’re running Google ads, Facebook ads, if you are actively driving traffic to your website, then that obviously the more people who come to the website, the more likely you may have someone come that has hard time accessing your website. And that’s where you, you put yourself at greater risk of receiving a complaint.

Kim Merritt:

Does Google at this point have any are they checking it all? Does it have anything to do with search ranking algorithm?

Amber Hinds:

Yeah. I was just talking with someone about this the other day. So Google has a tool called Lighthouse, which is included in Chrome developer tools and it it’s it includes accessibility checks and accessibility scores. Google a couple years ago, maybe three years ago at this point, they launched a a free course, which is really great. If you want to learn sort of more on the developer side of how to make websites accessible, it’s on Udacity. And it’s just, you could just Google like Google accessibility course and you’ll find it. I, if they have not come out and said that it is a ranking signal per se, now, one thing we do know is that bounce rate can impact your search ranking. So the more people lose, leave your website right away with only going to one page and then they just leave or they leave quickly that can 100% impact your search ranking.

Amber Hinds:

And there’ve been studies that 70% of people with disabilities say that if they get on a website and they have a hard time using it, they leave it immediately. They don’t try, they don’t, you know, try it like move around and like, what can I do? Like, they’re just like this website isn’t gonna work me. I’m I’m leaving. So, so in and of itself, there, there is definitely, there are parts of accessibility or results from having an inaccessible website that could, we definitely know impact your search ranking. I don’t know. The Google was saying, Oh, you’re missing alt tags on images or you’re missing REO labels. Well, the, all times on images, that’s, you know, that doesn’t pike the SEO. So it’s, I think it does, but they haven’t come out like they did with mobile, right. Or like they’ve said with Core Web Vitals where they’re saying as of May Core Web Vitals will impact your search ranking. So they haven’t said that if your website isn’t accessible will impact as of this date, they have not said that yet, but I have a feeling that it, it is in our future.

Kim Merritt:

Interesting, fascinating subject. I am very thankful that you came to talk with us and, and enlighten all of us about what is really a super important subject. And I think you’re right. It’s going to be something that is going to become more and more important as time goes on. Tell tell everybody that’s listening and watching where they can find you your websites and contact information for you.

Amber Hinds:

Yeah. So the best way to get ahold of me is on our website, equalizedigital.com. We, we do free risk assessments. So you can find that on the homepage, there’s a field where you can fill in. And we do do white labeling for agencies. If you have clients and you don’t want to do the accessibility work, we can work with you to do that. Otherwise I’m also really active on LinkedIn and my LinkedIn name is just my full name, AmberHinds, all one word.

Kim Merritt:

Wonderful. Thank you so much. I’m going to like get on this podcast and I’m going to go right on your website. And I was on it before we got started, but now I’m, now I’m really going to look at it even some more, because I think what you’re offering is super important to everybody that’s on the web and something we all need to consider. So thank you again for being a guest and we’ll see everybody next week. Thanks.

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