Editor's note: A few weeks back, as we wrote about the thinking that went into our new website, we made an embarrassing admission—we hadn't put enough emphasis on accessibility. Kathleen Pequeño of Fission Strategy came to us and encouraged us to rethink our approach and we realized that not only is she right, but that more nonprofits need to hear what she has to say. We hope you enjoy this post and that it spurs you look more closely at your website from an accessibility angle.
By Kathleen Pequeño
For many years I've known activists who have rightly pointed out that paying attention to physical accessibility is just plain the right thing to do. It's also useful for many people without disabilities. For example, ramps—essential for people using wheelchairs—are also great for people with strollers or those who are towing luggage with wheels.
Or let's look at live captioning, which has been available at previous NYC WordCamps (a conference for the local WordPress community). A person would type out what the presenter said and the text would appear on screens visible in the meeting room. It's an accommodation specifically for deaf and hard-of-hearing participants, but I benefited too. If I didn't quite hear what the presenter was saying, I could glance at the screen. I wish every conference would do live captioning: it's a means of inclusion for some and a convenience for others.
This accessibility principle is true on the web as well as in the physical world. There are ways to make content more accessible for people with disabilities using adaptive technology, and when we do, other users benefit as well.
What Do We Mean by an Accessible Website?
First, it helps to understand web accessibility standards. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) maintains a comprehensive set of standards for the web as a whole. They also explain the business sense of web accessibility.
Here are three ways you can start to improve the accessibility of your nonprofit’s web-based content (from fastest to more time-intensive) to reach accessibility standards for users with disabilities. And I've included circumstances where they benefit other users too.
1. Use Alt Text for Images
This is one of the easiest things to do, yet it's easy to overlook. Alt text is essential for people using screen reader software. Screen readers will recite what the image is if you have an alt text tag there, allowing all visitors to understand what the image represents, even if they can't see it.
Alt Text is also useful any time an image won't load. For anyone with a slower web connection or any users whose page load is interrupted, alt text appears instead. Use alt text in your organization’s emails for users who are accessing your messages while offline.
2. Make Sure Your Page is Keyboard Navigable, Including Forms
For a person using adaptive software, your page has to be fully navigable using the keyboard, not just a mouse—including forms. Sure, a mouse is great, but users with limited mobility or vision impairments may prefer to use their keyboard to navigate. Requiring people to use a mouse isn't reasonable from an accessibility perspective.
Keyboard navigation is also helpful where people have to use the keyboard anyway, such as filling in forms on desktop or mobile (don't ever make it harder for users to fill in forms) or for users who just prefer keyboard commands to a mouse (keyboard commands are favored by power users because they are generally more efficient).
3. Provide Transcripts or Captions for Audio and Video
When you're distributing audio or video, planning for captions or transcription makes it accessible to people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Without these tools, some users won’t be able to consume the content.
Transcription is posted on the page outside of the audio content. Captions appear within the video itself, are matched to the corresponding audio, and can either be "closed" (meaning someone needs to indicate that they want to see the captions) or "open" (meaning they are visible to all users).
Transcriptions are also useful to help the content be more discoverable via search for all users, via search engines or by the user on the page. You can add timestamps to make them even more useful. When someone can’t download a video or audio file, the transcript makes a fine substitute.
Captions are also useful for users who are having tech issues with audio, or deliberately have audio turned off. We've also seen quick adoption of so-called "readable video" on Facebook (where you see the text of the video in your feed before you hear it). Text overlay is now part of optimizing videos for Facebook. These are open captions, which deaf and hard-of-hearing web users have been asking for for many years.
It takes time to caption a video, but when it gets more users consuming the content, there's a clear return on investment.
Resources for Making Your Web Content More Accessible
I've found the WAVE assessment tool by WebAIM useful because it explains the "what" as well as the "why" of specific accessibility standards.
YouTube provides support for automated closed captions (they'll need editing) or here's how you can turn their automated captions into an editable file for use as a transcript.
If you want to allow users who are using keyboard navigation to choose to skip your long menus and go straight to the content, you can set up "Skip Nav" links (you can see this in practice on the Fission website by hitting tab after you load the page).
For any nonprofit, making content more accessible means taking extra time when crafting communications. It also means holding ourselves to a standard for being truly accessible, knowing that it's only fair to people with disabilities, even as it helps other users in various situations.
Kathleen Pequeño (@kpequeno) is Senior Account Manager at Fission Strategy, where she manages website and strategy projects to support some of the country's leading nonprofits as they use the web to build engaging and effective online campaigns.