Building a successful website isn’t just about showing off a new modern design or cutting-edge integrations, it’s also about creating an environment that is accessible by everyone, regardless of a user’s disabilities or the severity of their impairments.
While web accessibility is a fundamental objective that all organizations should already be working towards, federal departments and agencies are specifically required to adhere to certain accessibility standards as part of Section 508.
What is Section 508?
When we talk about Section 508, we’re referring to an amendment that the United States Congress made to the Rehabilitation Act in 1998, requiring federal agencies to ensure that people with disabilities can access the same electronic information as others. The Section 508 requirements align with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), which are the accessibility standards that all organizations (including non-federal) should be following.
Issues that Accessibility Standards Address
For anyone working on a federal website, it’s important to know what Section 508 compliance entails and why the guidelines are in place.
People who are blind or have visual disabilities will often use a screen reader to assist them when navigating web pages. Screen readers can be enabled on computers, smartphones, or tablets, and they use audio to read a website’s content aloud. The HTML is relied on heavily to help paint a picture of what’s being viewed.
- All non-decorative images need to have alt text explaining what the images are showing.
- Link text needs to be clear and describe where the link is going. For example, “View the 2018 Camp Schedule” is useful, while “Click Here” is not.
- Heading tags need to be used correctly and follow the proper hierarchy. Don’t use headings just to make something more visually appealing, use them with intention to separate sections and sub-sections on a page.
Color blindness is another visual impairment that needs to be considered during the design and development process. People who have difficulty seeing colors may not be able to distinguish between the text and the background if the wrong colors and font sizes are used.
Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 (level AA) require a contrast ratio between text and backgrounds of at least 4.5:1 for normal text and 3:1 for large text. WebAIM's color contrast checker is a great tool that will let you know if your colors meet the requirements or not.
It also helps to view the site in black and white and see if you notice any visual cues missing. Are you able to tell the difference between a link and regular text? Does any of your content use color as the primary indicator to find something (ex: “Cancelled events are highlighted in red”)?
If your site contains any audio content, Section 508 and accessibility guidelines specify that a text equivalent should also be provided. This means that any videos, whether they are hosted on the site or embedded from an external player like YouTube, should have captions enabled. For any other audio content, such as podcasts, a transcript or other text equivalent should be made available.
Not everyone has the luxury of being able to browse a website with a mouse or by swiping and tapping. To meet accessibility standards, users need to be able to navigate through the site using only a keyboard. You should be able to access all links, navigational elements, action controls, and forms/searches by using your tab, enter, or arrow keys – and visual focus should make it clear where you are on the page. The order that items are tabbed through should make sense and follow the linear flow of the page. Section 508 requires a “skip to content” link be available at the top of every page (typically initiated by the tab key), allowing users to bypass repetitive global links and go directly to the main content.
In addition, there should not be a time limit on any of the site’s content. This could include a limit on how much time is available to read certain text or complete a form, or it could be a modal window that disappears after a certain amount of time if there is no response. Rotating slider content also needs to include the ability to pause for users who have a slower reaction time.
For people with epilepsy and other similar disorders, animations or effects that rapidly flash or flicker can sometimes lead to seizures. To help avoid this, ensure that your content does not flash at a frequency greater than three times per second.
Whether your organization is legally required to follow Section 508 guidelines or not, web accessibility should be a priority for everyone.
If you have any questions about Section 508 compliance, accessibility, or any other web design topic, please feel free to either contact us or leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you!