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ADA Compliance: A vs. AA vs. AAA

One of the main objectives of websites – whether they showcase and promote businesses or nonprofit organizations and everything in between – is to reach as many people as possible. We employ technology methodologies and human ingenuity to draw people online to our websites so we can gain awareness and curry the public’s favor toward our products and services.

Websites are all about connecting online with people and then, when they visit our sites, making the user experience as smooth and intuitive as we can. The goal is to eliminate encumbrances and facilitating the fast and easy assimilation of information displayed on a web page.
If your website is to be successful – the coin of the realm for websites is persuasion and conversion – it needs to remove any possible barriers to action, with the ultimate action being the purchase of your goods and services.

As has apparent for years now, commerce and information-sharing happen online, and, as a result, existing interpretations of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) have broadened to include websites. In order to be in compliance with the ADA, websites cannot contain obstacles that prevent people with disabilities from participating.

Although the ADA does cite specific web accessibility standards, the Department of Justice has acknowledged that under Title III of the ADA, places of public accommodation must either ensure their websites are accessible, or provide “an accessible alternative.”
For now, the Department of Justice evaluates web accessibility by whether or not it meets the technical requirements of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, Level AA.

And if a company chooses to provide an alternative, it must be a fair one. For example, if a bookstore makes it possible for customers without disabilities to skim through book titles and descriptions on its website at any hour of the day or night, then the “accessible alternative” must in some way provide the same information to people with disabilities during the same hours.

What are Web Content Accessibility Guidelines?

The World Web Consortium (W3C), an international organization that develops web standards to build rich interactive experiences, created testable criteria to assist developers in determining if their sites are easily accessible for people with disabilities. The standards are evaluated through a “stable, referenceable, technical standard” called the WCAG, as noted earlier, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

WCAG contains 12 guidelines that are organized under four principles:

  1. Perceivable
  2. Operable
  3. Understandable
  4. Robust

Each guideline brings with it a set of requirements, known as “Success Criteria.” In order to be in accordance with WCAG’s standards, you have to test your website for any elements that violate the “Success Criteria.”

Because there are areas of a website that call for greater levels of accessibility, WCAG 2.0 designated three levels of conformance:

  • Level A
  • Level AA
  • Level AAA

The following are common factors that are evaluated when setting the level of conformance, and are not limited to:

  • Whether or not assistive technology can make the content accessible.
  • The ability to satisfy the Success Criteria with a variety of topics and types of content.
  • How reasonable it would be for a content creator to meet the Success Criterion.
  • Whether the Success Criterion would impose limits on the “look & feel” and/or function of the Web page.

The last of these factors can lead many businesses to become concerned at the idea of changing their branding to meet color and contract requirements. The good news for businesses regarding branding is that logos/logo types are (currently) exceptions to the WCAG’s visual accommodations.

Three Compliance Levels

WCAG 2.0 was designed with three levels to provide greater flexibility for different situations. For example, an internal policy in a government department may require the highest possible standard of accessibility – which would be Level AAA. In other situations, it could be sufficient to meet Level AA requirements.

Don’t Settle for Level A

If you meet only Level A, you are unlikely to be ADA compliant. The reason for this is Level A has many obstacles in place for people with disabilities. However, these barriers are relatively easy to eliminate.

For example, a Level A requirement of Guideline 1.4 is that “color is not used as the only visual means of conveying information, indicating an action, prompting a response, or distinguishing a visual element.” Put another way, for your “News” page, you cannot rely on red-colored fonts to indicate which items are urgent. This is to cater to people who cannot distinguish easily between colors.

A Level AA requirement of Guideline 1.4 also addresses the dark/light contrast between the text and background colors. Better contrast makes it easier to read the text if you have a disability that affects vision.

To put into perspective how relevant Guideline 1.4 is, it is estimated that more than 13 million American adults have some kind of vision disability. That number may double by 2030, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. This is one reason why it is recommended to meet the Level AA requirement.

Whether to Strive to Meet Level AAA

“It is not recommended that Level AAA conformance be required as a general policy for entire sites because it is not possible to satisfy all Level AAA Success Criteria for some content,” so says the World Wide Web Consortium, which develops WCAG 2.0.

An example of this is attempting to satisfy certain requirements, such as sign language interpretation for live web events, which may not always be easily implemented.

Other Level AAA requirements are considered achievable. With respect to the guideline for avoiding the use of flashing or blinking content that could bring on a seizure, there is little difference between the Level A and Level AAA requirements. It is relatively easy to be sure that there is nothing on your web page that flashes more than three times per second.

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