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How to make your website accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing

For some reason, people are often surprised that a website must be accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing. They usually forget that many websites have audio capabilities. In order to make a website ADA compliant, you need to make it accessible to all four categories of disabilities – Cognitive, Hearing, Motor, and Visual. Out of the four categories, Hearing is the easiest to accomplish. 

The international standard being used for ADA web compliance is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, version 2.1, or WCAG 2.1. There are 77 standards to the WCAG 2.1, but only four of them are applicable to people with hearing disabilities. 

In this article I will summarize the four to show you how simple it is to make your site accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing. For a more detailed explanation of each standard, click on the respective link below.  

The four standards are:

  • 1.2.1 Audio-only and Video-only (Prerecorded) – Level A
  • 1.2.9 Audio-only (Live) – Level AAA
  • 1.4.2 Audio Control – Level A
  • 1.4.7 Low or No Background Audio – Level AAA

Understanding the Conformance Levels

As you might have noticed, two of these guidelines are Level A and the other two are Level AAA. To help you understand website disability compliance, I will briefly explain what these levels mean to you.

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), the group that created the guidelines, divided the WCAG into three levels of difficulty – A, AA, AAA. Standards on Level A are the simplest and easiest to accomplish. They have very little impact on the user interface. Level AAA, which includes the two previous levels, is the hardest and most complex of the three. The WAI does not recommend that Level AAA be required for entire websites, as some of its standards might be impossible to be reached on every page. Though the ideal that every organization should strive for is Level AAA, most organizations focus on Level AA, which also includes all standards on Level A. 

With this in mind, you could technically focus only on guidelines 1.2.1 and 1.4.2, which I will explain below. The vast majority of websites will probably not be affected by standards 1.2.9 and 1.4.7. Still, I will explain them in case they are applicable to your content and you want to uphold the highest level of accessibility (in this case, kudos to you!).

1.2.1 Audio-only and Video-only (Prerecorded)

In simple terms, guideline 1.2.1 states that if you have pre-recorded audio on your website, such as a podcast, you need to provide a transcript or a descriptive summary of the audio. This is extremely important. Without a transcript, the deaf and hard of hearing cannot access the content of the audio. It is important that the transcript be also accessible. This means, it needs to either be in close proximity to the audio or video file, or it can be hosted on a different page. If it is hosted on a different page, then there needs to be a button or link to this page next to the audio/video player. 

1.4.2 Audio Control

Guideline 1.4.2 determines that if you have audio that plays automatically when the page loads, you need to have a way for people to stop the audio or change the volume. Most audio players that you can install on your website already have a way to stop the track and change the volume. There are only two scenarios in which you would need to worry about this guideline. The first is if, for some reason, you decide to create an audio player from scratch. Well, if you have the technical expertise to do this, creating a stop, pause, and volume buttons will pose no challenge. The second scenario is if you decide to use a very old audio player. Using old systems can also create security issues, as it can provide a back door for hackers to get into your website. 

In summary, if you add pre-recorded audio to your website, then provide a transcript and use a modern audio player. These will ensure that your website is accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing as per Level A of WCAG 2.1.

Moving forward, to go a step further and make your website accessible according to Level AAA.

1.2.9 Audio-only (Live)

Guideline 1.2.9 is very similar to 1.2.1, which I explained above. The difference is that 1.2.9 refers to live audio. If you are live streaming audio, you will need to provide a text version of the audio as it is happening. An example of when this would be needed is a website that live streams sports events. In this case, it is necessary to also provide a text version of what the commentators are saying. 

1.4.7 Low or No Background Audio

The last guideline that applies to the deaf and hard of hearing is 1.4.7, which is somewhat of a further step to 1.4.2, explained above. It also deals with pre-recorded audio. To comply with it, your site must either have no background sounds or the background sounds can be turned off. If it does have background sounds, they need to be at least 20 decibels lower than the audio on the foreground. 

Bonus Point ⭐

If your website plays an audio as soon as it opens, create a message informing the user that there is an audio playing. Deaf friends told me how embarrassing it was for them to learn that their laptop was playing music really loud – at the library. A simple message at the top of the site will save deaf people this embarrassment.  

In summary, you can easily make your website accessible to people with hearing problems by following just two guidelines. If you want to comply with Level AAA of the WCAG 2.1, then you will need to follow two more guidelines, but one of them is very unlikely to be applicable to you, unless you stream live audio on your website.

Header photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

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