Web Accessibility FAQ and How to

From time to time, frustrated business owners tell me that they spent lots of time and money to ensure their organization had an ADA compliant website and now the website is no longer compliant. 

This is a very frustrating situation. I truly hope you can avoid this in your organization. In this article I will explain some of the reasons why websites become inaccessible and how you can prevent it. 

To start, it is important to think of website accessibility compliance differently. Most people think of it as a destination – do X, Y, and Z, and your website will be accessible. End of the story. 

It will serve you much better to think of accessibility as a journey – it never ends. Compliance is an on-going effort. Any, and all, content added to a website must be checked for accessibility.

When is an ADA compliance audit is needed? 

Here’s a good way to make sense of this.

Think of the more well-known type of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility compliance – making (physical) buildings accessible to people with disabilities.

When a building is erected, it must be inspected for accessibility before the city’s planning department approves it. If there are any violations of the ADA, the building will have to be remedied before the city approves its use. Thus, when people move in – whether it is a residential, commercial, or industrial space – the place must be compliant with the ADA.

Let’s say that after the building has been approved, the owners of the building decide to create an additional room, or even just remodel a part of the building. Another accessibility compliance inspection will be required to ensure the new, or remodeled, space is accessible.

It works the same way with websites.

Well, the only difference is that it is not required to get government approval to launch a website. The burden to ensure the website’s accessibility is borne solely by the owner of the site. To avoid website accessibility lawsuits, website owners must be proactive to guarantee they have an ADA compliant website

Now let’s apply the same case to a website. Your organization hired a web accessibility consultant who rendered your site accessible. If your website stays exactly the way it was when the consultant certified its compliance, then you will not need another web accessibility audit. 

However, if you add any new content to the site, then you will need to inspect that content to verify that it is compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 standards. 

Here are the most common ways people add new content to their site:

  • Creating a new page
  • Editing a page
  • Publishing a blog article
  • Editing a blog article
  • Adding a video, image, or sound file
  • Adding a whitepaper, ebook, or any pdf file
  • Adding any file 

When I explain this, people often ask me: “But Paulo, would adding one image – or video – really break the accessibility of the site?

Yes, it would. 

Especially if that image or video is of interest to the person who cannot see it. I cover this in more detail in another article.

How plugins and theme updates can harm your site

In addition to uploading or modifying content, a common way that people inadvertently break a site’s accessibility is by updating plugins, applications, and themes. 

If your website is powered by a Content Management System (CMS) such as WordPress, be very careful when you update plugins (some CMS call it applications or widgets) and the theme. Fully backup your website before conducting any update. 

It is very common for a plugin update to cause compatibility issues with other plugins, the theme being used, and even with WordPress (or the CMS powering the website). 

Compatibility problems might be as harmless as simply rendering the plugin nonfunctional, and as serious as breaking the entire website – and a broken design can cause accessibility issues.

Even more grave is the damage that a theme update can do. If your website is using a premade theme, from time to time the developers who created the theme are likely to release updates. These updates are meant to add new features, strengthen security, ensure compatibility with newer technologies, and so on. 

In general, updates are good things. they improve the website. However – and this is a really big however – when you update the theme, you might lose any and all styling updates you made on your website. 

Imagine the frustration of realizing that all the work you’ve done, and the money you spent, on making your website look just how you wanted has gone to waste. 

A client recently went through this very unpleasant experience. Using the Ally Right web accessibility software, we detected that her website had thousands of new accessibility and coding errors. She was surprised as she had not made any significant change to the website since making it accessible. 

Sure, a few accessibility issues are bound to happen with new content, but it is very unlikely that it would create thousands of new issues. We jumped on a call, shared screen and went over the website. 

As we looked at the issues together, it dawned on her that her team had updated the theme a few months back – and so many, many, many problems that had been fixed reverted back. 

Sure, she could restore a backup of the site, since her site automatically creates a new backup daily. However, it had been a few months since the update had been made – and lots of new content was posted on the site. To restore a backup meant fixing the code and losing all the new content. Tough call to make. Either solution has more cons than pros.

How to prevent accessibility violations from plugins and themes

Here’s what you can do to prevent this nightmare:

  1. Use a child theme on your website and make all styling changes to the child, rather than the main theme;
  2. Back up your website frequently and especially before updating anything.
  3. Carefully check your website for broken code after each and every update you make (tip: you can use this really cool A.I-powered software called Ally Right to do this and much more 🙂

Too Long; Didn’t Read

In summary, you need to ensure everything that goes on your website is accessible and in conformance with the WCAG 2.1. In addition, it is wise to conduct periodic audits, especially after any update on your CMS.