According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 26 percent of adults in the U.S. have some type of disability, and 4.6 percent have a vision disability with blindness or serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses. Some of these individuals are apartment residents and prospective renters visiting multifamily websites to obtain information.
Web experiences are inherently visual with sites, tools and apps that are practically unusable for people with visual impairments. However, designing an online experience with “website accessibility” ensures that visually impaired people will be able to understand, navigate and interact with the websites they access.
Web accessibility should be a priority for apartment companies from an inclusion point of view as well as marketplace competitiveness. When a potential renter can’t understand the content on the website, they are more likely to move on to the next community.
In addition to that, non-compliance can result in lawsuits. That’s why the websites of most U.S.-based companies like American Airlines or Marriott have a disability statement outlining what the organization is doing to best achieve website accessibility for the visually impaired, hearing impaired and a number of other potential impairments.
However, ensuring compliance for web accessibility is not as easy or straightforward as just checking off the boxes on a list. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was originally formed to govern a range of situations such as building access—if there are stairs, you need to also have an alternate method for someone in a wheelchair to access that building. But, according to Dan Campbell, SVP for specialty solutions at Yardi, there is no such guidance from the U.S. government for website accessibility.
“The Department of Justice (DOJ) has come out and said that websites should be accessible and organizations should look to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standard as a guide to accessibility on websites,” Campbell told Multi-Housing News.
The DOJ later referred the matter to Congress to create more specific guidance, but this effort stalled and, for a number of years now, organizations in the U.S. have had to discern website accessibility for themselves.
“Material compliance—the term used in the courts—doesn’t mean you have to be 100 percent, it means that you need to demonstrate material compliance and so it (requires) a lot of trying to figure out what that is and what form that takes,” Campbell explained.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
The most widely accepted standards of website accessibility are detailed in the WCAG. These technical documents are developed by the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group which is part of the World Wide Web Accessibility Consortium. The publication of the WCAG guidelines was funded in part with U.S. Federal funds from the Health and Human Services, National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research. The WCAG helps user experience (UX) designers create web-based experiences that can be used, understood and accessed by people with a diverse range of visual, auditory, cognitive and physical abilities.
The guidelines address accessibility of web content on desktops, laptops, tablets and mobile devices. For example, according to the WCAG, text alternatives must be provided for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need such as large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language.
Additionally, according to WCAG standards, non-text content that is presented to the user should have a text alternative that serves the equivalent purpose. If non-text content accepts user input, then it must have a name that describes its purpose and alternatives so that all users can participate. If non-text content is a test or exercise that would be invalid if presented in text, then text alternatives should at least provide descriptive identification of the non-text content.
WCAG also calls for alternative forms of CAPTCHA using output modes for different types of sensory perception to accommodate different disabilities. And if non-text content is pure decoration and used only for visual formatting or is not presented to users, then it must be implemented in a way that can be ignored by assistive technology.
Users with visual impairments often use screen readers to help navigate a website’s menu, images, content and icons. WCAG directs UX designers to use alternative text (alt-text) images to enable screen readers to convey information to visually impaired users. They also must provide audio transcripts and/or captioning of videos.
The contrast between written text and the colors of the background and images is also critical, and texts must be easy to read.
Implementing Best Practices
Accessible sites present information through multiple sensory channels such as sound and sight, and they allow for additional means of site navigation and interactivity beyond the typical point-and-click-interface. Website functionality should be accessible through a mouse and keyboard and synced to work with voice-control systems.
According to usability.gov, the combination of a multisensory approach and a multi-interactivity approach allows disabled users to access the same information as non-disabled users. The UX design experts at usability.gov suggest these best practices when creating digital content:
- Do not rely on color as a navigational tool or as the only way to differentiate items.
- Images should include alt-text in the markup/code; complex images should have more extensive descriptions near the image.
- Functionality should be accessible through mouse and keyboard and be tagged to work with voice-control systems.
- Provide transcripts for podcasts.
- If you have a video on your site, you must provide visual access to the audio information through in-sync captioning.
- Sites should have a skip navigation feature.
“From our standpoint, we want to make sure we’re building products that are materially compliant out of the box,” Campbell said. “There are other things you can do like putting on a widget that enlarges the screen.”
But those types of bandaids implemented later to a website to try to make it accessible and compliant are not as effective as building in accessibility at the beginning of the process.
Recently apartment operators have been the target of “surf by” lawsuits where attorneys are filing multiple frivolous lawsuits—sometimes even without looking at the websites in question. Don’t let this issue keep you up at night. Operators whose sites present information in a barrier-free manner ensure all users have equal access to information and functionality.