Visual Accessibility and the ADA

October 2020
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July 26 marked the 30th anniversary of President George H.W. Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.

The most comprehensive disability-rights legislation in history, the act bans discrimination against people with disabilities and requires reasonable accommodations in schools, on transportation and in other areas of public life. Its employment provisions prohibit discrimination in job-application procedures, hiring, advancement, termination, compensation, job training and other aspects of employment.

Modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act has helped increase access and opportunity to 61 million (one in four) adults in the United States, both in and outside the workplace. This landmark legislation has ensured access to essential services, facilities and technology for people with disabilities.

Many people might think of accessibility for those with physical impairments as easier access to buildings via ramps, elevators and other examples of good design. But the concept of accessibility has expanded and evolved over time. For communicators, it also applies to the content we create.

Visual accessibility

Today, as more people work remotely and use technology because of coronavirus shutdowns, accessibility — particularly visual accessibility — is receiving more attention.

According to the Center for Disease Control’s Vision Health Initiative, as of 2012, 4.2 million Americans ages 40 and older suffer from uncorrectable vision impairment, including approximately 1 million who are blind. This number is predicted to more than double by 2050, due to growing epidemics of diabetes and other chronic diseases and the rapidly aging U.S. population. It’s therefore essential that companies and organizations proactively address the issue of visual accessibility for their employees and customers.

The content we consume today is highly visual: images, videos, online stores with 360-degree views, virtual reality, etc. As a result, people with visual impairments are demanding better access.

Visual accessibility includes web design and extends to the design and composition of any type of digital content, including apps and social media posts. Making content visually accessible to people also means accounting for factors such as their sensitivity to light (by letting them choose dark or light modes), contrast sensitivity (in their developer tools, the Google Chrome and Firefox web browsers include “contrast score checks” to make sure web pages have enough contrast) and color blindness, which can be solved on web pages by adding stripes that highlight differences between hot (red) and cold (green) colors.

Web accessibility

Web accessibility accommodates disabilities that affect access to the internet, including auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech and visual impairments. Services such as SiteImprove help website owners create more accessible content. Web developers can also follow guidelines from the Web Accessibility Initiative, which explain how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities.

How we structure web pages, write copy and even publish images affects the overall user experience, and not just for people who use text-to-speech readers. Web accessibility also benefits people with changing abilities due to aging, those with temporary disabilities or situational limitations, people with slow internet connections, and those accessing U.S. websites from other countries.

From the earliest stages of the digital-design process, an inclusive design prioritizes the needs of all users, to create the best user experience for everyone.

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