Beware: You Might Get What You Don’t Pay For with Free Web Accessibility Plugins

Filed Under: Resources

Building and establishing a website these days aren’t as easy as many of us might expect. Sure, it’s possible to get a site up and running quickly. Web hosting packages are quite cheap. Often, they even include essential inclusions like domain registration, ample hosting storage and bandwidth, and even SSL certificates. Most web hosts even provide builders that allow users to create good-looking sites using drag-and-drop interfaces.

However, the landscape of the internet isn’t quite as forgiving for site owners. The lower barriers to site building means that others can also create their own with ease. Competition can be fierce. Site owners have to work hard to deliver unique content and real value to win their audiences and keep them coming back. Even cybersecurity is of great concern as hackers look to constantly prey on unsecure websites.

If these weren’t enough, a new trend that many site owners now worry about is the rising threat of web accessibility lawsuits. In 2018, the Unites States Department of Justice (DOJ) affirmed that websites are considered places of public accommodation and must therefore be made accessible to people with disabilities as provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

This fueled parties to use the law to force websites to improve their accessibility. Last year, there were more than 11,000 ADA lawsuits filed in federal court on the grounds of accessibility of public accommodations. A study of the top one million home pages revealed that 98.1 percent had detectable accessibility failures and may therefore be subject to suit.

Essentially, the push for wider web accessibility is a good thing. As a site owner, one should allow everyone to enjoy what one offers—including people with disabilities. But considering how some people can be litigious, it may be prudent for you to work on web accessibility immediately. Otherwise, you might be dealing with a costly lawsuit.

The Issue with Free Accessibility Plugins

It’s easy to think that there should be some free solutions out there that instantly solve this problem. Various powerful web development tools are available for free. Open source content management systems (CMS) like WordPress and Joomla can be freely downloaded installed on a webhost with just a few clicks. These CMS even have entire libraries of free plugins and themes that extend their capabilities. Surely there must be solutions that solve the accessibility issue.

Well, there are several such tools. They usually come in the form of plugins, widgets, and toolbars, and can be readily integrated to popular CMS. These plugins add certain functionalities to websites such as features that allow users to change the font type, font size, and text and background colors to suit the users’ needs. Some even allow users to enlarge the cursor or highlight links. These features can be helpful for people with visual impairments. For example, people with certain types of color blindness can benefit from viewing websites with text that clearly contrasts to its background.

Unfortunately, these functionalities cover only a fraction of what’s actually needed for sites to be considered compliant. The DOJ points at the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and its Level AA success criteria as reference for what sites have to achieve. The WCAG includes preparing content so that it can be properly interpreted by screen readers and structuring the site for navigability.

These plugins do not implement such changes to web content and site structures. So, even if you use these plugins, your site really wouldn’t be compliant to the level needed that protects you from legal action.

Something more iffy about some of these plugins is that they upsell paid accessibility remediation services. They may offer to make your website “kind of” accessible “for free”, the companies actual business model is to sell you accessibility audits and manual accessibility work, with services that can run up to thousands of dollars. This means that these companies know that their free solution is not enough, and does not make your site accessible, or legally compliant.

How to Achieve Compliance

If these plugins fall short, how can you make your website standards-compliant?

To start, it’s important to understand what the WCAG contains. This way, you can reconcile what’s demanded by the guidelines with how your website is made. Many of the guidelines are pretty straightforward and identify which specific features and functionalities are needed. For example, images which are considered nontext content should have alt text tags that provide a description of the image. This makes the content “readable” to those using screen readers. To comply, you simply need to add alt texts to all the images that your site contains.

Recent additions to Level AA criteria in the WCAG’s most recent version (2.1) also provide guidelines for newer devices and trends such as advising against locking website styles based on a single display mode as devices can now have different orientations. Some guidelines might not even apply to your case. For instance, if your site doesn’t feature video content, then you wouldn’t need to meet provisions that require close captioning for video.

If you’re just starting out with your website, then working on accessibility should be easier. You would be able to accommodate various WCAG success criteria into your website’s design. If you happen to use a CMS, you can even use an accessibility-ready theme. Just be mindful of following the guidelines for any new content that you may be adding to your site. You can use the W3C’s markup validation service to check your HTML code and various other free accessibility evaluation tools. If you are commissioning a developer or hiring a design agency to set up your website for you, it’s important to make accessibility compliance a key requirement in your project.

Active websites that may have hundreds or thousands of pages of content are trickier to make accessible. If you happen to own one, you might need to get a team to work on compliance. Your site must be comprehensively audited to check for all elements that don’t meet the success criteria. Afterwards, you need to work on remediation to correct all deficiencies. This is why some services look to upsell you this service.

Fortunately, there are recent efforts that look to automate the auditing and remediation processes. Instead of relying on people to perform the work manually, artificial intelligence and machine learning are used to comprehensively check your website’s code and content and apply the necessary changes to achieve compliance.

Conclusion

Web accessibility should now be a priority for every site owner. The threat of getting sued for noncompliance should be a cause for worry, but doing the right thing is what matters more. Besides, many websites have still yet to work on compliance. Allowing people with disabilities the opportunity to access your content and services can even become your competitive edge.

There are various ways how you can go about compliance. While free tools are worth a try, just be mindful that they don’t quite meet what’s truly needed. You might even get drawn in by their upselling tactics and spend a significant sum on a manual audit and remediation service. Rather than risk it, it’s better to invest in the right effort to either make sure you build your website right or fix the accessibility issues of your existing one through a comprehensive and accurate remediation effort.

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