If you have what you consider to be “normal” vision, with or without corrective lenses, try to imagine that you have suddenly lost your ability to read this article, but you’re determined to learn what it says. In other words, try to imagine that you are legally blind. What would you do?
You may be aware that there is software designed to read online information aloud. You may even know how to access that software on your computer or your smartphone or at the public library. But what if the article (or webpage or e-mail message or attachment) isn’t set up to present information in the right order? What if the words refer to an image with words that you cannot see, and there’s no “alternative text” attached to that image? What if you are trying to wade through reams of information to find what you want but you have no way to navigate there without reviewing every bit of it?
There are universal standards for web accessibility—the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG, sometimes voiced as “wook-agg”). Nearly every Department of Justice-led Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) settlement I’ve read refers to the WCAG as the minimum standard for websites. This applies not only to state and local governments (ADA Title II) but businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations that provide public information (ADA Title III).
The WCAG is not limited to strategies supporting people who are legally blind. You will also find information that helps to ensure that people who are deaf or hard of hearing and/or living with a cognitive impairment can find the information they need because there’s sufficient contrast, captions, and more.
If you or your organization is developing a new website, start with the WCAG in mind. If you are working with web developers, don’t assume that they know how to make an accessible website (if asked, most will say yes). Instead, ask that the site be fully WCAG-compliant. Put it in writing.
Why digital accessibility is important
“Inaccessible web content means that people with disabilities are denied equal access to information. An inaccessible website can exclude people just as much as steps at an entrance to a physical location.”—Guidance on Web Accessibility and the ADA (ADA.gov U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division)
In Seattle-King County, we believe that more than seven percent of the entire population (all ages) lives with a disability, with considerably higher rates among older people. See Living With A Disability (Communities Count) and note the intersections of age, race, and household income.
Another source is Aging and Disability Services’ Area Plan Update for King County 2020–2023 (page 16) that shows disability rates are high among older adults (38 percent) and even higher for older people living in poverty (55 percent). In general, Black, brown, and Indigenous people in King County—regardless of age—are more likely than white people or people of Asian descent to have a disability. The number of older adults with disabilities in King County is projected to increase steadily as the older adult population grows.
Whether it’s one person or thousands of people who need information you are sharing, providing digital accessibility—equal access—is the right thing to do.
Do you know if your website is accessible?
If you are curious about website accessibility and don’t know where to start, copy the URL (web address) for a webpage you want to check and paste it into the webpage address window below the banner at the top of the WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool. Click the arrow to enter and within a couple seconds you will see a summary of errors and alerts. If there are errors, you may wish to alert the webmaster.
What about other types of digital communications?
Whether you have anything to do with website design and content (or not), you probably create digital documents—Word documents, e-mail messages, photo images, and more. A great source of information about creating and maintaining accessibility is the University of Washington’s Creating Accessible Documents webpage. Visit and see the links related to computer programs that you may use—PDFs, Word, PowerPoint, InDesign, scans, and more. It’s important to build accessibility into original documents, from the beginning—so much easier than trying to make an inaccessible document better at the end.
Global Accessibility Awareness Day
May 18 is the 11th annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day (accessibility.day). Its purpose is to get everyone talking, thinking, and learning about digital access and inclusion. I’m aware of staff trainings that the City of Seattle—coordinated by an interdepartmental team representing the City’s Citywide ADA Title II Compliance Program (FAS) and Human Services, Information Technology departments—is presenting that day. Similar programming is in the works for people with ties to the University of Washington.
What about other types of accessibility?
Digital communication is just one area of concern. And while the ADA is a legal requirement, and it goes a very long way toward providing physical and communication access for people living with a disability, there are additional efforts worth noting. Age Friendly Seattle and the Northwest Universal Design Council have worked together to promote the seven principles of Universal Design—Equitable Use, Flexibility in Use, Simple and Intuitive Use, Perceptible Information, Tolerance for Error, Low Physical Effort, and Size and Space for Approach and Use. These principles can be applied to just about anything that is designed, whether in the built environment (e.g., houses, buildings, streets) or the social environment (e.g., planning processes). These considerations help us go further toward creating environments that welcome people of all ages and abilities. To get involved, e-mail email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s also important to note that legal recourse is available for individuals who believe their civil rights have been violated under the ADA. In fact, the ADA is a civil rights law. Complaints can be filed with:
- Seattle Office for Civil Rights (investigates possible ADA violations inside the Seattle city limits)
- Other cities in King County—search under the city name and “civil rights”
- King County Civil Rights Program (unincorporated areas only)
- Washington State Human Rights Commission (elsewhere in Washington state)
- Federal agencies
For resources, training, and guidance on ADA issues, contact the Northwest ADA Center (serving Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Idaho). Their website offers excellent resources for people with disabilities, businesses, employers, state and local governments, healthcare, architects, contractors, and more.
Please note that there are no ADA requirements for private properties that have no public presence. For example, it would not be correct to say that you have an ADA-compliant house unless your house is a group home, multi-family residence, or a place of business, because the ADA does not apply to private single-family residences.
But that shouldn’t stop us from taking an evangelical approach to digital accessibility—spread the word far and wide that accessibility is vitally important!
Contributor Irene Stewart is editor of AgeWise King County. She manages communications for Aging and Disability Services and serves on the Seattle Human Services Department’s External Affairs Team.