How to make your healthcare content 508 compliant
Making your digital content accessible to people with disabilities is the right thing to do.
If you work in digital marketing for a healthcare company, then odds are you've heard the terms web accessibility and 508 compliance thrown around. But the truth is accessibility needs to be at the top your healthcare organization's radar now and forever more.
To help you understand this issue, we're explaining web accessibility laws and giving pointers for keeping your healthcare site compliant.
What is 508 compliance?
In 1998, the U.S. government amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 with Section 508. The amendment requires federal agencies and any organization that receives federal funding to make their digital content accessible to individuals with disabilities.
Section 508 also applies to private organizations that may receive funding through Medicare or Medicaid. That includes most hospitals and health systems.
These guidelines remained unchanged for years until January 2017 when the U.S. Access Board updated web accessibility requirements to adhere to the standards set by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
What is WCAG?
Created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG sets guidelines that help site designers make a wide variety of content types accessible to people with disabilities.
WCAG recommends that site designers resolve potential content accessibility issues by asking themselves these four questions:
- Is the presentation of content perceivable by users, regardless of disability? Elements such as image alt tags and video captions are covered here.
- Is the site as operable by keyboard as it is by mouse? Is there a time limit on how long a user can read content, and if so, can the user extend that time without issue?
- Is the site easy for the user to understand? Are the navigation elements consistent and are input errors identified and explained to the user?
- Does the site have robust capabilities that make it as accessible as possible to the multitude of screen readers and other assistive technologies available today?
WCAG has three conformance levels: A, AA, and AAA. Each level is more complex than the last, requiring more exacting standards to make content ultra-accessible. For example, pre-recorded video that includes captions would meet a level A requirement, while adding a sign language alternative would meet a AAA requirement.
What are today's accessibility standards?
The current accessibility standard for federally funded agencies and private companies covered under Section 508 is WCAG 2.0 at Level AA.
The W3C recently updated WCAG to version 2.1, which includes additional requirements for mobile devices. While these additions are not required for meeting Section 508 requirements, they are highly recommended by WCAG for maximum accessibility.
Meeting these accessibility standards is not only the right thing to do, it's also the law. Sites covered under Section 508 compliance could face lawsuits from the Department of Justice for being in violation of accessibility standards.
How can I make my healthcare content 508 compliant?
Web accessibility can be a daunting undertaking, but there are a few simple things you can do to improve your content's accessibility.
Write better link text. Ambiguous links and buttons are often problematic for people using screen readers who need to navigate a web page by its links. To solve this, make sure your link text makes sense out of context.
Instead of a writing a link that says "Click here," list the name of the page. If the link goes to a .pdf, .doc., or other file extension, put the file type in the link description. Links shouldn't be too short, but they also shouldn't be overly long—avoid linking more than a sentence, and try to use site or page names over linking complex URLs.
Include image alt text. Non-sighted users cannot see the images on your web page, but you can provide them with a similar experience with the proper alt text.
Alt text is the bit of HTML code inside an image tag that provides context for screen readers. For example, if the HTML for your image looks like this:
The screen reader is going to read the file name, which may or may not be descriptive enough. To fix this, simply add some alt text:
<img src="image.jpg" alt="John Appleseed, CEO">
In this case, the screen reader will read the phrase "John Appleseed, CEO," thus providing a blind user with proper context.
It's important to know when to use alt text and when not to use it. Alt text is for important images that enhance the reader's experience and provide additional information or context. In those cases, keep alt text short and sweet. Avoid long sentences, and don't start alt text with phrases like "An image of…" The user will know it's an image thanks to the screen reader.
On the other hand, screen readers should ignore decorative images like stock photos or simple illustrations that simply add some visual "flavor" to a web page. To do this, don't add any text within the alt tag. It'll look like this:
<img src="image.jpg" alt="">
Practice proper header sequence. The hierarchy of your headers or title tags on your page is also important. Screen readers recognize that hierarchy and navigate webpages based on where they find H1, H2 or H3 titles.
Follow these points to practice proper header sequence:
- Your biggest header should be an H1 tag and it should be at the top of the page. No other H1 elements should be on the page.
- The next header should be an H2. If you need others headers after that, it should be of the equal value or the next numerical level down.
- It's OK to go backwards when you're following the proper header sequence. Let's say you've already used an H1, H2 and H3 on a page. It's OK for another H2 to follow your H3.
Make accessibility part of your content plan. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Change your internal style guides to include proper link usage.
- Think about how users with disabilities access your site and identify areas where your design or content fails them.
- Form a plan to improve existing webpages, but make those improvements standard when building new ones.
Need help getting started?
Web accessibility is a complex subject, but it doesn't have to give you a headache. Coffey's team of web designers and content creators are experts in web accessibility and 508 compliance.
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