Posted By Mercury Healthcare (formerly Healthgrades) on 08/03/2021

Getting Started with Website Accessibility in Your Health System

Getting Started with Website Accessibility in Your Health System

Today, more than one in four adult Americans self-identify as having a disability, and a third of U.S. households include someone living with a disability. This is a significant portion of the population – approximately 61 million people – that cannot be ignored.

Despite this, many web developers don’t design with accessibility in mind. If your website is not optimized for users with disabilities, they may not be able to navigate it, read its content, or make an appointment, leading to a poor customer experience that can cause you to lose potential patients. In fact, research has shown that 80% of people with disabilities have disregarded a company’s website because of lack of accessibility.

Websites must be accessible to ensure all users have the best experience possible. To that end, accessibility cannot be an afterthought. Making your website compliant and accessible isn’t just beneficial to your bottom line – it’s the right thing to do. All users, regardless of ability, deserve full and equal use of your site. This is especially true for health systems.

Legal considerations for web accessibility

As of 2021, there are no formal federal guidelines in the US regarding online accessibility; however 11,000 web accessibility lawsuits were filed in 2019. Websites with substantial inaccessible components are viewed by most federal courts as discriminating against persons with disabilities, due to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, there aren’t any specific technical requirements contained in this section, leading to widespread confusion.

The World Wide Web Consortium, an international organization that develops standards for the internet, created Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that provide a clearer path to compliance. Many federal and state courts will compare your website’s accessibility against WCAG as it is the de facto – but not official – US legal standard. The guidelines specify how to make content accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities, including blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, learning disabilities, and more. 

As of 2021, the WCAG is based on a three-tiered system:

  • A — Provides essential accessibility to meet the basic requirements for assistive technology tools. For instance, your site should be navigable using only a keyboard, and all videos should provide captions.

  • AA — Includes a satisfactory level of support for a range of disabilities. For example, alt text is used on images, form fields are accurately labeled, and your site navigation is consistent.

  • AAA — Provides the optimal level of support, often accounting for specialized audiences. AAA sites may have sign language interpretation available and provide on-page customization options to ensure all content is accessible without external assistive technology.

To provide the best possible experience to persons with disabilities, every healthcare organization should strive to be a AAA. However, anything short of an A rating needs to be resolved immediately, or your health system will make it more difficult for users with disabilities to access essential information, potentially leading to noncompliance with ADA guidelines. For more information, read the latest version of the WCAG.

Four areas for health systems to optimize accessibility

Ensuring that your site is accessible for all users will not only help them gather the information and resources they are looking for, but it will also help your organization better serve their needs as well as remain compliant with WCAG standards. 

Let’s take a look at four areas that will help you design your healthcare website with accessibility in mind.

1. TAGGING AND METADATA

Tagging and metadata helps users with screen readers read and access content. Since screen readers are commonly employed by users with vision impairments as well as users with cognitive or motor disabilities, their usability should be top-of-mind for any form of accessible design. Focusing on the following areas can help create a better online experience:

  • Use metadata wherever possible. Screen readers use metadata to help users perceive and understand visual elements of your site.

  • Use HTML for essential site elements, and only use external CSS for design purposes. Certain external CSS is not compatible with screen readers and can render your site unusable for certain users with disabilities.

  • Clarify page structure with header tags. These headers help users stay oriented as they read and navigate your page.

  • Use alt tags to help low vision users understand images. Screen readers use alt tags to describe the image out loud.

  • Ensure plug-ins do not interfere with site code/accessibility. Plug-ins can help you customize your site, but certain plug-in overlays will modify elements of your site. This makes navigation unintuitive for some users with disabilities.

2. MOBILE OPTIMIZATION

Mobile browsing is a common part of day-to-day life, and of course this applies to people with disabilities as well. However, users with hand tremors or similar mobility and motor issues may have difficulty interfacing with certain features inherent in mobile devices. To optimize your site to make it more accessible for these users, you should consider the following:

  • Use responsive horizontal/vertical orientation. Certain individuals may have their devices mounted in a fixed orientation (like on a wheelchair, for example) and therefore need the page to respond to their desired orientation.

  • Use defined buttons and links. Large buttons and links, along with sufficient space between them, can help users avoid unintentional clicks.

  • Set trigger actions for mouse/finger release only. This allows users with disabilities to move their finger or stylus over elements without triggering unintended actions.

3. USABLE FORMS

If your health system wants to provide care to consumers with disabilities, your forms must work with screen readers and follow a logical structure to help users describe, navigate, and interact with the content. In creating your online forms, you should:

  • Ensure users can navigate by using only their keyboard.

  • Use HTML coding to define fields for screen reader accessibility; doing so will make form completion more straightforward for those with a visual impairment.

  • Enable autocomplete to reduce the amount of typing necessary; cutting down on typing helps those with mobility issues.

  • Display clear alerts immediately after a form filling mistake is made. A bold visual cue will alert users to the error before the form is submitted, reducing the need to navigate the same page multiple times.

4. ACCESSIBLE CONTENT

Ensuring that your content is straightforward and easy for everyone to understand isn’t just useful for persons with disabilities, but something that everyone will appreciate. Follow these tips to make your site more user-friendly.

  • Reduce horizontal scrolling. Research has shown that horizontal scrolling makes it 40 to 100 times more difficult for low-vision users to navigate a given page. Instead, opt for a responsive spatial layout  

  • Write at a high school level wherever possible to allow for common understanding.

  • Use descriptive anchor text for links so that users know where they are navigating to on your site. A screen reader will tell users if certain text contains a link – make sure they understand where that link will bring them.

  • Disable auto-play for video, audio, slideshow assets in favor of playing with keyboard commands. Certain users may find it difficult to restart or stop the asset.

  • Remove known seizure triggers from creative assets.

  • Properly size text and use contrasting colors to aid in readability. 

Key takeaways

Ensuring your site is accessible is not a single, one-off event. You should continually audit your site using the tips listed above to ensure your pages are accessible. Following your audit, read through the latest version of the WCAG for more guidance to make your health system’s web presence not only acceptable but optimal for all users. 

While it’s best to create websites with accessibility top-of-mind from the start, a manual accessibility audit will help you discover what you can do today to improve the experience of people with disabilities.

You don’t need to do this on your own – if you do your due diligence to understand what an accessible website looks like, you can enlist a quality web developer that takes accessibility as seriously as your hospital does. Hg Mercury Website Solutions offer seasoned web specialists who can help you create websites that drive engagement for every patient. We’ll help you audit your site, provide accessible web components, and even provide guidance for accessible web design. By working with an expert, you can provide an equal, barrier-free experience for all users.


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Sean Brasher
Senior Director of Product Engineering



The original version of this page was published at:  https://partners.healthgrades.com/blog/web-accessibility-in-healthcare