As a higher education institution, you’re likely committed to fostering an all-inclusive environment where every person has the ability to enjoy the student experience.
When we think of accessibility and ADA compliance, we often think first of physical access. Most often, we focus on making sure that buildings and structures are accessible and comfortable for students of varying abilities.
But, accessibility in the digital world is just as important – if not more so!
With this comes a responsibility to ensure that all students, regardless of ability, can enjoy the same level of access to your physical and digital properties.
Accessibility for all students is becoming increasingly important. In 2015–16, 19 percent of male students and 20 percent of female students reported having a disability.
Accessibility has also become important for the government, which sets guidelines for colleges and universities to follow to make sure a higher ed’s facilities and digital properties (website, forms, etc) are 100% accessible.
Following these guidelines and becoming digitally compliant, however, has not been easy for educational institutions as it requires technical and legal assistance and enough funds to execute.
Are you 100% compliant? In this article, we’ll cover the levels of compliance, what this means for your online properties, and how to make your forms fully accessible.
ADA Compliance: Higher Education Institutions are Facing Difficulty
The ADA stands for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, It was created to protect the rights of people with disabilities from facing discrimination in the private and public sector. Under its tenets, all people, regardless of disability, should have the same access to physical and digital properties.
Years ago, the guidelines focused primarily on physical access, which for universities has been easier to comply with. In 2008, the law was revised to impact the digital landscape which broadened the definition of “disability.”
The rise of digital forms and courses, however, has made it difficult for higher ed organizations to comply with the ADA. The University of California at Berkeley came under fire in 2017 from the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to make its digital courses fully accessible to the deaf or hard of hearing or those with visual or manual disabilities. The DOJ found UC Berkeley in violation of the ADA, and as a result, UC Berkeley announced it would close down its courses.
Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (UIT) also suffered backlash when they were sued by the National Association for the Deaf for neglecting to add closed captions to their online course videos.
Higher Education Accessibility Regulations: What It Means to Comply
In working toward ADA compliance, higher education institutions follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 for web accessibility. WCAG 2.0 is part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) guidelines.
Web Accessibility Principles – POUR
WCAG 2.0 organizes web accessibility into four categories or principles:
According to W3C recommendations, the definitions are as follows:
Perceivable – Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
Operable – User interface components and navigation must be operable.
Understandable -– Information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable.
Robust – Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.
Each of the POUR principles also includes three levels of conformance (A, AA, or AAA) with A corresponding to the minimum level of compliance, AA to medium, and AAA to the maximum. The higher the rating, the more groups of people who will be able to access the web content.
Let’s take a look at these principles in more detail.
Perceivability refers to a user being able to use their senses to fully perceive and understand the content. For some, this may mean visual perception while for others it could involve using touch or sound.
If you create an online application form, perceivability is ensuring that the information can be perceived regardless of the user’s disability. Can a user with a hearing or visual disability watch and hear your video, read your PDF or distinguish the text color on a background of similar colors?
Operability has to do with the level of interactivity the user has with your web content. This may involve interactive elements such as navigation links and buttons and how the user can swipe, click or perform the form or website action. Accessibility may also require implementing ways for users to control their movement with keyboard controls or voice commands to make your content fully accessible.
Is your content consistent and easy to comprehend? Paying attention to predictability and consistency in formatting, layout and language will make your content fully understandable.
Some examples of consistency and predictability to aid understanding may include consistent navigation throughout your website, input errors on forms, and consistent language (jargon, reading level) in documents.
Your website and forms should function optimally (within reason) across all technologies for which it was created. For example, if you create a form that requires a specific browser to operate, all users should be able to download and/or access that browser.
WCAG 2.0 priority levels
As mentioned, the A, AA, and AAA priority levels denote the level of accessibility. We won’t have time to go into details on each rating and principle here, but as an example, here’s what the ratings for one guideline (non-text content) may look like.
Some actions for Level A compliance may include:
- Provide a short text topic description of all non-text content (audio or video)
- Add a text name to a control or input field (if it’s non-text)
Some actions for Level AA compliance may include everything in A compliance plus:
- Provide captions for all live audio content
- Provide audio descriptions for all prerecorded video content
Some actions for Level AAA compliance may include everything in A and AA compliance plus:
- Provide sign language interpretation for pre-recorded audio
- Provide extended audio descriptions for all prerecorded video content
For more information on all of the criteria and conformance regulations, see the full WCAG 2.0 guidelines and/or contact a legal professional to ensure ADA compliance for your website content and forms.
Section 508 compliance for online forms
In keeping with ADA compliance, higher education institutions are also required to adhere to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Section 508 addresses public institutions that receive federal funding. If your institution is funded by the federal government, you are also required to make your digital forms and website fully accessible to the masses, regardless of disability.
Now that we’ve discussed the different levels of compliance, below we will provide you with a list of requirements to help you become compliant with your forms.
How to Make Your Forms ADA Compliant: A Summary of Requirements
Layout: Easy to Navigate and Use
Are your forms too complex? Forms should be logical and intuitive for all users. Some elements to keep in mind while creating your forms are logical, clear instructions (add descriptions where needed), easy-to-follow order of form elements and navigation (nothing fancy), and logically organized form fields. Here are some more form layout suggestions to keep in mind when making your forms ADA compliant and accessible.
Large Areas / Highlight Important Information
Use large clickable areas, color, icons and highlighting to call out key elements and make them easier to perceive.
Using a strong color contrast between the text and the background assists users with visual disabilities. Color contrast refers to the ratio of light to dark, or how bright a color appears against a dark background.
To ensure you’re compliant, use a color accessibility checker. The results of your check will tell you if your contrast passes and at what level:
Keyboard Accessibility and Navigation
Your forms should be accessible and usable with or without the mouse. Users should be able to fill out and complete the desired form actions using only the keyboard.
Users should also be able to easily navigate through the form using the keyboard’s Tab key.
Screen readers translate your text to speech for users with vision disabilities. Ensure all text—including form fields and descriptions—are simple for screen readers to translate.
Include Text Labels With Form Controls and Inputs
Form controls are interactive elements such as a checkbox, radio button or menu. Typically, you would add text labels for these controls above or to the left of the controls for clarity; however, users with visual disabilities may have trouble associating the labels with the correct controls.
Use HTML and the <label> element to associate the text labels with the proper controls. This way, screen readers can effectively translate the text label to the user. The same applies to text inputs. Without labels connected to inputs, users with disabilities won’t be able to decipher what data goes inside the form’s input fields.
Ensure labels are associated with the controls, not just added to the HTML. Here is an example:
Your code must include the screen reader label/attributes (aria-placeholder, aria-labeled by, etc.) or assistive technology cannot properly determine the label purpose. Visit this in-depth resource to learn more about ensuring ADA compliance with form labels and controls and incorporating the correct attributes.
NOTE: When your text label instructions are long, use a description instead. Similar to your labels, you must also associate your descriptions with inputs so screen readers can properly translate them.
Some browsers do not support radio buttons, so if possible, avoid using them in your forms. If you have to use them, programmatically include associated labels. Your developer should be able to assist here.
The key to form error messages is to keep it simple and easy for all users to understand. The error messages should be clear for users seeing and hearing the text and preferably also provide solutions to the errors, if applicable. No fancy statements or jargon needed.
Tip: Similar to labels, and other inputs, associate errors so screen readers can translate the text.
Highlight Required Form Fields
When filling out your forms, all users should be able to clearly identify the required fields:
- Make your input error messages clear and not generic. Opt for “Please complete Name Line 2” instead of “Please complete required field.”
- Outline the required form fields at the beginning of the form.
- Associate a symbol (*) with the field and provide attributes (aria-required) for screen readers.
- Use color to help users perceive required form fields, but don’t rely only on color. Use size, images, and position as well to highlight fields to cater to users with all disabilities.
Follow HTML Semantic
Use HTML elements in your forms so screen readers can properly translate. Here is a list of the 119 HTML elements, each one corresponding to a specific purpose.
Are Your Forms Compliant?
Note that this is not an exhaustive list of all requirements for creating compliant forms. If you’re wondering if your forms are fully accessible, use the WAVE accessibility tool and consult with IT and legal professionals.
frevvo Forms: ADA Compliance is a Point and Click Away
Here at frevvo, we know the immense value in making forms more accessible but we also realize how cumbersome and difficult it can be to fully execute this endeavor. In addition, it’s expensive for higher ed universities to make forms compliant because it requires the hands of a skilled developer who also understands WCAG guidelines.
Enter frevvo. The forms created in our workflow software for higher education are ADA, Section 508, and WCAG compliant and offer worldwide language support. All you have to do is check a single box in the form’s properties wizard. That’s it. Your forms are now fully accessible for all users.
Add to that, workflow management and creating accessible forms is a breeze with built-in rules, drag-and-drop fields, dynamic routing and more. frevvo enables you to automate your routine tasks so you can put time and money back in your pocket.
If you would like to use our ADA-complaint forms, try frevvo free for 30 days. Or contact us for a free demo where we can walk you through the software and show you how you can automate your workflows and eliminate manual, tedious tasks. We’re an email or phone call away!