The increasing number of published legal cases around web accessibility shows that making websites accessible for people with disabilities is no longer optional.
The international web standard WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) includes three levels of accessibility compliance: A, AA, and AAA. However, as digital environments continually evolve, these requirements are frequently updated to match increasingly modern needs. The WCAG help companies remove unintentional barriers and reach the widest possible audience.
Accessibility regulations in Canada vary based on:
- The type of business (public sector company or private organization)
- The place where your business has been founded
- The size of your organization
- Whether your company is country-wide or provincial
So, how can you ensure you meet all Canadian accessibility requirements and provide accessible digital information for all your users? This article dives in the wavy sea of accessibility laws and policies in Canada, so you can determine which ones apply to your business.
But first, let's have a look at what makes a website accessible.
What is web accessibility?
For a website to be accessible, it has to offer people with disabilities and those using assistive technologies easy ways to interact with the entire content found on the site. By supporting your visitors to overcome accessibility barriers in their interaction with your site, you position your brand as a trustful one. Therefore, the benefits of web accessibility extend to your business as well, not only your website's users.
Web content accessibility doesn't just include people with disabilities. It also refers to content that can be easily understood and interacted with by smartphone users, elderly people, persons with low literacy, or those who have low English skills.
An accessible website includes the following:
- ALT text for all types of images
- Captions and transcripts for audio and video content to help persons with disabilities, hearing loss, or low English skills understand the information provided.
- Link names that contain meaningful and descriptive text which can be easily interpreted by screen readers.
- Relevant, appropriately formatted headlines that help people with disabilities that use assistive software easily find the information they are interested in. This accessibility step also improves your SEO and SERP rankings.
- Use meaningful link texts that clearly describe what the URL i about. Try to include specific keyword and avoid raw URLs.
- Clear website instructions that make your users' interactions with your site more straightforward and streamlined.
What is accessible content?
Maybe your website is an Ecommerce platform, or it might be a publishing site on various topics. Regardless of its scope, your website has to provide clear, meaningful, and concise content in order to be considered accessible.
As a content editor, you need to pay attention to how you write your copy so that it is always:
- Perceivable. Website users should easily perceive any piece of content that is presented on the site.
- Operable. When structured, a site's content should focus on operability.
- Understandable. Accessible content is comprehensive, concise, and includes meaningful structural elements.
- Robust. A piece of content is considered robust when it can be easily scanned and interpreted by assistive technologies.
By doing so, your web content will be accessible to all your users (persons with disabilities, smartphone users, elderly people, non-native English speakers, etc.)
What are the most important web accessibility laws in Canada?
According to the Canadian Standard on Web Accessibility, all Governments of Canada websites and web applications must conform to WCAG 2.0 Level AA.
Note: This does not apply to any business outside the government.
The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) established in 2005 was the first provincial accessibility law and is currently the only provincial law with an explicit digital accessibility element.
Public sector organizations, private, and non-profit organizations with more than 50 employees need to comply to AODA regulations. Despite the fact that the AODA does not apply to self-employed individuals that don't have employees, all businesses in Ontario, regardless of size, are urged to consider web accessibility a priority.
The current minimum standard for all public-facing websites is to comply with Level A and all public sector organizations and private businesses with 50+ employees need to be WCAG 2.0 AA accessible.
To maintain their accessibility compliance status, companies are also required to publish a Statement of Accessibility Commitment and Accessibility Policy on their websites. The deadline for this report was set for December 31, 2020, and extended to June 30, 2021.
In regard to companies that own a website with content built by international vendors, the content must comply with local laws and policies. Ontario.ca specifies, “The organization that controls the website must meet the accessibility requirements.”
Accessible Canada Act (ACA)
The Accessible Canada Act (ACA) founded in 2019 by the Federal Government intends to create a barrier-free Canada for people with disabilities by 2040. Its futuristic vision and well-established strategies were built with the Canadian Human Rights Act and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in mind.
These new legislations benefit everyone in Canada, especially people with disabilities, through the proactive identification, elimination, and avoidance of barriers to accessibility in the digital environment. The ACA encourages the Government of Canada to collaborate with stakeholders and persons with disabilities to create new accessibility regulations for private or non-profit organizations, banking, telecommunications, or transportation industries.
To discover the right direction of the ACA development, the Government of Canada asked its citizens what an accessible Canada meant to them. The findings of the report, Creating new national accessibility legislation: What we learned from Canadians, outlines the following key areas where accessibility needed reinforcement:
- Programs and service delivery
- Information and communication technology
- Procurement and transportation
The ACA set a new accessibility standard for publishing and promoting digital content, and it received Royal Assent on June 21, 2019.
What lays at the foundation of ACA is eliminating the barriers to accessibility for Canadians with disabilities and help them interact more easily with digital content and technology.
One touchpoint of the ACA is the digital experience, which can be made accessible by:
- Leveraging conformance-facing tools in workspaces (intranets, employee services, internal learning resources)
- Including conformance of digital tools and content from vendors
- Installing kiosks, parking machines, or payments machines
How to comply with accessibility laws
In today's busy and complex digital landscape, all websites are highly encouraged to take accessibility seriously. Regardless of the regulation, you can ensure that you pass the accessibility test by:
- Keeping up to date with the latest versions of WCAG, which constantly change to match current technologies and user research. These regulations are established to meet a wide range of needs, including those of people with low vision or neurologic disorders, and to keep pace with the ever-changing mobile landscape.
- Leveraging analytics data to help you understand your target audience and their unique needs. Additionally, you can talk and ask for feedback from your active users to better grasp your website's strengths and weaknesses. By gaining awareness of ideas of improvement directly from your audience, you'll deliver more personalized and accessible web experiences.
- Testing assistive technology tools to gain a more accurate perspective on how you can support, for example, people relying on screen readers. Get in the shoes of your users and become more empathetic to be able to come up with appropriate inclusive solutions to make your site more accessible.
Fines and penalties
So, what happens if you fail to comply with the accessibility regulations that apply to your organization?
The fines under the AODA include:
- Companies can be penalized up to $100,000/day.
- Individuals and unincorporated businesses can receive fines of up to $50,000/day.
- Managers and officers in a corporation can be fined up to $50,000/day.
The current enforcement instructions state that businesses are fined larger penalties for their first violation, and, if the lack of compliance continues, these penalties can apply every day.
However, the way these fines are given depends on the impact of the non-compliance and the history of the company or individual that has committed the violation. For minor violations, organizations may be fined as little as $500/day.
The AODA applies to all levels of government, non-profit and private sector companies, but the penalties are currently targeting only organizations with 50+ employees.
How can your business benefit from complying with accessibility laws?
Improving your website's accessibility is wise regardless of legal compliance regulations. It is also good for the business. Some key benefits of optimizing your site for accessibility are:
- Higher traffic rates on your website. By making your site accessible, you are opening the door for a wider range of visitors, which may lead to increased traffic, engagement, and conversion rates.
- More customers. Web accessibility is all about meeting a wide variety of customer needs, and it can grow your customer base in the long run.
- Improved SEO rankings. Some practices to make your site more accessible include writing relevant, concise content, adding ALT-text to images, or selecting simplistic layout designs. Also, these practices are good for SEO, as they increase your SERP ratings and your website's visibility.
- Faster page loading speed. By working on your website's accessibility, you also improve your page loading time and the overall user experience.
Keeping up with the evolving web accessibility laws in Canada is a must.
The next step is to become proactive on your accessibility journey by designing and optimizing your web apps and sites to comply with the rules and regulations of WCAG. This will not only keep you away from lawsuits and penalties, but it will also boost your brand reputation and your business outcomes.
If you need a hand in building websites and web apps that are compliant with the latest Canadian accessibility laws, we are happy to help with proactive Drupal support for your development projects.
Check out our Drupal Website Accessibility services and let's discuss how you can embrace an inclusive mindset that supports all your customers.
Photo credit: Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash.
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