A Novice’s Advice on an Accessible Website

By Talley Wells, OlmsteadRights.org and the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Inc.

novice website2As an attorney who wanted to start a website, it was an intimidating prospect to ensure that our website would be accessible.  I didn’t know, and I still don’t know, how to code.  I am a novice.

Still, it was essential our website be accessible.  The following are lessons that we learned along the way that I hope can help make accessibility easier for novice website creators.

Before I get into specifics, it is important to say why accessibility is important.  The first reason is it is the right thing to do.  We are an inclusive society and want to make sure people who have impairments have equal access to the material on our websites.

A more selfish reason is because we want as many people to use and enjoy our websites as possible.  Twenty percent of website users have an impairment, including 10% of men who are color blind.  This is a huge group of people our websites exclude when the sites lack accessibility.  The reason we build websites is to deliver information, tools, and resources for an intended audience.  It makes little sense to exclude one fifth of users.

It also may be the law to ensure websites are accessible.  The 1998 Amendment to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that technology purchased by federal agencies be accessible.  While this does not include recipients of federal funds that are not purchased by federal agencies, it is important to know the accessibility laws, regulations, rules, and grant requirements that may apply to any website that is developed.  For instance, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination and requires reasonable accommodations by local and state entities, including in their websites.

Finally, an accessible website is often a better website.  While the most important reason to have close captioning is for people who have hearing impairments, it is also helpful to people who may not have sound on their computer and  for people who simply like to read what they are listening to.   I use close captioning on the treadmill to listen to music while I am watching a sporting event.  Many accessibility features are used by people without specific impairments because of functionality and efficiency.

Once you have made the correct decision to build an accessible website, you will need to plan ahead before building the website.  The more planning done ahead of time, the easier it will be to make an accessible website.  A metaphor I often use is putting in a wheelchair in a house.  It is much less expensive to put the elevator in the house when the house is built than it is to try to put the elevator in during a renovation.



Such planning should include:  budgeting for accessibility, planning the layout, content, and functionality of each page, and planning time for making changes and fixes along the way.

Part of any plan should include budgeting for the cost of ensuring the website is accessible.  This will include budgeting for the time it will take to ensure accessibility, hiring an expert to audit the website, and additional time to make corrections after the audit.  You should also make sure that your platform provider knows you will want the website to be accessible and include in the budget time and effort for making changes to the platform to ensure accessibility will be possible and will be part of the cost for the platform.  When it comes to choosing a platform provider, you should investigate how accessible the platform is, whether any additions or special features you will want for your website can be done in an accessible way, and how amenable and responsive the provider will be in making changes based on accessibility.  (We worked with ProBono.net who was very amenable and responsive to making our website accessible).

You also need to know the important features to making a website accessible as you plan the layout of the website.  You will want to pay special attention to the color scheme, ensuring pictures and images are accessible, and how navigation will be done from one page to the next.

Finally, you need to be prepared that you won’t get it perfect the first time.  You will need to make corrections and additional accommodations along the way.  You should plan your budget and time so that you can afford to make the changes after an audit of the website.

How to Learn About Making Your Website Accessible

Before you start planning, and then throughout the process of making your website accessible, you will need to learn and relearn the key components of an accessible website.  The best place I found to start is through LSNTAP’s Guide to Web Accessibility by Liz Leman and Brian Rowe.

The LSNTAP Guide follows the main guidelines for website accessibility created by the World Wide Web Consortium.  The guidelines are called Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.0.  The Guidelines are divided into four main sections, which are the main categories to be concerned about in creating an accessible website:  1. Perceivable; 2. Operable; 3. Understandable; and 4. Robust.

WCAG 2.0 Guidelines include the following:


1.   Text Alternatives

2.   Captioning

3.   Readable content by different devices

4.   Visually and audibly distinguishable


5.   Keyboard functionality

6.   Provide time to read and use content

7.   Make content so as to avoid seizures

8.   Make sure all users can navigate from where they are


9.   Make text readable and understandable

10. Make web pages predictable

11. Help users avoid and correct mistakes


12. Maximize compatibility with current and future users.

Top Five Tips

Based on these guidelines and experience, I have five top tips for novice website creators.

Tip 1:  Use the Alt Attribute for Images

Make sure that you use the alt attribute for all images on your website.  When you put an image into a website, your platform should give the opportunity to provide information to users who cannot see the image.  Many images on a website do not have a real purpose other than to be decorative.  For instance, on our website we have a lot of people with disabilities.  The pictures make the website more interesting and powerful but it does not convey information.  For decorative images, you should simply input “” in the alt text section so that a screen reader would simply skip the image.  However, if the image provided information the website visitor needed, then you should provide an accurate concise description.  For instance, if the picture was of the Master Card and American Express logos, you might write “Master Card and American Express accepted.”  This can become tricky if you have images that convey some information but are also decorative.  For instance, if a website had a picture of the President addressing the country, it would depend on why the picture was on the website and whether it is meant to convey information.

Tip 2: Captioning is Easy

Captioning videos to ensure that people who visit your website can fully use videos on your website is easy and should be done for every video.  It is particularly easy if you use and embed YouTube or a similar platform that allows for captioning.  You can find a simple guide for captioning on YouTube here.  It is important to make sure to input all of the words rather than allowing YouTube to use its computers to guess what the words are.  It is much more accurate when you input the words.  YouTube has an easy way to enable you to time the words to what is being said in the video.

Tip 3: Color Contrast Early and Often

It is very important in the planning of your website and in adding pages that you test them out to make sure they can be read by people who are color blind.  The easiest way to do this is to use the webaim.org color contrast checker.  This tool allows you to input a foreground color and a background color and ensure that text will be readable with these contrasts.  You can then use WebAim’s Wave tool to provide a link to a web page you are developing to ensure the color contrast is accessible.   For documents that are not publicly accessible, you can use the Wave toolbar through the WAVE Chrome extension.

Tip 4:  Make Sure There is Enough Time to Read and See Web Pages

You need to ensure that all web users have enough time to go through the content on each web page.  To the extent that you have images or content scrolling automatically on a page, there should be a way to turn that function off, adjust it, or extend it.

Additionally, web pages should not have any content that flashes more than three times in a second to avoid seizures.

Tip 5:  Keyboard Accessibility

It is also important that your website is fully functional with a keyboard without requiring specific timing for any individual keystrokes.  This should not prevent using a mouse but instead ensure that if a mouse is not used a person can fully navigate the website.  It is also important that there not be a keyboard trap.  There should not be a place where a person reaches on the website that he or she cannot get back out of or to the next place with the keyboard.

Selecting a Website Auditor

A good website accessibility auditor should be able to do more than just tell you what is wrong with your website.  He or she should be able to tell you how to fix it by providing suggestions as to how to change code, change color contrast or whatever else needs to be fixed.  Auditors are not cheap but you may be able to find one who will provide a non-profit website with a discount or be willing to do part of it pro bono.  We worked with Kathy Wahlbin at Interactive Accessibility, who was an incredible teacher, resource, and adviser.

Use People First Language and Inclusive Images

Your website should not just meet requirements for accommodations but it should also be inviting and respectful to people with disabilities.  For this reason, it is essential to use People First Language.  People First Language puts the person first rather than his or her disability.  This means use the words “person with a disability” rather than “disabled” or “handicapped.”  An individual may be a veteran, a teacher, a lawyer, a mother, or son.  In addition to these attributes, he or she may have a disability.  By calling a person “disabled,” all of the attributes that make up the person will often be lost in this one word description.  The Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities has a People First Language Page that provides helpful hints.

About Olmstead picture 800 x 300You should also try to include images of a diverse group of people on your website, including people with disabilities.  For OlmsteadRights.org, we had a pizza party and had volunteers with and without disabilities join us for a photo shoot.  They were each willing to sign a release so that we could use their images on the website.  In addition to providing great images of a diverse group of people, it also was a great way to promote the website as people shared that they were on the web pages.


You can have an accessible website.  In order to do so, it will take some time to become familiar with what is needed for accessibility, planning, time to ensure it is done well, and an expert to audit the website and provide recommendations.  While this will take some work, it is worth it to ensure that everyone can visit and use your website.

Time to Take on the Waiting Lists by Talley Wells


An older mother began to show signs of dementia. She had an adult son with an intellectual disability. He lived with her.  They depended on each other. As Mom’s dementia grew more pronounced, the family asked that her son be given a Medicaid Waiver.  The state said no. The situation grew worse. The Mom mistakenly gave the son some of her medications.  Meals were missed.  The situation grew dangerous.   The state continued to delay Medicaid Waiver services. Finally, after the intervention of a legislator, threats from an attorney, and the persistence of a family member, the son got a Waiver. This was recent — almost fifteen years after Olmstead!

The continuation of endless waiting lists, particularly for individuals who are at risk of institutionalization violates Olmstead. In the Olmstead decision, a plurality of the Supreme Court suggested that states needed effective working plans with reasonably paced moving waiting lists to meet their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Fifteen years have now passed. Any reasonably paced moving waiting list should have ended. States should have created supports in the community to serve every individual who is otherwise entitled to services in an institution.

Olmstead does not just apply to people who are in institutions.  It also applies to people who are at risk of entering institutions. The Tenth Circuit held that Olmstead protections would be meaningless if individuals “were required to segregate themselves by entering an institution before they could challenge an allegedly discriminatory law or policy that threatens to force them into segregated isolation.”   Fisher v. Oklahoma Health Care Auth., 355 F.3d 1175, 1182 (10th Cir. 2003). In Georgia, over 7000 people are on the state’s developmental disability waiting list. Many of these men and women have the right to receive institutional supports and services through Medicaid if they choose to enter an institution. Most don’t want to be in institutions. These men and women, particularly those at significant risk of institutionalization, have Olmstead rights. This is also true in every other state in the country.

It is time to take on and litigate the waiting lists. The promise of Olmstead cannot wait any longer.

To learn more about Olmstead v. LC, Olmstead Rights, and to read stories of people with disabilities whose lives have been transformed due to Olmstead and the ADA, please visit http://www.OlmsteadRights.org/

The Importance of Stories in Disability Rights History by Hannah Monroe

Black and white photograph of Sue Jamieson, Lois Curtis, and Elaine Wilson

History is made up of stories, but the stories of many people often go untold, with history written in a way that often doesn’t address the experiences of individuals.  Sharing stories with each other and recording them preserves the history of all people.  History is not just the story of major events in the world, but is also the lives of people like you and me.  Our lives are part of history and by telling our stories to one another, we can find and share our place in the history of our communities.

Lois Curtis1 by Tom OlinElaine Wilson by Tom OlinTwo women whose connected stories played an important role in the history of the disability rights movement are Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, whose struggle with finding support outside of institutions ultimately led to the Olmstead Supreme Court decision.  Lois and Elaine had been diagnosed with mental health conditions and intellectual disabilities and, even though they wanted to live in the community and doctors agreed that they should be able to do so, they were continuously being moved between their homes and institutions due to a lack of support.

It was taking years to arrange the support they needed so Sue Jamieson, an attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid Society, began working with them and their case ended up going to the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court decided that Lois and Elaine, and all people with disabilities, should get support in the community, basing this decision on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states that discrimination against people with disabilities by the state is illegal.  The belief that people with disabilities deserve to have the support they need in an integrated environment was critical to the Olmstead decision and is something we continue to work for today.

“I am Olmstead” is a project created by Atlanta Legal Aid Society’s Disability Integration Project.  This project is a way for everyone to share theiAbout Olmstead picture 800 x 300r stories on what Olmstead means to them and how this landmark Supreme Court decision has changed their lives.  “I am Olmstead” is now collaborating with the Disability Visibility Project, which is working with StoryCorps to collect stories from people with disabilities to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  These stories will be preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress along with all of the stories that StoryCorps has been collecting since 2003.

We are looking for stories about people’s experiences of living with disabilities and the history of the disability rights movement so far.  By saying “I am Olmstead,” we express how our lives reflect the influence of the Olmstead decision and how our personal histories are part of the story of the disability rights movement and Olmstead.  To submit a story, please email it to iamolmstead@atlantalegalaid.org with “Olmstead Story” in the subject line.  We look forward to hearing from you!

*Hannah Monroe is the Quaker Volunteer Service fellow at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society’s Disability Integration Project.

Difficult Vital Work


Today, the 15th Anniversary of Olmstead, the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) has reminded us both how difficult and how vital Olmstead is. The newspaper reported on serious and tragic incidents that have occurred in transitioning men and women with developmental disabilities out of Georgia’s state hospitals as part of the Justice Department Olmstead settlement.  Buried in the article is the story of Keith McGarrity, who lived most of his life in an institution (from 1963 to 2011), and who is now living a much more meaningful life in the community six miles down the road from his 84 year old father Alvin.

In issuing the Olmstead decision, Justice Ginsburg did not say that states had to immediately transition every person from an institution into the community.  Instead, the Supreme Court allowed states to create effective working plans with reasonably paced moving waiting lists in order to accomplish the mandate of Olmstead.  Unfortunately, what states did with this caveat was to have a lot of planning meetings, but they took very little action.  

In Georgia in 2007, seven and a half years after the Olmstead decision, the state had done very little to comply with its Olmstead obligations. The AJC ran a series of articles entitled the “Hidden Shame” that showed over 100 people with disabilities in the state hospitals had died under suspicious circumstances.  The Justice Department followed this up with an investigation of its own revealing multiple incidents of abuse and neglect.

As a result of the Justice Department investigation and subsequent litigation, Georgia finally, eleven years after Olmstead, agreed in October 2010 to begin transitioning people with developmental disabilities and mental illness into the community.  This meant that work that should have started in 1999 to build an infrastructure of supports and opportunities for people in our state institutions finally began in early 2011.  

Georgia has made remarkable progress (although it still has a long way to go) in providing supports and housing for people with mental illness across the state.  It has the most innovative and successful housing vouchers in the country for people with severe and persistent mental illness.  It has developed robust supports, case management, and crisis services.  Georgia is a national leader in developing and training certified peer specialists so that people with their own experiences of mental illness who are further in their recovery journey can support others with mental illness.  According to the Court’s Independent Monitor, Elizabeth Jones, “[t]he building blocks of a system oriented towards recovery are now visible and largely operational.”

Unfortunately, Georgia has had substantial difficulty transitioning people with developmental disabilities.  The state, the Justice Department, and advocates have taken these difficulties extremely seriously.  For most of the last twelve months, the state has stopped the transitions in order to build up and train its provider community.  The Justice Department and the Court’s Independent Reviewer have required the state to come up with a detailed plan by the end of June 2014 (that should become public July 22nd) to map out how the state will successfully meet its obligations for people with developmental disabilities.  This will not be easy, but it is vital to enable people like Keith to have the opportunity to live meaningful lives in the community like every other American.  

Tomorrow, we will have a 15th Anniversary Event at the Carter Center.  The event is led by and run by people with disabilities who care deeply and passionately about the promise of Olmstead.  We will hear stories from people whose lives have been transformed due to Olmstead. Thousands of men and women across the country have the opportunity to live and work in the community as a result of the decision.

Yes, making Olmstead a reality is difficult and it must be done right, but it is vitally important!

Olmstead Does Not Stop at the Institution’s Doors — And Neither Can Advocacy

Integration does not just mean getting out of an institution (unless that is all a person wants).  Of course, getting out is essential, but, for lots of people, it will only be the beginning of full integration.  Each person returning to the community must have reasonable opportunities to be interconnected into the community as he or she chooses.

Picture of older African American man in wheelchair

Willie Gray was in a nursing facility for 8 years before returning to the community. He is now 82 and a disability rights advocate in Atlanta.

People who have been in institutions for a long time have likely lost many of their connections to the community.  It is typical for a person stuck in a nursing home to not have a motorized wheelchair, transportation, or any real way of getting out and about.  The nursing home parking lot becomes an impregnable wall fencing the person into the nursing home.  Friends and relatives may visit, but, for many, those visits diminish or even stop all together over time.  

Thus, as we advocate for these men and women to get out of nursing homes and other institutions, we must ensure that, for those who want them, there are opportunities to reconnect to the community with accessible transportation, integrated housing, employment opportunities, and ways to be part of the faith and civic communities that they want to be part of.


Two Important Anniversary Years: Olmstead and the ADA

2014 and 2015 are big anniversaries for the disability rights advocates.  These anniversaries are opportunities to spread the word to people with disabilities, advocates, and the larger community of the rights people with disabilities have to live fully integrated lives in the community and the opportunity the community has to be enriched by being inclusive, inviting and accommodating.  In 2014, we celebrate the 15th anniversary of Olmstead v. LC, the most important civil rights legal decision for people with disabilities.  Then, in 2015, we celebrate the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA).  

Already, the ADA Legacy Project has begun the process for celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ADA.  It has created an outstanding website at ADALegacy.org.  The mission of The ADA Legacy Project is to honor the contributions of people with disabilities and their allies by:

  • preserving and promoting the history of the disability rights movement; 
  • celebrating the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as other related disability rights legislation and accomplishments; and 
  • educating the public to create opportunities for inclusion, access, and equal rights for the future.

Please go to their website to learn about upcoming events and get excited for 2015, or don’t wait, go ahead and get involved now.  

For the 15th Anniversary of Olmstead, a new website will be debuting this summer called OlmsteadRights.org.  The website will tell Olmstead stories through narratives, audio recordings, and videos of people whose lives have been changed by Olmstead.  We will also have a major celebration of the 15th Anniversary at the Carter Presidential Library on June 23, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia.  Go here to find out more about this great celebration.  You can also follow the Olmstead anniversary celebration by liking I am Olmstead on Facebook.  

Don’t Let Person Centered Planning and IEPs Become Empty Paperwork

I once had a client who was in a psychiatric hospital. We were getting her out of the hospital using Olmstead advocacy. As part of the transition, the social worker was required to do a person centered plan for my client.

In preparation for the meeting, my client and I had discussed what she wanted. She was very clear that she wanted three specific things when she got out of the hospital. She wanted me to tell the social worker what those three things were. I had encouraged her to say these things herself, but she did not trust the people at the meeting and felt strongly that I should raise these points as her attorney.

Two people having a discussion.  One is in a wheelchair

When the meeting started, I said to the social worker that my client wanted three things. The social worker became annoyed. She said, “please do not interrupt we have to fill out this person centered plan.” I said “but these are the three things that my client wants.” The social worker said, “excuse me, please do not interrupt, we have to fill out this form.”

I’ve been to many meetings like this. Often, there are forms to be filled out. The forms at their heart are good, but too often the forms become mere checklists for someone to fill out without actually taking account of the purposes and reasons for the documents.

This happens particularly at schools in IEP (individualized education planning) meetings, where teachers, school psychologists, and parents meet to discuss what a child with a disability needs for his or her education at school. There are many forms to be filled out at these meetings. In my experience, the meetings become a time where paperwork is filled out about a child in such a way that the child almost disappears in the morass of questions and answers that use big teaching words but that have little meaning.

In both person centered planning and IEPs (as well as Money Follows the Person and other transition meetings), it is essential to enable the person “being discussed” to have the power and voice to truly plan his or her own future. The first step in doing this is to give the person information and time before the meeting so he or she can prepare for the meeting. Second, at the meeting, there should not be any paperwork at the start. The start should be a conversation with the individual to hear what he or she wants, what he or she is concerned about, and what he or she needs. Third, there should be a conversation about the gifts and abilities of the individual. (These meetings focus way too much on the impairments/deficits of the individual). One of the main ways all of us grow is by building up our strengths and nurturing our gifts rather than focusing on our weaknesses or impairments.

Fortunately, when person centered planning is done not by people who have to do it because they have to fill out forms, but by loved ones, disability advocates and self advocates, and others who truly understand why and how to do person centered planning, it can be a powerful and wonderful, and even a life-changing, experience. As we move forward, we all need to capture the beauty and power of person centered planning and resist making such planning bureaucratic emptiness.

Olmstead and Bureaucracies

One of the realities of Olmstead advocacy is dealing with different agencies who pass the buck to each other. Olmstead is about providing accommodations to people with disabilities but when different agencies are involved they often put up obstacles or send the person with a disability on a chase to find who is responsible to provide necessary supports and services.

A Georgia woman who has two children with intellectual disabilities recently experienced this when her two children with intellectual disabilities received termination notices from their Medicaid Waiver program. The two children qualified for a Medicaid Waiver but were in a Medicaid Waiver for individuals with physical disabiliities. The agency terminated the children because they did not qualify for that Medicaid Waiver despite the fact that it had been providing the Waiver to them for years. It stated that it had to terminate them because the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services required the termination since it was the wrong waiver. There is a Medicaid Waiver that the children qualify for but it is run by a different Georgia agency and has a 7000 person waiting list. Rather than assist the children to receive the other Waiver, the original agency just terminated the children. Fortunately, there is a lawyer involved and this matter may be resolved favorably. But this happens over and over again to people who may not have such representation.

Olmstead requires that agencies provide accommodations and assist families when issues arise rather than obstacles and roadblocks that leave families and individuals with disabilities in the cold.