Here’s What You Can Do to Ensure Your Site Meets Accessibility Standards and Is Safeguarded from an ADA Complaint
Last year, over 2,300 website accessibility lawsuits were filed against U.S. businesses, according to a report by accessibility.com. That’s a 14% increase over the number of claims filed in 2020. Of those lawsuits, the majority were against retail, consumer goods, and services businesses, industries which are populated with small business owners.
What does this mean for your website? How can a small business improve website accessibility in hopes of avoiding an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claim?
Know the Law
One of the first measures to take in ensuring your website is ADA compliant is to know the laws governing accessibility. The ADA prohibits discrimination against a person with a disability, which is someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of their major life activities, such as sight, hearing, or reading.
Title III of the ADA prohibits privately operated businesses that provide public accommodations, meaning they are open to the public, from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. Many businesses are covered by Title III, including theaters, hotels, restaurants and bars, retail establishments, doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, schools and daycare centers, recreational facilities, and art galleries.
While originally written with physical premises in mind, Title III has been interpreted by many courts to also apply to these businesses’ websites. In addition to providing handicapped parking and wheelchair accessible ramps at a store, a retail shop is also expected to have digital accommodations for vision- and hearing-impaired users of its website.
What Is a Disability?
While you may not think of your website as serving someone with a disability, it likely does. One in four American adults lives with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These include, but are not limited to:
- Visual disabilities such as blindness, color blindness, low vision, cataracts, and macular degeneration
- Auditory or hearing disabilities
- Ambulatory disabilities, such as loss of limb, broken wrists/arm, or chronic arthritis
- Neurologic or cognitive disabilities, including those caused by stroke or multiple sclerosis
Not all disabilities are permanent – like broken wrist and some vision problems. When considering if your site should be accessible, ask yourself these questions:
- Does your website engage in commercial activity that benefits the general public?
- Will the law treat your website as either a public accommodation or a service of public accommodation?
Standards for Digital Compliance
While the law tells us which businesses must comply, it doesn’t give much detail in how a website can be ADA compliant. In March, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued Web Accessibility Guidance that was supposed to meet the public need for better direction in this area.
The DOJ’s release noted the guidance would explain how businesses were to make their websites accessible. In the actual guidance, however, the department recognized that it “does not have a regulation setting out detailed standards” and that businesses have “flexibility in how they comply.” The DOJ also noted that it continues to take the position that the ADA’s requirements apply to “all the goods, services, privileges, or activities offered by public accommodations, including those offered on the web.”
What is a company to do?
The World Wide Web Consortium has Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2, which are generally considered the standard for digital accessibility and have been used in ADA lawsuits as such.
Would your website meet WCAG standards? A recent webaim.com review of the top 1 million websites found that 96.8% of these sites had WCAG 2.0 failures.
Here are some examples of noted failures:
- Sites not navigable by a keyboard
- Color contrast mistakes that made text hard to read
- Mistakes in the HTML tags that tell a screen reader how and when to read something
- ALT text on images that wasn’t relevant to how the images were used on the page
- Link text that wasn’t meaningful, such as “click here” instead of a more descriptive “download the report”
How to Make Your Site More Accessible
The best and most cost-effective way to make a site accessible is to start with the code when the site is first developed. Otherwise, professional remediation is the next best option. Commonly used automated checkers and overlays generally only detect about 30% of potential accessibility issues. Much of accessibility must be checked manually.
When wondering if your site would make the grade, consider these attributes found in accessible websites:
- Use of assistive devices like keyboard navigation and screen readers;
- Appropriate contrast ratios for colors/text;
- Semantic html tags for areas of the site like the header, footer, menus, and links;
- The right heading levels on the page text so the page hierarchy is understandable and screen readers will read text in the correct order;
- Easy-to-read labels on forms, such as on a contact form;
- Meaningful text for page titles, headings, and links as well as alt text on images;
- Visual and screen reader call outs for links that open in new windows;
- Any linked documents are accessible as well.
What Not to Do
Relying solely on a website overlay tool is an insufficient way to determine if your site is accessible. These tools claim to detect and fix accessibility, but are not considered the most effective solution by themselves. In fact, a webaim.org survey on overlay effectiveness found that 70% of website owners and users with disabilities rated these automated checking tools as not very or not at all effective.
Note that roughly 13% of the companies sued in 2021 were using a third-party overlay technology to improve the accessibility of their sites. These tools have also been found to decrease overall site performance and cause usability problems.
Accessibility Audits Most Effective
A thorough accessibility audit by a professional is the best way to determine if your website meets WCAG standards and to catch the many things missed by an automated overlay tool. An audit can evaluate compliance with laws and industry standards, identify problems, and suggest fixes.
Accessibility is good for your business, not only to protect yourself from legal matters but because it’s the right thing to do. If your site is accessible, it will allow you to reach the 25% of US adults who live with a life-impacting disability. An accessible site can also improve your SEO and lead to a better experience for all users, as improved efficiency for those with disabilities often results in better access for everyone.
I’ve just started offering accessibility audits. If you are concerned about the increasing number of accessibility lawsuits and wondering if your website meets accessibility standards, schedule a free consult with me.