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The American Disabilities Act & Your Website

Where to start to improve customer accessibility and avoid pitfalls

You may be aware that your physical place of business needs to be ADA compliant – but did you know it could also apply to your website? It may come as a shock – but when it comes to the digital divide between your business online and in the ‘real world’, the ADA can create a tricky grey area for a wide variety of businesses.

As more consumers are being forced to check websites before visiting businesses – accessibility concerns have come to the forefront. Add on the potential for frivolous, boilerplate lawsuits – like those being faced by Bicycle retailers in California,  and it pays to be proactive. Read on to learn what every small business owner should understand about ADA compliance and your website. 

While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn’t explicitly mention websites,  – one section of it – Title III – has been widely interpreted to apply to them, and Law.com reports that “In 2019, there were 2,256 ADA website-accessibility lawsuits filed in the nation’s federal courts”. 

Title III prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodation. Meaning, if significant components of your website are inaccessible, it could be risking a complaint.

The ADA was enacted before the internet became an everyday part of our lives, so it doesn’t specifically address websites. However, this hasn’t stopped lawsuits from being filed. Recent cases that have sided with disabled plaintiffs have continued to set the precedent that websites can be considered places of public accommodation – which means they can be subject to Title III compliance. Fortunately, it’s not hard to protect your business. All it takes is the ability to update your website – whether you’ve learned to do it yourself or you leave it to the experts.


There are three important facts to understand about your business and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act:

Fact #1: There is no official standard to follow

Fact #2: Discrimination does not need to be intentional

Fact #3: Fact #1 won’t protect you from liability*

Did you know:

Vision disability is one of the top 10 disabilities among adults 18 years and older and one of the most prevalent disabling conditions among children (CDC.Gov)?

A recent study by Webaim.org points out that a majority (98%) of vision-impaired adults are experienced with computers and the internet, generally using a screen reader, screen magnification, or color adjustment tools to gain access in the first place. With this in mind – making an accessibility effort isn’t just protecting you legally, it’s good for customer service.


Here’s what you can do

When it comes to business websites and the ADA, the law still isn’t settled. What is clear, is that businesses – especially those that are places of public accommodation – need to be accessible for people with disabilities. For now, this is interpreted to include websites*.

First, determine if you need to comply with Title III

When the department of justice implemented Titles II and III of the ADA, they also stipulated who the policy applies to. “To qualify as a public accommodation under DOJ Title III, an entity must fall within at least one of twelve categories”.

  1. Places of lodging (inns, hotels, motels) (except for owner-occupied establishments renting fewer than six rooms)

  2. Establishments serving food or drink

  3. Places of exhibition or entertainment

  4. Places of public gathering

  5. Sales or rental establishments (bakeries, grocery stores, hardware stores, shopping centers)

  6. Service establishments (laundromats, dry cleaners, banks, barbershops, beauty shops, travel services, shoe repair services, funeral parlors, gas stations, offices of accountants or lawyers, pharmacies, insurance offices, professional offices of health care providers, hospitals)

  7. Public transportation terminals, depots, or stations (not including facilities relating to air transportation)

  8. Places of public display or collection (museums, libraries, galleries)

  9. Places of recreation (parks, zoos, amusement parks)

  10. Places of education (nursery schools, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate private schools)

  11. Social service center establishments (day care centers, senior citizen centers, homeless shelters, food banks, adoption agencies)

  12. Places of exercise or recreation (gymnasiums, health spas, bowling alleys, golf courses)

Source: ADA.Gov

Second, understand what “compliant” means

Because there’s no specific law covering how to determine whether a website is compliant, courts have pointed to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA as a best practice (created by W3C – the international standards organization for the World Wide Web).

Still – no official regulations have been created – and a letter by the Department of Justice has clarified that “Public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication. Accordingly, noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.”

Bottom line: the best approach is to make an effort. That’s it.

Courts acknowledge that while WCAG 2.0 is the best available standard, it is still imperfect. Mostly because it’s dense, technical, and hard to read. This “flexibility” language helps protect the average small business that’s made a good faith effort at accessibility with these standards in mind. Simply trying to ensure accessibility for potentially disabled customers is a step in the right direction.


The four core principles of accessibility

Accessible content must meet four core principles, it must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

According to WCAG 2.0, these four principles determine whether a website passes the accessibility test. But it’s important to remember that accessibility is never truly “done”. To help businesses improve their accessibility, W3C has provided a quick reference guide, complete with techniques, examples, and failures for each of the 4 principles outlined below. But be warned: it’s dense. We’ve included a summary below:

Perceivable

Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.

This includes adding measures like captions for videos or audio descriptions for visual content. It also includes ensuring that content can be adapted by available technology in terms of presentation, orientation, etc.

Operable

User interface components and navigation must be operable.

Websites must be operable by keyboard while including ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are on the page. Interruptions and timeouts must also accommodate disabled users with text-based cues and warnings.

Understandable

Information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable.

A website that’s understandable makes its default language clear and defines abbreviations or unusual words. It also provides labels and instructions when user input is requested, and ensures each page functions and appears in logical, predictable ways.

Robust

Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted by a wide variety of user agents

Ensuring your website is robust for all users largely involves ensuring it’s compatible with the assistive technologies they may be using. This means using the correct HTML markup to give each user a comprehensive understanding of your site.

Remember: when it comes to making your digital storefront ADA accessible – you don’t need to be perfect, you just need to make an effort. The ADA has put together a helpful action-plan for making your website more accessible here


The following examples from the ADA outline common problems (and solutions) to website accessibility to help you get started…

Problem:
Images without text equivalents

Blind people, those with low vision, and people with other disabilities rely on different technologies to convey what’s communicated on your website. Two of the most common are screen readers and refreshable braille displays. This tech reads text, not images – even if there are words in the images.

Solution:

By using common HTML code known as an “Alt” tag (for short descriptions, like “a photo of the mayor”) or a “longdesc” for long descriptions (such as directions, or an explanation of a chart or data set) you can successfully convey your information in a perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust way. This does require some understanding of HTML.


Problem:
Documents not posted in an accessible format

Often, businesses will post documents in PDF format. Unfortunately, with PDF being an image-based format, it is not readable by many screen readers.

Solution:

Post documents in a text-based format as well, such as HTML or RTF.


Problem:
Specifying colors and font sizes

For many vision-impaired individuals, colors and fonts must be displayed differently in order to be legible. For example, some people need high-contrast settings in order to read the screen, whereas others may need the exact opposite.

Solution:

Ensure a user can adjust settings for color and font with their web browser or operating system.


Problem:
Video and Multimedia lacking accessible formats

From training videos to sales demonstrations, video is a no-brainer for many businesses. But it poses a unique challenge for accessibility.

Solution:

Ensure that videos incorporate features that make them as accessible as possible, to as many people as possible. This begins with captions – which are added by machine learning for many services. But it also could include providing audio descriptions for people with visual disabilities, either directly in the video or in a separate file.


Some additional steps you can take

  • Include a “skip to content” link at the top of webpages that allows people who use screen readers to skip directly to the meat of the page (usually your first heading, see below).

  • Minimize blinking, flashing, and auto-updating objects – and ensure they can be paused

  • Design forms to include descriptive HTML tags that provide disabled users with the information they need to complete and submit them

  • Use titles, context, and other heading structures to help users navigate complex pages, a standard format is often:

  • Heading 1

  • Heading 2

  • Heading 3

  • Heading 4

  • Heading 5
  • Heading 6

Getting Started

A well-designed action plan would include the following steps:

1.
Establish, implement, and post (online) a policy that your webpages will be accessible as possible and create a process for implementation.
2.
Ensure that all new and modified webpages and content are accessible.
  • Check the HTML of all new webpages. Make sure that accessible coding is used.

  • Make sure that websites are designed so they can be displayed using the color and font settings of each visitor’s browser and operating system.

  • If images are used, including photos, graphics, scanned images, or image maps, make sure to include a text equivalent, by adding “alt” tags or long descriptions, for each.

  • If you use online forms and tables, make those elements accessible by labeling each control (including buttons, check boxes, drop-down menus, and text fields) with a descriptive HTML tag.

  • When posting documents on the website, always provide them in HTML or a text-based format (even if you are also providing them in another format, such as PDF).

3.
Develop a plan for making your existing web content accessible and encourage input on how accessibility can be improved. Let visitors to your website know about the standards or guidelines that you are using to make your website accessible. When setting timeframes for accessibility modifications to your website, make more popular webpages a priority.
4.
When updating webpages, remember to ensure that updates are accessible. For example, when images change – you should update the text equivalents in “alt” tags and long descriptions so they match the new images.
5.
Ensure that in-house staff and contractors responsible for webpage and content development understand your accessibility standards. Distribute the Department of Justice technical assistance document “Accessibility of State and Local Government Websites to People with Disabilities” to these in-house staff and contractors on an annual basis as a reminder. This technical assistance document is available on the ADA Home Page at www.ada.gov.
6.
Provide a way for visitors with disabilities to request information or services by posting a telephone number or email address on your home page. Also, make sure you have procedures to ensure they get a quick, confident response.
7.
Periodically enlist disability groups to test your pages for ease of use; use the feedback they provide to increase the accessibility of your website.
8.
Ensure that there are alternative ways for people with disabilities to access the information and services that are provided on your website. Remember, some people may not have (or be able to use) a computer.

When it comes to accessibility and your website, the facts are pretty simple: being proactive about accessibility and doing something to improve it is the best way to be compliant. That starts with a website you can update and someone who would describe some of the steps above as “basic”.

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*The information in this article is provided for general informational purposes only and may not reflect current laws in your jurisdiction. None of the above information should be construed as legal advice, nor is it intended to be a substitute for professional legal counsel.