As a small business owner, you may be familiar with federal, state and local regulations when setting up your office or store and preparing for staff and customers that includes Americans with Disabilities (ADA) requirements, but did you know accessibility ADA also applies to your website?
Website accessibility isn’t new but it’s getting much more attention. Growing usage and dependency on websites and mobile applications, combined with advances in how computer devices work, make it easier for a greater number of people to use their laptops and mobile devices for reading, booking reservations and appointments, sending email, making online purchases and conducting online meetings.
When more people were invited to use the web because they were included through technology, any barriers quickly became viewed as discriminatory. Today, we sometimes refer to design for accessibility as inclusive web design because the goal is to build a website that is user friendly and usable regardless of any impairment by the user.
Website ADA Lawsuits Soared
In 2006, a major department store brand, Target, was sued by the National Federation of the Blind because the Target website was not usable by screen reader software. Two years later they were ordered to pay $6 million to a “Damages Fund” allocated to members of the class action suit. In 1999, AOL faced a similar lawsuit, but settled out of court.
A noticeable surge in website ADA lawsuits, starting in 2015, began to cause alarm. In 2018 there were 2,258 web accessibility lawsuits filed in the US. In 2019, small and medium businesses were surprised to learn their websites did not meet website accessibility guidelines, commonly referred to as WCAG. They found out the hard way, by being served with a civil complaint by a website user who was unable to conduct a task using a screen reader.
What Is a Screen Reader?
Nowadays, your smart phone, laptop and desktop all come with settings for accessibility. This might be something like changing font sizes, font colors, brightness, and contrasts.
Apple and Android mobile device operating systems handle accessibility settings differently, but in general, with each upgrade they are programmed to provide more options for people with various impairments.
A screen reader may be a separate device, such as JAWS, which is commonly used by sight impaired people. The device, and now the online version of JAWS, read the code out loud and describe to the listener what is happening on each web page. If there is an image, it is described in detail when coded accurately. If there is a link to a new page, the link text describes the page it is linked to.
WCAG2.1 errors are commonly found on web pages. Images that are empty space and links labeled “click here” are not helpful to people with screen readers.
Browsers such as Chrome, Firefox and Safari not only have settings to help increase accessibility, but allow extensions and plugins specifically designed to help users, such as text to speech applications. Amazon’s Audible service reads books out loud. Podcasts are popular with multi-taskers who like to listen while exercising, driving or working.
Conversely, podcasts are transcribed into text for deaf people to be able to read what was said. Videos are accessible when they are closed captioned and transcribed.
The Benefits of Having an ADA Accessible Website
Early on, it was well known that the same code used for website accessibility also helped search engines. Organic SEO practices and accessibility enhancements complimented each other because both were designed to communicate with computer programs. A search engine bot had no choice but to ignore images, and so did screen readers, unless alt attributes were added to the source code describing what was happening.
It is so important to describe images that this year, over 100 art galleries were served for violating website ADA guidelines because blind people were excluded. Text equivalents would also be used by search engines to determine relevancy for searchers and help with indexing.
Website accessibility guidelines are not the same globally. Each country has their own rules. In 2020, Canada and the UK will enforce website accessibility laws. In the US, the only enforceable legal standard for accessibility is known as Section 508 and it is applied to federal government websites.
However, it is customary for schools and universities to follow Section 508 guidelines because their websites are used by all kinds of people regardless of any physical, mental or emotional impairment. They also accept federal funding for student loans. Businesses that have government contracts are advised to follow Section 508.
Everyone else is dependent on the knowledge and expertise of their web team to know what website accessibility is and how to apply it. It is important to understand why accessibility is needed.
Examples of Why Accessibility Is Needed
Accessibility & Conversions
Most small and medium businesses are simply unaware that website accessibility is as important as usability and user experience design practices. The goal is conversions, such as selling products or scheduling appointments. Most businesses focus their budget on marketing and search engine optimization, regardless of whether the website itself is standards-compliant, user friendly or accessible.
Even Power Point, PDF’s and Word documents that are accessed from a website must be accessible. Podcasts and videos, forms, payment gateways, WordPress plugins, WordPress and other CMS Themes, and instructions to mobile devices for how to render pages on smaller screens are all part of website accessibility code guidelines and requirements.
Some website ADA cases have gone to trial. One is headed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Each state has their own guidelines for website accessibility. If your target market is global, that adds another layer of knowledge for your web team.
There is nothing in the US website ADA guidelines protecting website owners from being sued, but there is also no legally binding enforcement either. This is why there are so many legal challenges.
The best advice is to hire website designers with accessibility skills or certification, or simply have the website tested for accessibility compliance. The best place to start is with our quick ADA accessibility checkup designed to alert you of any problems and together we can work out a plan for the next steps for improving accessibility.