You may have heard about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but do you know how it applies to your digital presence?
Milestone has been watching the interpretation of ADA and websites develop for the last 5 years.
What is the ADA?
The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. As part of the ADA, the law mandated that websites should abide by a minimum set of best practices to ensure that users with impairments would have equal access to the world-wide web.
The challenge with the ADA conformity clause is that Congress did not establish any guidelines regarding what qualified as an ADA conforming website. Over the years, as the legal system has dealt with lawsuits related to ADA conformity and website access, courts have leveraged guidelines established by the world-wide web consortium (W3C), as guidelines by which to interpret the ADA conformity of specific sites.
The W3C guidelines, known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are organized in three different levels, level A, AA and AAA. The court system has largely held that websites must meet level A and AA guidelines to be considered “conforming.”
PDFs needs to be accessible to conform and comply with the ADA
Why care about ADA?
The default answer, of course, is legal protection. Over the past few years a series of well publicized law suits have been brought against website owners, particularly small to mid-sized businesses, resulting in awards that range from as little as a few thousand dollars to many tens of thousands of dollars. While protecting your business from ADA lawsuits is a very viable reason to ensure your website is ADA conforming, there is a much larger issue at play. In fact, by not providing ADA access to your website, you are simply alienating the nearly 20%* of US
consumers who have some form of disability. Having ADA conformity on a business website is more than good legal advice, it’s smart business advice.
How ADA Impacts your site
Having established that ADA conformity is a good business proposition, what exactly do you need to consider before making your site ADA conforming? ADA conformity for websites is largely based on four core areas:
Visual How does the website work when visually impaired visitors arrive? Is it screen-reader friendly? Are there elements of the site that are only accessible with a mouse and do not have keyboard access?
Auditory Auditory conformity is largely focused on the interaction of audio and the user. Specifically, do any videos included on the website contain closed captioning?
Tactile Can users access your website without relying on a mouse? Is keyboard navigation of all items on your site, including carousels, possible?
Cognitive Cognitive conformity deals with issues around font size, color, contrast and accessibility for users who may have learning or interpretive impairments.
The ADA Opportunity
The fact that nearly 20% of Americans have some form of a disability should be of significance for any business. The challenge of ADA conformity for your website starts with protecting yourself from lawsuits. In fact, since 2015, in the hospitality industry alone, more than 240 lawsuits have been filed, many receiving awards between $10,000 to $75,000 per lawsuit.** When you consider the cost of updating your site, the benefits of becoming ADA conforming are obvious. There is, however, a second, more important consideration. ADA conformity is more than just about protecting yourself from suits. In fact, a website that is not ADA conforming creates a barrier to the 20% of Americans who have disabilities; becoming ADA conforming is not just safe, it’s good business.
Keys to conformity
There are three key considerations to ensuring that your website is ADA conforming: Technology, process, and design.
On the technology front, the most important question is about your Content Management System (CMS). Is your CMS capable of creating ADA conforming websites? Do you have alert-systems in place in the CMS that will flag when ADA conformity issues are introduced in your site? For example, when installing 3rd party applications website owners should make sure to understand the impact of these additions. ADA conformity is not a “do it and forget it” approach; modern websites are constantly evolving, changing, and being updated. It’s critical to have a CMS that is able to not only create ADA conforming content, but is also able to identify ADA problems in your website.
With the constant evolution of websites, having an ADA-friendly development process is also critical. If your website development is done in-house, you need to ensure that planning and testing for ADA conformity is a core part of your website design and development process. If you work with an agency or a third-party vendor it’s important that your vendor have a well thought out and documented process for creating ADA conforming content and checking for problems.
Finally, ADA conforming design must consider a whole set of subtleties and nuances that might escape the untrained eye. Once again, it’s essential to ensure that your in-house or agency designers understand ADA conformity issues and have had experience dealing with ADA conforming design.
Examples of Issues with ADA
To understand the complexities of ADA conformity, consider a couple of quick examples of some of the subtle changes that must be made to a traditional website to achieve ADA conformity:
- Skip to content ADA conforming websites must provide a means for a user to quickly skip non-screen-reader friendly content like hero images and jump to the text part of your website.
- Manual carousel control Website carousels may be popular and fashionable, but they can create problems for users who have disabilities. ADA conforming carousels must be manually controlled and avoid excessive use of animations.
- Full keyboard control How much of your website can be controlled and used with just a keyboard? Having full access to all content without having to rely on a mouse is a critical part of ADA conformity
- Screen reader friendliness Is your website friendly to people with visual disabilities? Is your content screen-reader friendly?
- Field label problems Finally, consider something as simple and, seemingly, straight-forward as a form on your website. While placing field labels within the field may provide a “unique” look, it often makes the form unreadable for screen readers.
You can self-certify for ADA conformity. In addition, there are several third-party organizations that will provide ADA conformity audits to provide you with a full report, either confirming that your website conforms to ADA guidelines as of a specific date, or providing you with an audit of the changes necessary to become ADA conforming. There is no such thing as a “guarantee” that having an ADA-conforming website will provide 100% protection from lawsuits. It does, however, significantly lower your risk.
The issue of ADA conformity for websites is not new, and is not likely to go away any time soon. Any consumer-facing business, but especially location-based businesses like hospitality, retail, or financial-services businesses, should make ADA conformity a core part of their business strategy and of their website development process. Not having ADA conformity as a central goal of your website strategy, is simply asking for trouble, and sends the wrong signal to your client-base.