**Please Note: The information provided in this post is not intended to provide legal advice. Readers should seek out paid legal counsel for help in addressing any specific legal issues.**
Accessibility for people with disabilities goes beyond physical locations; it’s also important online. Accessibility via the internet is becoming a growing issue — one that might impact your business and brand more than you realize. In fact, there were over 2,000 lawsuits regarding accessibility in 2018, and those numbers are only rising in 2019.
So, what does ADA compliance look like for your brand’s website and what steps can you take to move toward compliance (and away from legal risks)? Here, we’ll talk a little bit about the current legal landscape as it relates to ADA-friendly websites, guidelines to consider, and the need for legal expertise.
The case against non-compliant sites
Thanks to today’s highly connected marketplace, accessibility for all people is becoming an issue that affects brands of all sizes. In 2018, the Department of Justice made it very clear that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) extends to website accessibility under Title III. This section of the act requires that “goods, services, privileges, or activities provided by places of public accommodation be equally accessible to people with disabilities.” Yes, that means your website, which is a public accommodation of your brand and its services or products.
Although the DOJ has stated that websites should be accessible, they have chosen not to outline what website considerations are necessary. This means that, while you can still be sued for a non-accessible website, the rules and regulations surrounding ADA-friendly sites are still pretty murky. That’s why many lawyers and courts have looked to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) when assessing a site’s accessibility.
WCAG offers some insights into compliance
The WCAG, created by the Web Accessibility Initiative, are guidelines that help set the international standard for web accessibility. They create support materials for web developers and companies so they can understand and implement accessibility.
The WCAG guidelines cover things like:
- Non-text content
- Audio and video
- Sign language
- Sequence of information
- Keyboards and shortcuts
- Animations and flashes
- Compatibility with website readers and accessibility tools
These guidelines are in-depth and fairly technical, which has helped to make them the current standard for ADA compliance online. They are so useful, in fact, that federal district courts in Florida and New York ruled that sites not complying with WCAG could be considered in violation of Title III of the ADA. In short, you might want to check out WCAG (or recruit your web developer to do so).
Making your website ADA-compliant
Accessibility lawsuits are picking up steam and more customers expect businesses to adapt to accessibility measures. As a result, many businesses are taking notice — and acting quickly. If you’re wondering how to up your accessibility quotient, we’ve got a few tips for you.
A quick disclaimer here: these are basic accessibility principles and by no means cover the full scope of what an ADA-compliant, as defined by recent court cases, site looks like. Also, this is not legal advice. For official advice and counsel, please consult a lawyer and your web dev team.
One of the most important accessibility factors (and arguably one of the most simple) we recommend to our clients is to include image alt text on all images that are noted “decorative” in nature. In case you’re not sure what that is, alt text is the text that appears when an image fails to load, but it is also the text read by website readers for the visually impaired.
Image alt text should be used for all images that are important to the flow and understanding of the site’s content but should be left blank for images that are purely decorative. As website readers scan a site, unnecessary image alt text will get in the way and can be confusing to the user — therefore making a site less accessible. Naturally, whether an image is considered “decorative” is a subjective judgement. The best test is just to consider whether adding alternate text to the image will improve upon the user’s experience.
It is also important to note that image alt text script is in place for all images but left blank for decorative images. Web readers will skip the image if an empty image alt text tag is in place, but it will attempt to read the file name if there is no script at all.
Aside from adding image alt text to the important images on your site, though, what else can you do to make your site ADA-compliant? According to the National Law Review, you can:
Increase awareness within your business
Accessibility compliance only comes when a business — and the people who work in it — know what it is. Talk about accessibility with stakeholders, and ask for ideas to help integrate accessibility into current and future online efforts.
Solicit feedback from users
Brands might hesitate to ask users for feedback because some of it can be “not so helpful.” But within the disability community and for those who advocate for accessibility, there are plenty of people willing to offer helpful feedback. Ask users to notify your team if something doesn’t work properly, or to identify areas of “friction” throughout the site that might present a barrier to someone. All of this feedback can give your team a wealth of information into what you need to prioritize. As an added bonus, your greater audience will recognize your attention to accessibility, which consumers love.
Build accessibility into your planning
Much like SEO, accessibility should be something that is considered alongside strategy, design, and copy when upgrading or redesigning your site. Unfortunately, brands who ignore accessibility in their design or execution may find themselves sinking more time and money into fixing their site — or they may even find themselves faced with a lawsuit.
Work with accessibility-aware partners
Do you have a digital agency, design studio, or web developer working with you on your website design, content, or marketing? Make sure they’re aware of accessibility best practices, and that they are “accessibility-aware.” They’re thinking of how the site will perform for any user, they create accessibility features, and they address problems as they arise. This will ensure your site — and all who work on it — continue to improve the site in ways that make it accessible to everyone.
A last note on ADA compliance: consult the experts
Here at V9, we’re digital marketing experts — not legal experts. While we want you to understand that ADA compliance also extends to your online presence, we know that the nuances of accessibility are complex. If you’re getting feedback, notices, complaints, or have received a lawsuit, you should consult with legal counsel to help determine the next best steps. You should also consult website accessibility experts so you can limit the likelihood or effects of any legal action.
If you’re just getting started with accessibility, the WCAG is a great resource. Of course, you can also connect with your legal team to make sure that you’re abiding by ADA as it relates to your particular industry and product/service.