When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) legislation passed, it was meant to provide a shot across the bow for business slow to accommodate the needs of disabled customers and employees. Yet all these years later, barriers persist for the 1.3 billion people worldwide living with some form of disability. And this is especially true for online spaces, which largely remain inaccessible despite the critical role our digital world plays in daily life.
While 90 percent of businesses say they prioritize diversity, only 4 percent include disabilities in those initiatives. This not only prevents the disabled from fully participating in society, it puts businesses at risk of running afoul of both customers and their hard-won legal protections under the ADA. If you haven’t already, your business must make web accessibility an urgent priority.
What is website accessibility
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act:
“[n]o individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.”
And while the ADA was passed before the internet, some courts have ruled that websites are “public spaces” and must be accessible. Yet, other rulings counter those requirements leaving requirements muddled at best. The text of the law says businesses are liable for removing any “disability-based barriers to accessing the same basic goods and services that able-bodied Americans could easily obtain.” But uncertainty about what is legally required in the online/digital realm leaves too many businesses to ignore the needs of their disabled customers and employees.
What would accessibility look like in an ideal scenario? It would mean equal access to goods and services would extend to the internet, websites, digital platforms, attachments, pages, apps, software and hardware. These would all be accessible to people using assistive or adaptive technologies. Every business, website, software, digital kiosk, and more would be subject to the same accessibility standards that are applied to physical structures like staircases and elevators.
Moreover, accessibility requirements would extend beyond websites and online communities to desktop computers, mobile devices, and standalone applications as well. When thinking of accessibility requirements, businesses would think “digital,” not just “web.”
Absent a firm government mandate, governments and international groups have come together to fill the void and advance accessibility for those who need it most.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0
Since the text of the ADA does not give guidance about how to make online spaces accessible, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) has set a technical standard for web content and tool developers. It provides “a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments around the world.” WCAG defines how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities, including natural information like text, images, and sounds, as well as code or markup that defines structure and presentation.
When creating digital content, businesses would do well to understand WCAG standards for web accessibility, so those requirements can be factored into projects from the ground up.
Common accessibility barriers
The push for digital accessibility is essential given the all too common obstacles those with disabilities face when trying to navigate our digital world. These barriers are many, and include, but are not limited to the below:
- Images without text equivalents: Blind people and those with low vision are unable to consume image content when text descriptions are unavailable.
- Documents are not posted in accessible format: Attachments like PDFs are often not readable by screen readers as many are posted in inaccessible, low-contrast formats not legible for those with low vision.
- Locked colors and font sizes: Websites that restrict the color and font size of content presentation prevent visually disabled users from manipulating the content to meet their viewing needs.
- Non-accessible video and multimedia: Users who are deaf, hard of hearing or visually impared are unable to view video content if it lacks text transcription, audio descriptions of images, and other features.
- HTML & coding roadblocks: From descriptive HTML tags, to skip navigation, titles and heading structures, how your webpages are constructed go a long way to determining whether your content is accessible for assistive technologies.
Without accessibility features and accommodation making content consumable with assistive technologies, your business may not be complying with its obligations under the ADA.
Assistive technology is a term that describes software and hardware tools used by people with disabilities to complete tasks.They include the following categories of solutions:
- Screen readers: Software used to help the blind or visually impared read content on computer screens.
- Screen magnification software: Solutions that enable users to control the size of text and graphics on the screen.
- Text readers: Software that reads on-screen text aloud via a computer synthesized voice.
- Speech input software: Dictation software that enables people to produce typed text on a computer screen using vocal commands.
- Alternative input devices: Devices that assist users unable to use a mouse or keyboard to control the computer. These include eye tracking devices, head pointers and other tools.
By following WCAG guidelines, web and application developers can produce digital content equipped to be read by those with disabilities using a wide array of assistive technologies. Failure to plan for these accommodations can leave business open to compliance risks, and the legal penalties and lawsuits accompanying them.
Why compliance matters
Prioritizing digital accessibility practices will position your company to generate goodwill, expand your customer base, and help you become an employer of choice. Why? Corporate culture is a huge factor in today’s competitive war for talent, and a sound commitment to Inclusion and Diversity is a non-negotiable must-have for many job candidates.
Beyond that, customers with disabilities are increasingly, and rightly, growing tired of being excluded from consuming the goods and services of companies whose digital properties are inaccessible. Remember, the internet is the new public square. Posting inaccessible content is akin to hanging a sign on your digital storefront that says “we do not serve the disabled.” That is wholly unacceptable in today’s marketplace, and customers are using the tools at their disposal to hold companies accountable.
The legal risk of ignoring web accessibility
Because the text of the ADA does not specifically mention the internet, webpages, or digital applications, much is left to the courts to decide based on the “public accommodation” standard. Recent case law shows the courts are unimpressed by businesses who feign ignorance of their ADA responsibilities to customers and employees. Cases that don’t settle are often found in favor of the plaintiff. If you own a business, it’s your responsibility to make a good-faith effort to equally serve customers of all abilities. Yet too many companies—including titans of industry, were forced to learn the hard way—by being sued.
- Netflix: The National Association of the Deaf sued the video streaming service, Netflix, for not providing closed captions on its videos. This rendered them inaccessible to hearing impared users.
- Sribd: The National Federation for the Blind sued online library retailer, Scribd, for not offering content compatible with screen readers.
- Domino’s Pizza: A patron sued Domino’s for not having a website accessible with screen reading technology.
Precedent set in these and other rulings opened the floodgates to thousands of lawsuits from individuals suing companies for non-accessible websites and systems. Even those who thought they made good-faith efforts to comply, have been held legally liable.
Pitfalls to avoid when pursuing web accessibility
#1: Hiring an expert: Building websites takes a highly-technical skillset, leading many companies to rightly outsource the work to experts. Yet, companies are nonetheless responsible for ensuring their digital properties comply with the WCAG best practices. When hiring out for your accessibility work, double-check the finished work does meet current accessibility standards. Ignorance of shoddy work does not absolve businesses from legal jeopardy under the ADA. It’s your website, so be sure the work was done properly.
#2: Think beyond websites: The digital world is more than just your website. It extends to desktop and mobile applications alike. To kiosks in your restaurant or keyless entry at your hotel. Your website might be fine, but is your software? Is the application interface your customers and employees are required to use accessible? As a business, you must ensure that the entirety of your digital infrastructure is accessible to those who may need to use it.
Best practices and resources for achieving web accessibility
Now that we know how vital accessibility is for your business, how do you set out achieving it? What is the best way to make your digital ecosystem more accessible? The best place to start is by auditing your business’ digital landscape to see what needs fixing. There are a wide variety of services and tools to do this.
Capterra, the website review and comparison website offers a list of top rated website accessibility software tools. These include automated solutions for testing website accessibility, for converting digital and multimedia documents into accessible formats, handling remediation and upgrades, and more. Note, software alone will not be enough. Most will only catch a fraction of accessibility issues which is why many providers package services together with technology to help companies meet their accessibility goals. Ultimately, and regardless of the technical assistance you hire, the responsibility lies with your business to ensure your business and services are equally available to all. Educate yourself so you know the right questions to ask your team. Key ADA considerations include:
- Navigation: Can your website be reasonably navigated by those using assistive technologies?
- User Interface (UI) Design: Does your websites and digital interfaces feature ways for those with disabilities to access them in the same way as able-bodied users?
- Audio cues and reading: Does multimedia content, such as audio files, videos and GIFs, have built-in accessibility features? Have you enabled color and font customization?
- Applications: Have you adopted universal design practices that benefit everyone and ensure equal access?
Developing an action plan
Web and digital accessibility won’t happen by itself. It takes significant work and commitment. Once achieved, it takes sustained vigilance to keep it accessible over time and through software updates. Here’s how to ensure you stay on the right path:
- Create a policy: Put it down in writing. Set audit practices and assign responsibility for ensuring the policy is followed consistently over time. Add accessibility metrics to your business KPIs or employee goals to ensure the work is given the attention it deserves.
- Implement: Assess your digital properties and set achievable goals for overhauling and fixing accessibility miscues following a brisk timeline. Enlist experts or use software tooling designed to specifically audit and fix accessibility problems.
- Educate: Ensure your staff understand the importance web accessibility plays to your ongoing business success. Deploy training modules, hold discussion groups, and bring your team along so everyone is aligned about the urgent business priority accessibility plays for your business.
While over a billion people worldwide have disabilities, our digital landscape has a long way to go to ensure all can equally access what it offers. Only four percent of businesses consider disabilities as part of their inclusion and diversity initiatives, leaving too many web properties closed for business to those with visual or hearing impairments. Companies have been slow to adopt ADA protections, leaving those with disabilities little choice but to seek remedy in court. However, your business can avoid the risk of lawsuits and build a solid company reputation by prioritizing digital accessibility as part of your ongoing business practices. Develop a policy and see that it’s not only implemented, but sustained and strengthened over time. Do so, and you’ll set your company up to earn immeasurable goodwill from customers and employees alike.