When you create a website as an individual, startup, or small business web accessibility isn’t always at the top of your to-do list. Major corporations hire experienced developer teams and have their own legal teams and policies set in place. Small teams not so much, which leaves you exposed to lawsuits if you don’t have an accessible website to people with disabilities.
We’re going to explain the laws around web accessibility and tips and tricks to answer the question, is my website accessible?
What is Web Accessibility?
Web Accessibility is the practice of making digital content accessible for people with disabilities just as it’s accessible to everyone else. The World Wide Web Consortium, better known as the W3C offers an amazing introduction to web accessibility, as well as resources to meet accessibility requirements. For an in-depth exploration of web accessibility see our enlightening article here.
The Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act of 1973
The ADA is a law that has been around for 32 years, since July of 1990. It’s based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and is enforced by multiple different federal agencies. There were amendments (ADAAA) made to the law in 2008 (in effect 2009) to extend its reach to provide better accommodations.
The amendments are what you need to know because they apply to public services, like the internet. You can visit the Office of Disability Employment Policy’s simple explanation of the ADA and ADAAA here.
The amendments include:
- Title I: Employment
This requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees and job applicants.
- Title II: Public Service
No public service can be denied to those with disabilities. Public services can include transportation, government agencies, and computer authorities. Although it may not be your intention in any way whatsoever, not providing website accommodations can count as denying service.
- Title III: Public Accommodations
Similar to Title II, you cannot deny services through lack of accommodations or barriers to public buildings. Not having a wheelchair ramp can be classified as denying service, as can having bushes blocking the wheelchair ramp. Take note, public websites can count as virtual buildings, so if people can’t navigate because of your website design you are denying access.
- Title IV: Telecommunications
Telecommunication companies must offer compatibility with assistive technology for deaf people.
- Title V: Miscellaneous
Threats or retaliation against disabled persons or their advocates while they assert their rights is prohibited. This won’t apply unless an employee tweets ableist threats against an individual that asked for your site to be more accessible. Sensitivity training is always a good investment for the long term.
The ADA Title II and Title III are what generally apply to web accessibility standards and are enforced by the Department of Justice (DOJ). The Department of Justice Civil Rights Division runs the ADA.gov website. They handle accepting disability rights violation complaints.
The ADA website states that since it was signed into law the ADA has ensured that disabled persons have equal opportunity for employment, purchasing products and services, and engaging in state and local government programs.
Your takeaway should be that commercial companies, whether they be small businesses, individuals, or startups, need to provide accommodations so that people with disabilities can receive their services. Title II and III are where website accessibility can be included.
Companies and teams with online public platforms such as for eCommerce, education or other services need to ensure that they are web accessibility compliant. If your company offers private services but you still have a public website where anyone can apply for those services, your public site still needs to be compliant.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applies to government agencies that receive fendeal funding and bars them from discriminating against disabled persons in regards to programs and financial assistance. We’re not going deep into the Rehabilitation Act because when it comes to web accessibility, Section 508 is the most important.
In 1998 the Rehabilitation Act was amended to require the federal government agencies to ensure electronic and information technology (EIT) services be disability accessible as well. Section 508 requires that government institutions offer the equivalent access to their information and services that they do for abled persons.
Updates to Section 508 in 2018 added more guideline requirements and standards to be in sync with recognized organizations like the European Commission and the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0).
The reason this technology amendment is important is that it shows the evolution of disability laws. When you don’t provide an accessible website to consumers it’s the same as not providing wheelchair ramps or other physical accommodations.
People with visual impairments need alt text to hear your product description. Deaf people and those with auditory processing difficulties need closed captions to understand your new demo video. People that use assistive technologies should be able to use them with your site, because an accessible site will be compatible.
For further understanding, especially for companies that have overseas consumers, the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has a webpage dedicated to the related international and national laws and policies.
How The Law Can Affect You
The ADA can directly affect any public service providers from retail companies and software companies to government agencies. You can be sued for having an inaccessible website, which is generally defined by not following the WCAG developed by the W3C.
Web accessibility lawsuits have increased over the years, including major suits such as Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC by a blind plaintiff. Domino’s tried to argue that the ADA shouldn’t apply to virtual content like their website and mobile app.
This was not a smart move in terms of brand reputation. It makes it appear they could care less about blind or other disabled consumers having access to their services. They unsurprisingly lost, because public platforms, whether they be digital or physical, should provide equal access to goods and services.
A blind person should have the same ability to order pizza online, from home in their pajamas, as any other person does. They shouldn’t be forced or expected to do something less convenient because they’re disabled.
Suing major companies can enact small changes that improve overall service and opportunity for everyone. The downside is these lawsuits can hurt smaller and midsize businesses. One alarming issue is when individuals or groups actually go around suing multiple small companies for not having important accessibility practices like alt text or closed captioning.
They may specifically target startups and newer companies that wouldn’t have powerful legal teams to defend them. They can make a large profit from a series of small settlements from multiple companies with lower budgets. It certainly isn’t fair that there are people abusing a law meant to bridge the gap disabled people have dealt with for decades, but it’s an unfortunate reality.
This is why it’s very important to learn to be accessible and stay up to date with new standards and guidelines. One important way to prepare to make your website more accessible is think in a person-first mindset. You can do this by asking yourself important questions when making and reviewing your web content.
If I were visually impaired, would I be able to see this link? Is this checkout screen hard to navigate? Did I add proper labels? Is my team actively remembering to add alt text for every single image that is not decorative? The Bureau of Internet Accessibility also has a great article to help get you in the mindset.
Tips and Tricks to Stay Accessible
For those of you that are itching to know how to make your blog, shopify store, or personal site accessible, there are some great tools out there. We also have an article that gives a how-to guide for creating and making your web content accessible.
- Adopt a person-first mentality and educate yourself and your team.
The W3C is the best place to start and has accumulated a ridiculous amount of resources to help create accessible websites. There you will find the latest guidelines including WCAG 2.0, WCAG 2.1, WCAG 2.2, and WCAG 3.0.
- Create policies for yourself or your team to follow.
These policies can be for a number of things like general website accessibility, text, videos, and audio, as well as color schemes. It can also include sensitivity training if you have a bigger team. This way you can ensure social media posts are thoughtful both meaning and presentation-wise.
- Form a review system to make sure content has alt text, closed captions, and the like.
The bigger the team, the harder it is to enforce policies. If someone’s job is to actually check to make sure you are keeping up with general accessibility then you’re taking a great step in the right direction.
- Use ADA tools.
ADA compliance checkers, contrast checkers, and similar tools can help you make your site accessible. There is one monumentally important caveat to relying entirely on web accessibility software that claims it will make your content accessible with AI and widgets.
It may not actually make your content accessible and sometimes make it inaccessible and less compatible with assistive technologies. Prior issues like this have caused companies to be sued after trusting an AI to make their content accessible for them. We cover the types of software and platforms that can help in our web accessibility guide.
- Hire a developer.
This is an option a lot of small businesses or teams want to avoid, but it’s incredibly important to ensure the code of your website is accessible. If you add a widget that makes your checkout compatible with screen readers, it may make it worse for screen readers.
It could land you in a lawsuit, all because your underlying code was not accessible and didn’t work with the widget properly. The appeal of WordPress is it’s a website builder, but not every theme is optimized for digital accessibility. We will go over this more in the how-to guide.
Your takeaway should be web design is a field that’s centered entirely around building the best websites and content for the virtual world. Consulting with a front-end developer will help you diagnose and avoid issues in your web platform.
TrustRadius has lists of some amazing products developers and teams can use for usability and accessibility testing. There you will find tools that help you comply with standards and also comprehend the reasoning behind user actions.
Recap: The Resources You Need
This list includes materials and websites mentioned in this article as well as other sources to help you understand the ADA and Web Accessibility.
- The World Wide Web Consortium, better known as the W3C offers an amazing introduction to web accessibility, as well as resources to meet accessibility requirements.
- The Office of Disability Employment Policy has a simple definition of the ADA on their Job Accommodation Network page.
- Read Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 for yourself at Section 508.gov.
- Make sure to go through the ADA.gov site hosted by the Department of Justice.
- For examples of what accessible design actually looks like, see DBS Interactive’s 10 examples of ADA compliant design.
- If you want to see other major accessibility lawsuits as well as more reading on how to be accessible, see Essential Accessibilities’ article here.
- Although many don’t consider Wikipedia to be a ‘credible’ source it’s still an amazing and diverse starting point to learn the history behind a topic. It’s worth a quick skim for more background information on the ADA.
- WAI-ARIA is the Web Accessibility Initiative’s Accessible Rich Internet Applications. This is an in-depth guide for creating web content and web applications with inclusive design in mind. You can view the guide here. You will find information about connecting user agents to assistive technologies through APIs.
Key Terms Breakdown
We know that not all terms in this article will be familiar to everyone, so we have included a list of common and important terms to know.
The World Wide Web Consortium is one of the important resources for development and international standards for the internet. They comprise a series of organizations that innovate progress and inclusivity for the world wide web.
The user agent is a web application you use to retrieve information, like web browsers. User agents are designed with functions to present content in better ways for those with different limitations, such as reading text and accepting speech commands. User agents are also designed to work with assistive technology like screen readers and magnifiers.
Web Design and UX/UI Design
Web Design is the practice of making all kinds of web content. It encompasses graphic design, web developments, and server-side and client-side coding skills.
User Experience and User Interface design is centered around the practice of using graphic design, web design and development to make websites and application structures ready for end-users. It’s used for physical product and mobile app design as well. The core concept is making sure designs are easy to understand and use.
Alternative Text or Alt Text
Alternative text is the description put into alt tags for images and media. This text is used with screen readers to tell those with vision impairments what the image is of. If images are decorative they don’t normally require alt text but it’s good practice to add at least a one-word description.
*A quick note from the TrustRadius Team: This post is intended to serve as a guide. It in no way represents or replaces professional legal advice.
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