Is your company’s website accessible to people with disabilities? If it isn’t, you may be breaking the law and putting yourself at risk for a lawsuit.
Websites that are not easily accessible to people with disabilities may be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). We find many of our clients are unaware that ADA applies beyond their physical facilities and offices, but in fact the ADA is now being widely applied to websites so no one is denied access. This is especially true in industries like banking or for websites that offer employment opportunities.
So anyone who works in digital marketing—especially on website design and development—has to understand accessibility guidelines to ensure compliance. Here’s what you need to know:
What is the ADA?
The ADA is a civil rights law passed in 1990 that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, and transportation. It also applies to all public and private places that are open to the general public. Title III of the ADA requires (with a few exceptions) that businesses take affirmative, proactive measures to ensure individuals with disabilities are afforded equal access to their goods and services—including websites.
Since 2013, there has been a steady increase in the number of lawsuits filed in federal court under Title III. The primary complaint underlying these lawsuits is the allegation that websites constitute public accommodations and should be, but are not, accessible to individuals with disabilities.
What should I do about this?
The best way to mitigate the risk of lawsuit is simple: Make your website accessible to people with disabilities. While financial institutions and websites that offer employment opportunities seem to be the most common targets thus far, any website for a business that provides goods and services to the general public should be taking action.
If you are building a new website, be sure to factor in accessibility at the beginning of the website development process. If you’ve already got a website and aren’t planning a redesign of it soon, you should conduct an audit of the site to measure its compliance with accessibility guidelines.
What are accessibility guidelines?
Since 2010, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) have effectively defined how to make online content more accessible to people with disabilities. These are generally accepted, both within the online world as well as the legal world, as the benchmarks for ensuring website accessibility.
The guidelines are organized around the following four principles, which lay the foundation for anyone to access and use websites.
- Perceivable – Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive. For example, text that is too close to a webpage’s background color may be difficult or impossible to read for people with visual impairments. (You can check your own website using this color contrast checker.)
- Operable – User interface components and navigation must be operable. This means that websites should be usable without a mouse, so that people with physical disabilities can still navigate around the sites using a keyboard.
- Understandable – Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable. For example, the language of the page should be programmatically identifiable, which assists visually impaired people who use screen readers.
- Robust – Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents including assistive technologies. This means that standard HTML tags that are universally recognized by browsers should be used.
If your website fails to meet any of these guidelines, users with disabilities will not be able to use your website and you may be at risk for a lawsuit.
How do I audit my site?
If you haven’t previously thought about the ADA, odds are your site is not meeting some or most of the guidelines listed above. Some free tools exist online, like Evaluera or Wave, to check out individual web pages. But tools like this will only get you so far.
You should probably consider one of the reputable paid services (just search online for “ADA website audit”) that can evaluate your website. These can cost tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of your site, so if you use one of these services, be sure you’re getting all of the following from the vendor:
- Audit – The audit itself should cover your every page of your website and the report delivered to you should catalogue all the pages and elements on your site that fall short of the WCAG guidelines. The audit should also rank each identified problem as AAA, AA or A. (AAA means, if resolved, your site would be meeting the most rigorous standards; an A rating is probably sufficient for most websites.)
- Solutions – The report should also include solutions for accessibility shortcomings. Specifically, this means which images, lines of code, online forms, etc., need to be remedied along with recommended ways to fix them.
- Recommended Partner – Many companies that perform audits will not have the skills or personnel to actually make the necessary improvements to your site. Some of these fixes (like adding alt-tags to images) can often be done by your internal web team. But others (like ensuring your code is readable and usable by most browsers) may be better handled by a web development company that is familiar with your content management system.
This may all seem very daunting and threatening, not to mention expensive, but I encourage digital marketers not to view the cost of fixing or redoing your site as an expense. Look at it as an investment in your customers, many of whom may have disabilities, and would be more likely to engage with your business were your website more accessible.
In other words, it’s good for your bottom line to make your website usable for all your customers. One in five Americans has a disability, and those who report having a disability have lower rates of technology adoption. How many of those people could be customers of yours?
It’s also legally wise to do this. The cost of making your website accessible to people with disabilities is likely to be far less expensive (and far less of a headache) than the cost of dealing with or settling lawsuits.
And, finally, it’s also the right thing to do: Making sure all internet users can access websites is a simple matter of justice and equality.
Chris Ferris, Ph.D. and Pierpont’s Vice President of Digital Strategy, is an innovative communication leader passionate about digital marketing and customer-focused technologies. Outside the office, he is a lecturer in management at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University (Rice Business), where he teaches a self-designed digital marketing course for MBA students.