This past year, over a thousand online retailers — from big companies, like Domino’s, to SMBs faced Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) web accessibility lawsuits from plaintiffs alleging barriers to digital access. There’s no doubt that 2020 will see even more.
It’s a trend that’s been a long time coming: The past few years have seen an influx surge in lawsuits against companies for failing to make their online and mobile presence accessible to individuals with disabilities. Let’s take PepperoniGate 2019, for example: The Supreme Court’s decision not to review the case between Domino’s and a customer who is blind sends a strong warning to businesses to take digital accessibility seriously.
Businesses are now scrambling to reassess their websites and make sense of their obligations under the ADA. To add to the confusion, there remains a lack of clarity on best practices and what it exactly means to be compliant. The standards that do exist – namely, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) – are highly technical and less black and white than the more established and binary requirements associated with ensuring, say, the appropriate door width required to enable wheelchair access.
While the world becomes ever-more digitized and nearly every aspect of our daily lives, from shopping to eating to organizing the neighborhood carpool, relies on the use of a screen, one critical component of websites remains frustratingly out of focus: What does it actually means for a website to meet accessibility standards for individuals with disabilities?
Digital Accessibility, What to Expect
In 2010, the Obama Administration announced that it was going to formally lay out rules for what companies needed to do in order to get their websites up to standards that enable equal and unimpeded access. That never happened, though. When the Trump administration took over, they abandoned the initiative, and in 2017 announced that they were formally cancelling the process.
In the midst of all this murk, the vast majority of businesses still have websites that don’t meet compliance standards for the ADA, and the vast majority of internet users with varying abilities — in particular, those reliant on assistive technologies to enable digital access — are still faced with stumbling blocks whenever they try to get online. If they don’t figure out how to clean up their acts, every single site that doesn’t provide full accessibility online is putting itself at risk of litigation and negative publicity that places businesses on the wrong side of an issue that tends to resonate with just about everyone. Consumers are good to businesses that do good. Lawsuits are on the rise because customers have realized they have solid legal ground to stand on. Trends like these only pick up steam. In 2020, every single company with an online presence needs to understand that if they don’t make their website accessible, they are at a strong risk of finding themselves sued.
Digital Accessibility, What Now?
The issues at stake go far deeper than being denied the ability to order a large pepperoni with extra cheese on your smartphone. There are tens of millions of people across the world facing some sort of disability or impairment that affects their Internet usage, and, if not coded properly, websites include digital stumbling blocks that exclude individuals with disabilities from applying for jobs online, shopping for goods, managing municipal tasks like paying utility bills, and countless other tasks many of us take for granted. Despite the increasing number of lawsuits against companies every year, where courts overwhelmingly rule in favor of accessibility, most companies remain unaware of the steps they need to take to ensure their websites are compliant. Even more telling, the costs of settling out of court far outweigh the costs of taking action to identify and fix digital access barriers.
SMBs need to get serious about revamping their existing sites and designing and coding with individuals with disabilities in mind. Here’s what we recommend all SMB owners, web designers and developers to keep in mind:
ADA-compliant sites must be: Perceivable; Operable; Understandable and Robust. The site should be easy to navigate, user-friendly and predictable. Website content should be simple to understand and easy to read. Website features and functionality should be logical and intuitive.
Lend a Helping Hand
Provide a resource for your site visitors to report accessibility issues and make sure those charged with addressing grievances are empowered to take action and solve issues.
Consider the Alternatives
Every image, button, and form element must have a meaningful and machine-readable label or description. For users relying on assistive technologies such as screen readers, it can become impossible to fully engage with a website without these alternate descriptions and labels. Videos must be transcribed and captioned to enable access for the hearing and situationally impaired (think watching videos in loud or quiet environments). P.S. Accessibility is great for SEO too!
Key(Board) to Success
Touchscreens and a mouse are impossible to navigate for some users, so your site must be navigable by a keyboard alone. This includes video controls, such as pause and play. Incorporating keyboard navigation into your testing and prototyping processes benefits all users, including those with situational disabilities or simply seeking intuitive means of navigation.
Consider Your Colors
Certain colors and color pairings can be problematic but be careful when zeroing in on your color schemas. There is a lot of misinformation pertaining to color contrast requirements and best practices. When in doubt, err on the side of usability.
Full ADA compliance will require some additional effort but even these five small steps can make a world of difference. With the courts continually siding in favor of barrier-free digital experiences for individuals with disabilities, it’s not a moment too soon to take stock and make changes if necessary.