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With Lawsuits on the Rise, Here are 5 Things Every Business Needs to Know About Website Accessibility

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Nearly 1 in 5 Americans live with some form of disability. And while not all disabilities will influence how a person interacts with websites, many do.

In light of recent court cases, it has become increasingly understood that “public accommodations” for those with disabilities include not only physical locations but also websites. Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that “public accommodations” must remove any barriers that would prevent a person with disabilities from making full use of the accommodation.

The necessity to consider how accessibility applies to physical locations is clear—but what makes a website accessible? Here are five things every business needs to know about website accessibility.

1. Legal Implications

Website-specific ADA lawsuits in federal courts have increased in recent years. Higher-profile cases against Winn-Dixie Stores, Domino’s Pizza, Beyonce’s Parkwood Entertainment, and Harvard University are just a few of the nearly 2,500 web-accessibility cases filed in 2018 and 2019.

The 30-year-old ADA contains no stipulations regarding the web. However, courts have historically based judgements on defendants failing to comply to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). As experts in web-related technologies, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) published these guidelines as a part of their efforts to collaborate on and define recommendations for the web, including accessibility.

In a 2017 Winn-Dixie case, a federal court in Florida determined the WCAG to be an “industry standard,” which set a precedent in web-accessibility requirements for the United States.

2. Which Businesses are Affected

It’s tempting for businesses to assume that website accessibility standards don’t apply to their websites – much less think about the possibility of litigation if they don’t comply. While the lawsuits against national and international corporations grab our attention, companies and organizations across the world—both large and small—are being sued at a steadily increasing rate.

The internet is a globally-accessible platform, so when a business publishes something for public access, it must take steps to accommodate all users, including supporting the assistive devices that those with disabilities depend on.

3. Accessibility is Ongoing

Whether it be driving the speed limit or practicing appropriate social distancing, each and every day, we’re presented with regulations or codes to live by.  Most of the time, you simply must prove that you have complied. A website, however, is entirely different. If at any point a writer edits the content, a designer updates the colors, or a developer add a new feature without accessibility in mind, the website can fail WCAG compliance.

Simply put, not only should a website be evaluated initially to meet compliance goals, but also, all steps taken to update it or its content in the future should be subject to the same testing. The testing and retesting of a website’s accessibility standards means that you, your team, and any additional project collaborators must buy in to the impact that accessibility compliance will have on the project’s lifecycle and budget.

4. Encouraging a Positive Customer Experience

It’s also important to note how not taking steps to ensure accessibility can negatively impact a business, even if the business never faces litigation. Some impacts are direct and immediate, such as a user being unable to complete a purchase due to the site’s lack of accessibility. Other outcomes are more indirect, such as if this same user were to relate their frustrating experience to family and friends, potentially creating negative opinion of the company.

It’s difficult to quantify the magnitude and extent of negative public interactions that stem from a company’s website. Even if not the intention, users may reasonably feel like their needs weren’t taken into consideration.

5. Accessibility is more than Code

The code that drives a website is an important component to ensuring accessibility, but it’s not the only factor. Accessibility impacts everyone who creates a website—project owners, strategists, designers, writers, and developers. As such, there are various accessibility elements for those who work on websites to consider (and master):

  • Designers have to consider which colors ensure adequate contrast for users with vision impairments.
  • Writers should ensure that links, headings, and images are sufficiently descriptive and error messages are clear and precise.
  • Developers have to accommodate users navigating the website with a keyboard or other assisted device instead of a mouse.

In an ideal world, this process could be fully automated so that all sites were usable for individuals with disabilities; but in reality, it requires a level of critical thinking and empathy that only humans, knowledgeable of the issues surrounding accessibility, can provide.

Next Steps

What are your next steps to protect your business and better serve your customers?

  • Find a trusted partner, such as your attorney, who can help you determine if your website needs to comply with accessibility standards.
  • If you determine your website needs to be accessible, hire an accessibility expert to audit your current website. Depending on its size and complexity, it can be cheaper to build a new site than to update an existing one.
  • Create an ongoing governance model to make sure future updates to your website are accessible.

CONTACT INFORMATION

Firefli is a full-service, Virginia-based agency that works with regional and global clients across industries. Their full suite of services, including accessibility auditing and compliance, are available at firefli.com.