1990 Americans with Disabilities Act & your website
We've probably all heard the stories of brick-and-mortar businesses running foul of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and what it meant to them as businesses both financially and disruptively. Now it's coming to a website near you - maybe even yours!
The ADA - a quick history
Along with it's companion, the 2008 Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act, the legislation was enacted to address equal access for all people regardless. However, due to the early adoption date, the original Act, and, to a some degree, the subsequent Amendment, did little to give guidelines on adoption in the World Wide Web (WWW).
The Act is comprised five Titles, with Title III (Public Accommodations) applying to website design. This title prohibits private places of public accommodation from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. Your website is considered a "private place" which offers "public accommodation". What this means is your website is privately owned and managed (private place), yet anyone who has a computer can get access to it (public accommodation).
The penalties for non-compliance with the provisions of the Act can be quite severe. Under Title III the maximum penalty for a first offence is $75,000, with subsequent offences having a maximum of $150,000.
The ADA, websites & lawsuits
Up to now, lawsuits against websites have, in the main, been directed against bigger companies/corporations. Netflix (2012), Win Dixie (2017), Five Guys (2017), Nike (2017), and Domino's Pizza (ongoing) are some of the biggies that have found themselves in the ADA's sights. But this doesn't mean small companies or "Mom and Pop" shops should become complacent. One of our clients, who writes about wine and wineries, sent us an interesting article a month or 2 back about wineries being targeted.
So, yes, empathically, YES, you should be concerned. Don't think that your site is small and of no significance. That's what many site owners think about being hacked (and that's a whole other ball of wax!). If you have a website, you're fair game. While the numbers of suits leveled out between 2017 and 2018 (couldn't find figures for 2019), and a couple of thousand suits seems minute compared to the numbers of sites out there, it only takes one upset site visitor or disgruntled customer to start the (wrecking) ball rolling.
Getting your website ADA compliant (accessible)
WCAG stands for "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines" and is the mechanism for determining compliance, or non-compliance of a website. WCAG2.0 has 3 levels of compliance – A, AA, and AAA (most restrictive). Generally, compliance with Level AA is considered safe for website design. It comprises 4 principles –Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust.
This section relates to how content is displayed and delivered. As the title suggests, it's what you see, visually, on the page.
Compliance with this section requires:
- Non-textual information having an available text backup. This covers images, video and audio content. Images (except background images) should always have Alt Text and that description should be meaningful. Video and audio content should be supplied with either Closed Captions or a transcript.
- Content to be able to be scaled up without loss of readability.
- Content should have a minimum contrast ratio to enable easy reading.
OPERABLEThis covers navigation and interaction with the website and it's content.
Compliance for this sections requires:
- The ability to easily navigate the site by means other than a mouse - think keyboard or pointer.
- Being able to navigate the site in multiple ways - not just the main menu.
- Limited use of timed content (such as popups which disappear after a time period). Where such content is used, ensure easy pausing, or provide an alternative means of viewing.
- Avoiding flashing content which could produce seizures.
- Correct hierarchy and use of markup heading tags to correctly convey meaning and importance.
As the name suggest, this section relates to how easily the content is to understand. However, it goes deeper than the mere content on the page which forms the dissemination of information. It also relates to interactive items such as forms.
Compliance here requires:
- Readability being pitched for a maximum reading level of a 15-16 year old.
- Abbreviations, technical terms, and words used out of normal usage being clearly explained. The use of a glossary may be needed.
- Again, as for Operable, timed content must be thought out carefully if used, as missing certain information in a timed popup could impact the understand-ability of a page.
- Navigation and page layout should be consistent throughout the site.
- Forms require special attention. They should:
- Clearly identify, with explanations,
- Have clear, understandable labels
- Where financial or legal transactions are about to occur, clear indication and the easy opportunity to back out.
- Clearly identify, with explanations, incorrect input
The idea behind this section is to ensure ongoing compliance (as far as is possible) as technology advances. Compliance with this section, if using one of the modern CMS platforms, and ensuring well-written extensions will usually produce standard HTML markup which, if it complies with a W3C Markup Validation test, will meet the standards required in this section.
Using a plugin to comply
A quick Google search for "Accessibility plugin" yields a lot of results - over 78 million. Most of these plugins claim WCAG2.0 or 2.1 & Section 508 compliance. Many also offer financial support in the event of a claim. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? No coding required, just add to the site and it takes care of all your WCAG compliance woes. And, if you DO get sued, they'll pay. My father used to quote me, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!" That old adage holds true here. For many reasons; here are a few:
- True compliance requires the human touch. No amount of automated testing or tweaking will ever surpass what a live human being trying to navigate and interact with your site will tell you. These plugins are not Hal 9000 (from Space Odyssey) - their limited AI just is no match for a human brain.
- There are many items a plugin cannot address. For example, one requirement for compliance (as it relates especially to visually impaired users) is the ability to "Skip to main content". Sites should have a link in the header allowing users to skip past repeat content (which the entire header are is - it's the same on every page - or should be) to the "meat" of that particular page. If your site does not have this, how will a plugin deal with this? Answer: IT WON'T!
- Toolbars don't account for the whole range of disabilities. They primarily cater for visually impaired but do little, or nothing, for hearing impaired users, or those with motor skill impairment.
- Not all users will want to use the toolbar, and/or the toolbar may require extra learning to use - therefore being discriminatory.
- Also, because toolbars rarely take care of more than 30% of compliance issues, there are rumors that the presence of a toolbar is being used as a "lawsuit signal". In other words, if you rely on a toolbar, it's likely your site is non-compliant!
What about a separate "accessible" site?
Ask Scandinavian Airlines how that worked for them! The thrust of the ADA (by the way, we totally support the ideals behind the ADA (just less so some of the ways it's used) is "equal and full" access for all.
In 2018 the Department of Transportation took the airline to task over its "separate, but equal" accessible site. The courts ruled that the website was discriminatory as it singled out a certain group of people (those with some sort of disability) and made them use an alternate website.The penalty was $200,000.
How do I make my site accessible?
If you didn't build the site, we would say there's little you, personally, can do physically to your site. However, we suggest you talk to whoever designed your site and have a frank discussion with them about how accessible or not your site is. Not sure if it is? Here are some sites we use as a starting point (these are not going to cover every area of compliance or non-compliance). Go to them, and drop your URL in and test it.
You'll see that they all give slightly different results, a testament to how unreliable a plugin is going to be! You can also check contrast and readability:
Then, if you really want some in-depth reading, pop over and look up the entire WCAG standards for web accessibility.
As mentioned previously, these form our starting point for compliance, not the be-all and end-all. We manage a huge number of sites, and originally went the toolbar route. However, we are now involved in a major overhaul of every client's site to be compliant without the need for toolbars. Fortunately, because of our unique website subscription model, none of our clients have had to pay anything for this upgrade.
If your designer is unable to make the changes necessary for compliance, then it's time to get a new designer, or employ one of the many companies out there that specialize in making non-compliant sites comply. They aren't cheap, but you're going to have to do it sooner or later, and adding a lawsuit to the mix won't make the process any more fun. On the other hand, allow us to rebuild your site and you'll get that compliance just as a matter of course in how we build.