Being ADA Compliant in a Digital World

If you are a business owner with a physical location (office, storefront, factory, etc.), you are likely familiar with the American Disabilities Act (ADA). Being ADA-compliant for a physical location means wheelchair ramps, automatic doors, Braille signs and controls, handicap-accessible restrooms… What about the digital world?

Is your digital space ADA compliant? Is your website accessible to someone with disabilities? Does it meet the standards of WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.0?

Probably the first question you are asking is “does it matter”?

Section 508 of the American Disabilities Act sets strict guidelines for websites belonging to federal government agencies, educational institutions and other agencies that receive government funding, and companies that supply products and services to the government above a certain threshold.

These guidelines dictate several factors in how website content is presented and organized to make sure it is ADA compliant. It must allow easy navigation by those with a variety of disabilities, including visual, hearing, or physical impairments. We’ll talk about some examples a little later.

In January 2018, they were expanded to include not just the website itself, but additional content on the website, such as videos, PDFs, audio files, and other content types.

So, you’re probably asking yourself: if this applies to government websites, how does it impact a business owner, unless you are a major government contractor like someone who builds military equipment?

Several years ago, plans were announced to carry these requirements over to private businesses above a certain size, as well. These new standards were originally set to take effect in July 2018, but deregulation efforts by the Trump administration led to the repeal of this requirement for businesses in 2017. So, businesses are off the hook, right? Well, sort of…

Why ADA Compliance Matters for Businesses

While there may no longer be a legal requirement dictating that a company’s website meet ADA-compliance standards, there are a lot of very practical reasons why it makes good business sense. Here are some of the top arguments for building an ADA compliant site:

  1. People with disabilities represent a significant and growing part of the population, 19% or approximately 1 in 5 Americans, according to the 2010 census. With an aging population, this percentage continues to increase steadily. Why does this number seem so high? When most people think of disabilities, they think of total blindness or deafness, or physical impairments that may require a wheelchair or similar tools to accommodate. But in reality, disabilities can include a wide variety of issues that impact a person’s ability to perform tasks that many of us take for granted. Impaired vision or hearing that isn’t a complete loss of ability can still make simple things like reading a typical webpage or following a podcast virtually impossible. Mobility issues can prevent the use of a mouse or keyboard. Some people may need additional time to read a web page or scrolling text.
  2. When you think of one-fifth of the population, that represents a very significant market. U.S. Department of Labor estimates put the value of this market at approximately $200 billion in discretionary spending. It would be a shame to lose out on this market because potential customers can’t navigate your site to place an order or see what you have to offer – especially when your competitor does accommodate them.
  3. By ensuring accessibility to those with disabilities, it helps create a more positive impression of a business, especially now in a world where social media allows people to quickly compare notes about their impressions and experiences. Likewise, by not providing an accessible website, it can hurt a business’s reputation, especially within certain markets and communities. And word spreads fast on social media.
  4. We live in a very lawsuit-happy society, especially in the United States. While there may not be a government requirement to make sure your website is ADA compliant, there is still a very real risk of getting sued. It has happened numerous times since 2000. Just in the period from the beginning of 2015 through mid-August 2017, more than 750 suits regarding ADA compliance for websites were filed in federal court, with approximately half of them being retailers. And the targets of these lawsuits include some well-known companies: Netflix, Target, Redbox, Winn-Dixie, Harbor Freight, and Toys R Us, to name just a few. While these suits usually don’t result in any monetary damages, they often result in a forced rework of websites and the related costs, as well as legal fees, business disruption, and perhaps the most damaging: bad press.
  5. It’s good design. Meeting the standards for WCAG 2.0 and ADA compliance also results in a website that follows good design principles, including ease of use and navigation. As a bonus, some of the factors that make a site ADA compliant also will help boost SEO.

Creating an ADA-Compliant Website

Creating a website that is ADA compliant may require a bit more effort and planning than a regular site, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Just keeping a few fundamentals in mind will go a long way. And for thorough, detailed guidelines, there are lots of great resources available.

One of my favorite sites belongs to WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind), an organization dedicated to improving internet accessibility for those with disabilities and offering a variety of services and training resources to help companies and organizations succeed. They also offer a great selection of tools and references to assist in meeting WCAG 2.0 and ADA-compliance guidelines.

So, what are some of the biggest factors in meeting these standards?

  1. Allow for limited vision: When people think of visual impairment, they tend to think of complete blindness. However, there is a far greater portion of the population with other visual impairments, such as color blindness or partial macular degeneration. For example, placing red text on a green background might look very festive around the holidays, but for someone with red-green color blindness (the most common form), it is often unreadable. Or, for example, using a cheerful shade of yellow on a white background, or blue on a dark background, can result in a low-contrast situation that is difficult to read. Poor font choices, tiny text, and text superimposed on images are other potential problem areas.

    Red Merry Christmas text on green background, yellow text on white, and dark blue text on black as examples of bad color choices.
    Examples of poor color choices for visibility.
  2.  Consider those with impaired hearing: If you have videos on your site, closed captioning is essential. If you rely on podcasts or other audio-only media, providing a written transcript allows those with impaired hearing to access that content as well. Likewise, your site should never rely solely on audio cues to communicate information.
  3. Physical issues can impact a site’s usability: A site that doesn’t allow for easy navigation solely with a keyboard, for example being able to tab between sections or fields, can be virtually unusable for someone with limited or no use of their hands. Or, if your site requires frequent or rapid inputs, someone with motor control issues such as Parkinson’s may be unable to navigate it.
  4. Support for accessibility tools: Windows and Apple OS both provide extensive accessibility tools, as do many popular software programs. Make sure that your site works well with these tools, such as a reader for the blind or mobility tools for those with physical issues. When you design your page, make sure any images are supported with alt-text descriptions, form fields include identifying descriptions, and that menus and content flow in a logical sequence.
  5. Some other thoughts: We often tend to forget about challenges that aren’t immediately obvious, such as learning/reading disabilities or epilepsy. For example, having content that automatically scrolls or changes, with no way to pause it, can be a nightmare for someone with a reading disability. And rapidly flashing lights may look cool and capture a viewer’s attention, but they can also trigger epileptic seizures.
    This is just a quick highlight of some key areas to take into consideration. For more detailed information and additional guidelines, check out this quick reference for WCAG 2.0 standards. Some are obviously more involved than others, but some, such as closed captioning of videos, are also dependent on the type of content you include on your site.

Wrapping up

Creating an ADA-compliant website for your business or organization may no longer be a requirement, according to the law and changes made in 2017. However, that hasn’t stopped companies from getting sued, and it also doesn’t mean that the law may not change again. In addition, you may well be missing out on a substantial customer base. Ensuring that your site meets WCAG 2.0 and ADA-compliance standards not only helps make sure you stay ahead of the game, it also makes good business sense.

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