Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination in “places of public accommodation” which historically has included restaurants, theaters, retail stores and more. However, a recent ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco held in its decision that the ADA applies also to a company’s website and mobile app.
An increasing number of website lawsuits—2,285 in 2018—is cause for action. Within a public entity, poor online accessibility can make it hard for the disabled to apply for benefits, renew library books, register to vote, etc. An accessible website also benefits other users, as it encourages simple designs that work well on all devices and makes it easier for people to find the information they need. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines give us some hints as to the likely coming legislation that websites will be required follow. You can find a simpler format here.
Being fully compliant is time consuming but there are few easy (and important) changes you can start to make now:
- Provide alternative text for all pictures. Infographics should have a full caption. Proper alt text is invisible to sighted visitors but picked up by screen readers. Show full captions beneath the image.
- Ensure all links in text stand out from the normal text by using at least two markups.
- Keep a consistent layout through the site.
- Provide proper captioning of any videos on the site. If you use YouTube, they have an easy way to add closed captions. Text transcripts are also vital, although they can take a little longer to input.
- Remove any automatic video or audio (besides affecting accessibility, this can annoy regular users).
- Provide a search function on the homepage.
- No pop-ups unless they are there to assist users. Pop-ups can mess with screen readers.
- Do not use color alone to convey meaning.
- Use proper nested headings within the text.
The Section 508 Standards are what Federal agencies use, and there is a useful guide here. Section 508 provides tutorials and recommendations for products that can help with accessibility. One of the most important things you can do is be consistent through your site and avoid frequent changes. Similar pages should look and feel the same. This also makes for a clean website your users will appreciate. Don’t rely on automatic checkers, which find only a small number of the problems. Instead, have manual tests, which should include:
- Navigating the website using a screen reader.
- Navigating the website without using a mouse.
- Checking for alternatives to all content, such as alt text for pictures, transcripts for videos, etc.
If users don’t find your site accessible, they are likely to complain. If you are lucky, they will only complain to you. If you receive an accessibility complaint, it’s best to address it as soon as possible considering the high expense of a potential lawsuit. A website audit can help find problems, but it will not fix them. And the ADA is a strict liability law, which means you won’t be able to use any arguments other than compliance. The only way to get out of an ADA lawsuit is to fix the problem immediately.
More than 4 million disabled persons have never used the Internet due to either accessibility frustrations or lack of trying. Either way, ensuring your public entity website meets ADA standards is good business practice and will benefit people in the communities you serve.