While the internet is often referred to as a great equalizer, individual websites don’t always live up to that promise. When websites are designed with accessibility features, they help to break down barriers to interaction and communication that many people face in the physical world. Poorly designed websites, on the other hand, can create barriers that exclude people from using them. It’s essential for developers and organizations to create high-quality websites and web tools that allow all people to use their products and services. Building accessibility into websites is one way to respect people with disabilities and ensure that all potential users have a good experience.
P.S. Accessibility can have legal ramifications, too!
Georgetown University’s law school defines digital accessibility as:
|“The inclusive practice of removing barriers that prevent interaction with, or access to websites, digital tools, and technologies, by people with disabilities.”|
A website is accessible when anyone can use it, including those with visual, hearing, mobility, and/or cognitive impairments. A disabled person needs to be able to perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the website in a similar fashion to a user without a disability.
Making your website accessible means it is compatible with assistive technologies that people with disabilities use—like screen readers, magnification tools, alternative navigation, keyboard only, and more. It also helps those with temporary disabilities, such as a visitor with a broken bone or temporary vision loss.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 26% of Americans have some type of disability. By implementing accessibility best practices, you are improving the usability of the site for all.
Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation. In the fall of 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) affirmed that the ADA covers websites. However, unlike ADA Accessibility Standards (for the physical world), there are currently no clear regulations provided by the government for websites. In July 2022, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced its intent to begin the rulemaking process to enact website accessibility regulations applicable to state and local governments under ADA. In the meantime, most look to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as the international standard for Web accessibility.
In 2018, the government updated Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act to strengthen requirements for access to electronic and information technology in the Federal sector. This update brought increased attention to the issue of website accessibility, not just for Federal websites, but for businesses too.
Consumers’ increased use of e-commerce and other digital experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic heightened awareness of accessibility issues, which also contributed to a windfall of website accessibility-related lawsuits over the past four years.
Yes, it’s possible your business could be sued over the accessibility of your website. More than 12,750 related lawsuits were filed between 2018 and 2021, and digital lawsuits in 2022 are on track for a record, with around 100 lawsuits being filed every week. (NOTE: this blog is not intended to provide legal advice, but simply to raise awareness about these issues. Consult your business attorney to learn about risk factors and next steps specific to your business.)
Research has revealed trends related to industry and target market of the businesses that have been hit with lawsuits. If you fall into one or more of these categories, you may have a higher-than-average risk:
- You sell products, offer quotes, or book services online
- You have a physical location that customers can visit
- You serve customers in Florida, California, and/or New York
- You’re in retail, food service, or healthcare
No company is too large or too small to be impacted—as the number of lawsuits increases, companies large and small are being sued; in fact, companies with revenue of less than $50 million were on the receiving end of more lawsuits than their larger counterparts from January to June, 2021.
Demand letters threaten litigation and look to extract easy settlement revenue. There is no data collection on demand letters, but people in the industry say that these far outnumber federal or state lawsuits. Settlements for most demand letters targeting smaller and midsized businesses (the vast majority) are estimated in the $5K- $20K range.
There are more benefits of focusing on accessibility than just mitigating your legal risk. Having an accessible website:
- Provides better usability for all users
- Can help with SEO
- Shows that your business cares about its customers and community
- Shows that you care about inclusion, which is an important part of building a strong brand
Six steps to make your website more accessible
When we first started researching website accessibility and its implications on the industry, we began making changes to how we build websites to incorporate additional accessibility measures. Our best practices for building websites that incorporate accessibility measures include:
# 1 Add ALT text to all images
Alt text is an HTML attribute that allows screen readers to describe images to visually-impaired users. If your alt text isn’t very descriptive or you haven’t provided any alt text at all, you aren’t making your site’s images readily available to everyone.
Which one of these sentences is easier to read?
Which one of these sentences is easier to read?
As you can see, blue text on a white background has a good contrast ratio. Contrast ratio is important because some people struggle to read text without stark color contrast between the font and the background. Designing for accessibility means using a high contrast ratio in your color palette.
There are a few things to check when selecting a CMS that supports accessibility:
- Can someone navigate through the interface without using a mouse?
- Is all the content accessible to a screen reader user?
- Is the interface easy to understand and interact with?
- Is there a forum or support for your accessibility-related questions?
- Can you add accessibility fixes to the CMS yourself?
Headings communicate the organization and structure of the content on the page. Headings are presented as larger and more distinct than surrounding text, which helps guide the eye around the page and is especially helpful for users with cognitive disabilities. Screen readers and assistive technologies also use heading structure in the underlying code to help navigate through the content.
Links are vital to both user experience and SEO. To make your links effective and accessible, you need to accurately describe them using link text that makes sense without the surrounding sentences or content. Any clickable text should describe exactly what the user can find on the next page.
Here are some guidelines to consider when writing link text:
- Link text should be unique and easy to speak out loud
- If using link text like “Click Here,” ensure it has directional text to give it context (for example, “Click here to download our free ebook that will help you improve SEO”)
- Use unique link text where possible
- Avoid linking text longer than a full sentence
Does every field on your website form have a label that tells users what information they need to input? Form input fields need a label and a description in the form’s code so that screen readers and other accessibility devices can understand the form’s content.
Accessibility widgets have popped up as a one-size-fits-all solution to making websites accessible, and they sound appealing. Many boast an easy implementation that doesn’t require coding. Unfortunately, recent data has shown that many accessibility overlays or widgets don’t always help, and can sometimes even hurt the accessibility of a website for someone who’s already got their own software (as many people with specific needs do). Businesses using accessibility widgets are reporting an increasing number of lawsuits, many of which claim that the widget is actually as a barrier to equal access.
In May 2021, the National Federation of the Blind came out against the blanket use of overlays, saying that the implementation of an overlay strategy may deter the implementation of a more permanent solution.
How can businesses ensure they have an accessible website?
We recommend regularly auditing your website for accessibility issues and taking the time to implement permanent solutions to issues you find. While few, if any, websites can claim 100% compliance with WCAG, taking proactive steps to bring your website into compliance will benefit your customers and you over time. If you are interested in learning more about our website development services, please schedule a time to chat with our team. We can discuss your situation and help guide you in selecting accessibility measures for your site.