Way back in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law, spurring American businesses and governmental agencies into action. Parking lots, elevators, and offices became accessible to people with disabilities. Hiring practices changed to ensure that these individuals were treated fairly. Web designers and IT departments started modifying their websites to ensure that they were accessible to people with disabilities.
Hold up. Huh?
Ok, so the internet wasn't really a concern back in the early 90's. But, as the World Wide Web became more and more prevalent in the daily lives of Americans (and the rest of the world), the Department of Justice decided to create guidelines for compliance. In 2003, the DOJ passed down a voluntary action plan for companies to pursue website compliance, so this isn't a brand new idea.
While 2010's ADA Standards for Accessible Design covers the design of physical spaces, there are some courts that interpret that as including web locations as well. Some courts also believe that Title III of the ADA makes it clear that websites should be covered. However, within the next few years, the DOJ will be passing down guidelines that governmental agencies and businesses will be expected to enact. What does this mean for you? Well, the DOJ can levy penalties against noncompliant businesses, and should someone sue you because your site is not ADA compliant, the DOJ's guidelines pretty much guarantee them a slam-dunk.
Do I HAVE to Comply?
Maybe you're wondering if this actully applies to you and your business. Let's run down the requirements for businessess to be covered by the ADA:
- Public entities, particularly at the state and local levels
- Businesses that operate for the public's benefit and non-profits
- Private employers who have at least 15 employees
Federal entities, or companies that work with them or take money directly from them, are covered under a whole other piece of legislation; Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 could impact your website design and style. Private clubs or religious organizations are exempt from the law.
How Do I Comply?
You're convinced—you want to make your website ADA compliant. But how do you do that? Plan on collaborating with your digital agency or web design team to make the following adjustments to your website:
Allow Adjustments in Font Size and Color — Many visually impaired people need to use large fonts or high-contrast color settings in order to enjoy a website, so don't make that impossible for them with your design. You can do this a couple of ways, such as relative text size that responds to a browser or device, or a manual font size adjuster that lets the user select the font size of their choice. This additional functionality, however, may not be required now that every browser allows for zooming, which makes text as large or small as you like.
Create Text for Your Images — Images are often featured on websites, but if there is no text identifying said images, screen readers that are used by the visually impaired cannot identify the image. The user wouldn't know if the image was pertinent to the content, or if it was just your logo or a stock photo. Use descriptive text in your image alt tags and image file names.
Amp Up Your Multimedia — Sure, a text description is good, but an audio description is even better. You can add audio descriptions to images AND video, so that visually impaired users will know when there's been a change in gesture, setting, or other details.
Avoid PDFs — We love PDFs as much as the next person, but they're really not very user-friendly for the visually impaired; they can't be read by screen readers OR text enlargement programs, so just avoid using them whenever possible.
You might think you've got your website compliant, but it would be smart to make sure that you're not missing anything. Just ask Target; they ended up paying $6 MILLION dollars to members in a class-action lawsuit claiming that the retailer's website was not accessible to blind users. (And don't forget to tack on Target's $3.7 million dollars in court fees...) How do you avoid this? Well, of course, you should apply the tips we listed above, but you should look at the rulings that the courts have handed down already to guide you until the DOJ's regulations are passed through.
Consider State Regulations — Yes, you must be aware of the federal law, but don't forget to check your state's regulations as well. Netflix learned this the hard way in 2012; lawsuits were brought against the streaming service in two states, Massachusetts and California, claiming that the service violated the ADA because it did not offer "closed captioning" options. The states ruled in completely opposite ways—the court in California stated that Netflix didn't have to comply with the ADA's definition of public accomodation, while Massachusetts stated that Netflix must be held to the standard.
Don't Forget Your App — In 2014, the online grocery retailer Peapod was under fire for not ensuring that their mobile application was not ADA compliant. The settlement required Peapod to make the updates that would bring accessiblity to their mobile platforms by March 2015, and their website had to be accessible by September 2015.
You Don't Have a Building? It Doesn't Matter — Recently, an e-book subscription service called Scribd was held to the standard of "providing a place of public accomodation," even though they don't have a brick-and-mortar location. They were found to be noncompliant because their books cannot be read with a screen reader, rendering them impossible to be read by visually impaired users.
Making your website ADA compliant will be the law in the not-too-distant future, but that's not the only reason that you should update your site. Creating a website that can be used by every person who visits it is just good business sense. 246 million Americans have "low vision", while 39 million are completly blind; one million Americans are deaf. There are millions more with mobility issues. These are all potential customers. If you don't accomodate their needs, they'll take their business elsewhere.