As of Jan 2018, new federal regulations will go into effect regarding the accessibility of websites for people with disabilities.*
But did you know that even if you’re a small business owner, you could still be sued by advocacy groups or “professional plaintiffs” if your website isn’t ADA compliant under the new regulations? To be clear, the new regulations taking effect aren’t under the ADA, but Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act which applies to the electronic and website content of federal agencies and businesses and organization who receive federal money to conform to WCAG 2.0 standards.
Why Are the New Federal ADA Compliance Rulings Important for My Business
Still, the fact of the matter is that more than 244 federal lawsuits related to ADA compliance of websites were filed throughout the United States since the beginning of 2015. Most cases never made it to court in the past, and companies like Netflix usually settled out of court. But in June of 2017, a Florida federal judge filed in favor of the plaintiff in a case against grocery store chain, Winn Dixie that was the first ruling where a business lost in court, (Forbes, June 13, 2017). This ruling further solidified the Department of Justice’s stance on their interpretation of Title III of the ADA.
With the ever increasing number of lawsuits, the legal precedence established by the Winn-Dixie case, the stricter criteria preferred by the Department of Justice, and the new federal Section 508 regulations going into effect in 2018, it’s never been more important to ensure your business’ website is ADA compliant and accessible to people with disabilities.
What are the ADA, Section 508 & W3C WCAG 2.0?
The Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA is a federal civil rights law that was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. The ADA ensures all buildings, schools, businesses, and government agencies with a public face are accessible to people with disabilities. Title III of the ADA is the portion that pertains to private businesses of any size.
In 1990, the internet was mostly text, so nobody considered that one day the ADA might be applied beyond the accessibility of buildings to things like websites. In 2010, the United States Dept of Justice – DOJ, published the ADA Standards for Accessible Design that state that all electronic and information technology be accessible to people with disabilities.
The Section 508 Amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 of 1986 requires federal agencies make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. It was amended in 1986, and 1998, and again in 2017. The latest revision requirements which adopt the WCAG 2.0 AA standards go into effect in Jan of 2018. The Section 508 changes apply to federal agencies and organizations who receive federal funding. But the Department of Justice is also increasingly applying these same standards when they look at possible ADA violation complaints against private businesses.
The World Wide Web Consortium – the W3C, is the organization that sets the international standards for the internet. It devised the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, more commonly referred to as the WCAG 2.0. The WCAG 2.0 has 3 levels of standard classes, A, AA, and AAA, which range from the least to the most amount of the level of accessibility and accommodations for people with disabilities. Again, the new federal regulations and the DOJ interpretation of Title III of the ADA only require the WCAG 2.0 AA standard of accessibility.
What makes a website accessible & How can I make my site ADA compliant?
The W3C WCAG 2.0 standards are complex, so I’m not going to go into detail about each level of standard. If you’re interested in reading through them, you can find them on the W3C website. Instead, let’s take a look at what you can do to ensure your website is compliant with ADA Title III regulations, and matches up with the WCAG 2.0 AA standards that the DOJ prefers and that are stipulated in the latest amendment to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The WCAG 2.0 guidelines are divided into 4 principles. They state that your website must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. But what does that mean exactly? Let’s break each principle down.
Perceivable – How your website is seen and/or heard
Basically, this category is all about making it easier for all users to see and hear the content on your website including:
- • Captions on multimedia content like videos.
- • Text alternatives or transcripts for things like videos, images, and podcasts.
- • Content that can be presented in a variety of ways, not just text or multimedia, without losing meaning or context, including content that can be accessed and understood by assistive technologies like text readers.
- • Use of Alt Text to describe multimedia elements like photos, charts, infographics, and other visual elements so they’re accessible to text readers.
- • Use of high contrast ratios for text so that’s it’s visible to users with visual perception difficulties.
Operable – How people find content on your website and navigate your site
So what you want to aim for under this category is helping people navigate your website and find the stuff they’re looking for including:
- • Don’t make your website flash or strobe or use multimedia that has flashing elements or strobing elements or any elements that are known to cause seizures.
- • Don’t have time-sensitive content on your website, or if you must, make sure you allow enough time for all users to read and use content or allow them to pause these sections.
- • Allow users to mute and pause auto played content.
- • Don’t have functions on your website that are only accessible using a mouse, i.e. you can access and use every element of your website with a keyboard.
Understandable – How your website can be understood by people
This category basically is designed to make sure that your website is organized logically and is easy to understand. In order to achieve this you should:
- • Don’t make content confusing or unpredictable.
- • Make sure the text is easy to understand and readable. Avoid using obtuse language, including words like obtuse. Use simpler, shorter words whenever possible.
- • Make sure you have clear instructions for all pages that require users to input information, such as on contact forms.
- • Have tools on your site that help people avoid and correct mistakes.
Robust – How your website can be understood by assistive technology
This part is the most technical and has to do with the website’s code. Your website’s code must be “robust” enough, ie compatible with assistive technology such as text readers. As a business owner, you need to make sure your website developer or the company that developed your website uses code that follows current web standards so that it can be read by text readers and assistive devices.
ADA Compliance & SEO- Will ADA Compliance Change My Google Rankings?
In most ways making your website ADA compliant should actually improve your ranking in search results and it should improve things like Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and User Experience (UX). Since following the W3C WCAG 2.0 standards will improve the functionality and usability of your website for all visitors, your website should, in theory, help your website’s Google ranking. Let’s briefly take a look at some areas where ADA compliance and SEO intersect for good or ill.
For SEO purposes, the image Alt text is often used as another place to put keywords. This can mean that a website can seem keyword stuffed to users who use assistive devices like text readers and websites that have a lot of visual elements with keyword optimized alt text can make no sense when read by a text reader. Actually, keyword stuffing of Alt text is not considered best practice by Google and by following Google’s image publishing guidelines, you can have SEO optimized images that are also ADA and Section 508 compliant.
With more and more lawsuits being filed in federal court surrounding possible ADA violations, the new Section 508 regulations going into effect in January of 2018, and the stricter interpretation of ADA Title III by the DOJ, it’s more important than it ever has been to protect your small business from potential litigation by making sure your website is compliant with federal law regarding website accessibility.
When you read all the information on the W3C website it can get really difficult to understand as well as really overwhelming. I know when I was researching this article, I had a lot more difficulty understanding exactly what was meant and wished clearer language was used as well as some visual representation or examples of compliant websites.
Again the best thing you can do is ask any website developer who wants to design a website for your business if they are familiar with and understand how to build websites that comply with all federal and state accessibility regulations, including the ADA regulations and the W3C standards. And because the standards can sometimes be difficult to interpret, building a website yourself might not be the best plan.
Ultimately, more than fear of being sued, ADA compliance is all about making sure all your customers can have equal access to your website and that means equal access to your business. By doing that you ultimately reach more customers rather than exclude them because they can’t access your business’ website. Plus making sure your website is accessible to the majority of visitors is just plain good customer service and everyone loves getting great service.
*Note from the Author: I am not an attorney and this article should not constitute legal advice. If you need legal advice regarding ADA compliance in your business, please seek a qualified attorney.