About 19 percent (approximately 1 in 5 people) in the U.S. has a disability. While that is a small subset of our population, it is certainly not insignificant. In fact, 19 percent of the U.S. population amounts to over 50 million people.
Accessibility doesn't just apply to physical places of business. (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Some portion of that group needs assistance navigating the world around them -- perhaps they are visually impaired, hearing impaired, or have challenges with mobility.
Nowadays, "the world around us" certainly includes the online sphere, doesn't it? Imagine going through your day unable to access the internet or make a phone call, because a disability prevented it.
Thanks to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), individuals with disabilities are able to have access to more services than ever before. Title III requires that "places of public accommodation" provide equal access to services for individuals with disabilities. Unfortunately, the laws of ADA compliance for websites have not yet been solidified or clearly defined.
Are you required by law to make your site ADA compliant? If not, should you do it anyway?
There are lots of questions to be answered. We'll discuss some of them here, to the best of our ability. We encourage you to do your own research too, as this article will not be exhaustive. (Note: Title II of the ADA applies to government agencies. We do not discuss those here.)
Should your website be ADA compliant?
The law is currently murky on the issue of which websites are required to be ADA compliant, and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has delayed rulemaking on this issue (again) until 2018. Here's what we currently know (keep in mind this could very well change in the next year or so).
E-Commerce sites need to be ADA compliant.
According to the Employer Law Report:
The Third, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuit courts apply the ADA only to websites that have a connection to goods and services available at a physical location, like a retail store. The theory in those cases is that the store is a place of public accommodation, and “shopping there” online requires accessibility of the website. The First, Second, and Seventh Circuit courts apply the ADA more broadly to include all websites that offer direct sale of goods or services, even those that lack “some connection to physical space.”
Since web-based businesses can be sued anywhere they are regularly transacting business, litigants can select their forum based on which has the most favorable law. With e-commerce, that likely subjects many businesses to suit in all 50 states.
(In case you're wondering, the U.S. Circuit Courts are federal courts with appellate jurisdiction over designated state district courts. California is part of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.)
The lack of formal rules on this issue hasn't stopped people with disabilities from filing lawsuits, however. The DOJ is receiving record numbers of accessibility complaints, and website compliance litigation is on the rise, the most common target (though not the only!) being online retailers. It definitely behooves owners of e-commerce sites to ensure their websites are ADA compliant.
What does "accessible" mean for a website?
The law is unclear as to precisely what making a website "accessible" to persons with disabilities entails. Voluntary guidelines called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0., have been developed by W3C. These guidelines recommend that websites be "perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust" to individuals with disabilities. The guidelines are not technically specific, but here are a few from the W3C website to give you an idea:
The website itself is more specific, so click on the link above if you want to check it out.
Overcoming "Access Barriers"
Employer Law Report continues:
Common barriers to web accessibility are (a) incompatibility with speech recognition or screen reading software, (b) lack of text-based alternatives to media content, (c) poor color contrast or small text size, and (d) transaction timing requirements that do not take into account intellectual disabilities. What does it mean to have an accessible website? At the most basic level, an accessible website would have these (and other) accessible elements:
- Provides text alternatives for any non-text content;
- Provides alternatives for time-based media;
- Includes content that can be presented in different ways without losing information or structure;
- Is easy to see and hear, including separating foreground from background;
- Permits all functionality from a keyboard if needed (as opposed to a cursor);
- Permits sufficient time to read and use content;
- Is not designed in a way that is known to cause seizures;
- Includes ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are;
- Includes text content that is readable and understandable;
- Operates and appears in predictable ways;
- Helps users avoid and correct mistakes; and
- Is compatible with current and future user agents, including assistive web technologies.
If it feels like an inconvenience to you to make your website ADA compliant, imagine if it were you or your spouse or your child with the disability. Wouldn't you want the world to be a friendly place to get around?
We'll be sure to update you as the laws evolve, but do your own due diligence to ensure your business website is compliant with applicable laws and regulations too. (And be sure you know your target market and are making their UX a pleasant one!)