Is a company’s website a place of public accommodation? That question is the key test of whether a business is subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Department of Justice (DOJ), which enforces the ADA, hasn’t issued detailed regulations on the subject at this time. But, the DOJ stated, “the fact that the regulatory process is not yet complete in no way indicates that web services are not already covered” by the ADA. And, the agency adds, the ADA is applicable to “essentially any business that serves the public.”
A Practical Example
The court system is out ahead of the DOJ on ADA requirements for websites. Take, for example, a recent case involving a grocery store chain. A federal court ruled last year that the Winn-Dixie grocery store chain’s website was fundamentally equivalent to the store’s physical stores, because the website and physical stores are tightly integrated and, therefore, subject to ADA standards.
The case was brought by a visually impaired Winn-Dixie customer. That individual successfully asserted that he was “denied the full and equal enjoyment of all that Winn-Dixie offered,” because his disability made him unable to use Winn-Dixie’s website. The judge in the non-jury trial also determined that “the requested modifications to Winn-Dixie’s website are reasonable and readily achievable.”
The upshot of the case was that Winn-Dixie was ordered to pay the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees. The retailer was also ordered to modify its website so that it — and the websites of vendors that link to Winn-Dixie’s — conform to the criteria of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in 2.0 version (WCAG 2.0), issued by the Bureau of Internet Accessibility (BOIA).
The Nuts and Bolts of WCAG 2.0
WCAG 2.0, which took effect on March 21, 2017, include some very technical standards. Unless you’re a web developer, you don’t need to get into the weeds, but you do need to ensure that your website and mobile apps conform. According to the BOIA, the overarching goal of the standards is usability, which “combines visual design with user experience best practices to provide clear, concise design, which helps all users move on to their desired destination.”
The standards are intended to make it possible for people with the following disabilities to use websites effectively:
- Deafness and loss of auditory capacity,
- Limited visual acuity and blindness,
- Cognitive medical conditions,
- Learning disabilities,
- Speech disabilities,
- Movement-based limitations,
- Photosensitivity, and
- Other types of disabilities which impede website content consumption.
Key Design Requirements
According to the BOIA, visual design often “takes front and center with accessibility issues.” Problematic website design issues that would flunk the new WCAG 2.0 include:
- Poor contrast between foreground and background,
- A color scheme that renders info invisible to the color blind,
- Flashy designs — especially those with strobes and wild alternating colors — could create extremely negative repercussions, such as seizures, for some site users,
- Distracting obstacles,
- A lack of multiple ways to navigate the page, without losing vital information or functionality,
- Features that make visitors feel rushed, and
- Site navigation and fields or forms that aren’t completely accessible by keyboard (a hindrance to users with movement restrictions).
WCAG 2.0 were spawned by the “accessibility initiative” of the World Wide Web Consortium (WC3), an umbrella organization that promotes standards for all facets of the web. Elaborating on those design issues, WC3 encourages the use of supplemental text alternatives for graphic images. These include short equivalents for images, with icons, buttons and graphics; descriptions of data represented on charts, diagrams and illustrations; and brief descriptions of non-text content such as audio and video files.
Here are some more of the non-technical standards to maximize the accessibility of your website and demonstrate your commitment to satisfying ADA requirements:
- Don’t use color exclusively to convey information or identify content,
- Make text resizable to 200% of the default size without causing the loss of information,
- Allow users to pause, stop or modify the volume of audio played on the website, and
- Make it possible to turn off background sounds, to minimize distraction.
A Benefit to All
Most of these design standards will be appreciated by many users without disabilities as well. Older site users with a mild case of myopia (which isn’t a disability) certainly appreciate the ability to magnify the size of website text.
“Remediating a noncompliant website can be time-consuming and expensive, but not as expensive as the money spent on a lawsuit, the damage it brings to your brand’s reputation, and the associated remediation,” warns the BOIA. “And, as the aging Baby Boomer population grows, disabled consumers will increase along with web accessibility complaints and lawsuits.”
In response to this hazard, a cottage industry of website ADA compliance experts has sprung up. Also, most full-service website developers are up-to-date on these standards and can help you steer clear of possible trouble — as well as to maximize the overall user-friendliness of your company’s website.