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by Birdie deQuay

ADA lawsuits and compliance: what you need to know

A growing number of ADA lawsuits surrounding website compliance have businesses on their toes. Achieving full ADA compliance with your website is a bear of a task, and may not be possible in many cases without a lot of time and money.  With that said, Website Accessibility is important, and will become even more of an issue in the future.  There are some steps that everyone can take immediately towards compliance that may make their websites more accessible to all.

What are the ADA lawsuits about?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was introduced in 1990, and protects people with disabilities from being discriminated against in their public life. This means that individuals with disabilities are provided the same opportunities as other people in public spaces.

Lawsuits involving the ADA are not uncommon. Businesses who do not meet what the ADA considers reasonable accommodation may run into trouble should a person with disabilities or team of lawyers decide to sue them.

In the past, common causes of lawsuits would include issues such as not having a wheelchair ramp to enter a building, not providing a handrail in the bathrooms, or not providing adequate space in a parking lot.

Yet now a new type of lawsuit is on the rise, targeting businesses who do not make their websites accessible enough for all.

While the internet was not around when the ADA became law, certain websites accessible to the public fall under the same umbrella of protection the ADA provides.

As with many hot topic issues in the past, once people realize they may be entitled to sue businesses on specific grounds – the proverbial floodgates are open.

Many attribute this in part to the administration under Trump, which decided to stop drafting rules for ADA compliance in websites.

Others also note that some of these lawsuits may be less about true accessibility and more about opportunistic lawyers looking for “easy wins” as it were.

Whatever the reason behind it, ADA lawsuits targeting websites are on the rise, with no sign of stopping.

With that said, compliance is a serious issue that people with disabilities have been fighting for for a long time – it is simply in the limelight at the moment. Organizations such as the National Federation for the Blind have been working towards accessibility in the modern era for years. For many, it is an ongoing struggle rather than this month’s hot issue.

Who needs to meet ADA requirements and how difficult is it?

Here is the big issue when it comes to ADA accessibility and websites – there are no clear cut rules. No ADA regulations detail exactly what a website needs to be compliant. 

This gray area is a large reason why lawsuits against companies can be so successful at the moment. If a company does not know exactly how their site should look, or what they need to be accessible, they may be setting themselves up for an ADA lawsuit. 

Yet while there is some gray area, it is not the Wild West. There are some guidelines in place. 

Businesses fall under specific titles in the ADA. Depending on the title they fall under, they may be required to make more their website accessibility.

Businesseses that fall under ADA Title I, which have more than 15 employees and operate for 20 or more weeks each year must meet accesibility requirements.

Businesses that fall under ADA Title III, which is any business having to do with public accommodation, are also required to meet accessibility requirements. This includes businesses such as hotels, hospitals, banks, and forms of public transportation. While physical accessibility was the original aim, it now also includes digital accessibility.

It is important to note that not all websites have to meet ADA accessibility requirements. If you are a freelancer or very small online business and do not offer public services, you will likely not need to meet accessibility requirements. 

How to meet ADA compliance and avoid a lawsuit

To be very clear, there is still no path to take that is 100% guaranteed to keep you out of trouble with the ADA, because there are no clear guidelines.

Businesses that fall under Title I or Title III of the ADA will have to develop their website in a way that offers “reasonable accessibility” to people with disabilities. With no clear guidelines in place, “reasonable accessibility” is only what we know from actions the ADA takes to make websites compliant after lawsuits and certain guidelines.

Here is what we know.

Website accessibility means making sure that people who are visually impaired, hearing impaired, or those who can only use voice navigation are all still able to engage with your website in a meaningful and productive way.

This can include coding a number of different programs into the site itself, from a simple text-to-speech application or allowing for the use of refreshable braille displays.

The term “accessible” is open to interpretation, but is based around 4 key principles. The goal is to ensure content for people with disabilities is:

  • Perceivable (they can find it)
  • Understandable (they can understand it)
  • Operable (they can use it)
  • Robust (they can access it through many interfaces)

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA criteria is a reference for accessible content. The WCAG 2.0 includes 38 requirements. Hitting all 38 can be expensive and time consuming, and the requirements are vague at times.

Luckily, the Website Accessibility Standards (WAS) massively improved upon the WCAG. It helps clarify vague terms and give us a concrete starting point to work towards.

Steps to take

As with anything, first things first. Start with the most popular pages on the website, as well as the core content. 

Alternatives to imagery

First, look to provide alternatives to things people with disabilities may not be able to access, such as images, videos, and graphics. 

For starters, alt text every image on the site. Easier said than done in many cases, but at least start with the 10 most visited pages, as well as all your main pages (Home, about, contact, etc).

Make sure every video you use has closed captions. If they aren’t there, start transcribing the most popular ones first. 

Use text transcripts for every audio or visual-only file on the site. Again, start with the most visited.

Infographics are your enemy in this sense, unless a screen reader can pick them up.

Keyboard accessibility

Just as accessibility shortcuts and keyboard use make a computer much easier to navigate, your website should also have these tools. People should be able to use their keyboard to navigate the website by tabbing or using the arrow keys.

Limited automatic content

As much as your readers LOVE that pop-up on every page asking them for their email address, they make the site more difficult to navigate. If you don’t want to get rid of them, they must be easy to eliminate or hide. This includes automatic video or audio.

Intuitive design

Just as with regular UX, accessibility is about intuitive design, including things such as:

  • Descriptive links and headers
  • Title tags
  • Language tags
  • Labeled input fields
  • Clear, simple forms
  • Ability to skip to main content
  • Clean code
Other Elements

Other elements on the website are important for accessibility as well, such as:

  • Colors – color cannot be the only way to convey meaning; and text must have a strong color contrast against its background
  • Distinct links – links must stand out from other text
  • Zoomable text – text should be able to increase by 200% without affecting readability
  • Important submission – users must have the ability to review important information, such as personal info or financial info, before finalizing
  • Simple search function 
  • The ability to skip forward in navigation
  • Accessible sitemap
Final thoughts

One look at this list may have you pulling your hair out and reaching to unplug your computer. 

Here’s the thing, you have to start somewhere. Start small, taking workable steps towards accessibility each day. Start with your most popular pages, as well as your main pages. Don’t be afraid to hire outside to get the job done – this can be a huge undertaking.

Keep in mind that this list is not entirely extensive, and even the extensive WAS is just a reference, there is still no accepted law for accessibility requirements.

In the end, ADA compliance is still a bit rough, though we know much more now than we did even a few years ago. Taking immediate steps to increase your accessibility may help you avoid the rampant ADA lawsuits and set yourself up for success when any laws do get enacted.

Website accessibility

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