If you manage your company’s website and are staying aware of current trends, you’ve likely heard about the ADA, accessibility, and the threat of lawsuits for having a website that isn’t accessible. This is a complex topic, and it can seem pretty scary. There’s a lot of jargon, both technical and legal, that make this feel, well, inaccessible.
While making the web accessible for all has been on the minds of developers and UX professionals for many years, it’s only been in the last few that the topic has gone mainstream.We want to provide an approachable (read: no jargon) overview of the topic to help you understand the importance of accessibility to your site.
A Quickly Shifting Legal Climate
It’s not an overstatement to say that both the legal and technical aspects of web accessibility are in a state of near-constant flux.
Case in point: just as the team at Lightburn started developing this series in early August, Domino’s Pizza asked the Supreme Court to rule once and for all if the ADA applies to websites or not. The pizza chain is looking to reverse the January decision of the Ninth Court of Appeals, which sided with a blind customer who sued for lack of access on their mobile app.
How did a company known for the 30 Minutes or It's Free guarantee and arguably one of the worst mascots in advertising history end up petitioning the Supreme Court to make a decision that could affect countless users with disabilities? For the answer, we'll have to go back a couple decades.
A Brief History of the ADA and the Web
You’re probably familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (more widely known as the ADA) in the context of physical accommodations, such as wheelchair ramps or accessible parking spaces. When the ADA was originally enacted, lawmakers didn’t take the internet into account. That’s because the internet didn’t exactly exist, at least not in any way we recognize today. (As it happens, the ADA and the World Wide Web were both born in 1990.)
Then in 2010, the Department of Justice announced that it intended to update the law to better reflect the critical role the internet now had in folks’ lives. Straight from its notice on the topic, the DoJ’s intention was to:
“Establish requirements for making the goods, services, facilities, privileges, accommodations, or advantages offered by public accommodations via the Internet, specifically at sites on the World Wide Web (Web), accessible to individuals with disabilities.”
Unfortunately, the ADA never got that update. In fact, in late 2017, the Department of Justice decided to pause its efforts to better clarify the language around web standards. We’re now operating in a gray area in which ongoing court decisions, instead of legal regulations, are the only way to gauge legality. This state of affairs hurts both businesses and the community of people with disabilities as a whole.
It also means that, technically, there is no such thing as ADA compliance because the language of the law is so vague. And with a vague law comes the increased possibility for lawsuits. There’s been a steep uptick in ADA-related lawsuits in recent years. Usablenet reported a 181-percent increase in ADA-related suits from 2017 to 2018.
In lieu of clear regulations, the industry and disability experts stepped up and have sought to self-regulate. The official-unofficial standard has become the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG, which has been sited by multiple court rulings, such as this 2017 Federal Court ruling, as the standard for web accessibility.
WCAG: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
Ok, so now you know a bit about the legal landscape. Next it’s important to understand just what standards WCAG has set. In general, web accessibility can be broken down into four categories, known as The Principles of Accessibility:
This means users can identify elements of the interface and content through the use of their senses. For many users, this means visually, but for others it can also be through touch or sound.
Example: If there’s not enough color contrast between text and background, a low-vision user cannot perceive written content on a webpage.
This means the user can interact with site elements such as buttons and navigation. For some users this means seeing an element and then tapping or clicking on the control. Other users may rely on voice commands or keyboard-only controls.
Example: If clicking on a navigation element reveals a submenu, but does not have an equivalent keyboard focus, a keyboard user cannot access those menu items.
When technology is understandable, it follows predictable patterns and is consistent in its design patterns. This is arguably the element that reduces access for the most broad set of users, regardless of any impairments.
Example: If the navigation of a site changes from page to page, a user cannot predict the pattern and will not be able to effectively navigate the site.
Robust websites are designed to operate across all appropriate technologies. Again, this is an element of accessibility that can help (or hurt) all users.
Example: A video that relies on an outdated or non-secure plug-in cannot be consumed properly, and therefore would not be considered robust.
If these four principles seem obvious to you, good! They’re fairly straightforward, and hopefully you’re already thinking of them from the perspective of a typical desktop or mobile user. It’s when accessibility tools, such as screen readers, come into play that these seemingly apparent objectives start falling apart on a lot of sites.
A few years ago, many of our marketing clients saw ADA considerations as just another line item that could be cut if the budget was tight. Now they forward us memos from their industry organizations urging them to do an ADA audit to get ahead of a possible lawsuit. As a result, we no longer see accessibility as a “nice-to-have” or a project requirement that a client must explicitly request. Accessibility is now baked in from the start.
The bad news? Almost every site has something to be corrected, and depending on the age of your site, there may be very many somethings to address. Some sites may require a full redesign to combat low-contrast text or convoluted navigation. Others need some behind-the-scenes code adjustments to allow keyboard focus to behave properly.
The good news? If we plan for it at the beginning of a project, it doesn’t have to take extra time to build with accessibility in mind.
Note: Lightburn is a digital marketing agency, not a law firm. We did not consult a lawyer when writing this series, and it should not be taken as legal advice. It is our hope that you’ll never be faced with a lawsuit, but if you are or have other legal concerns, you should speak with a lawyer.