ADA Compliance for Websites: What Business Owners Need to Know
When the ADA went into effect, the world's first websites were still at least a year away. No one was thinking about how an online buying experience might work for a visually impaired shopper. Now, three decades later, much has changed.
If you are thinking of opening a bakery on Main Street, you probably already know that your shop will need to be accessible to all of your customers, including those with limited mobility. If the exterior features stairs leading to the front door, you (or the building owner, if you’re leasing space) will need to provide a ramp. There will be some special requirements for the restroom, too.
Most of us have at least a vague awareness of these physical accessibility requirement thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This federal civil rights law was passed by Congress in 1990 and covers employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, and telecommunications for the deaf.
Today, as a culture, we have developed a greater sensitivity and understanding of diversity in all its forms. Back when I first started my career in web development, it was all about the “WOW” factor and making sure each site had sizzling design. Remember all of those splash pages where you had to search frantically for a “skip” button vs. sitting through some flashy animation? These days, we have a much deeper understanding of how people navigate websites and, just as importantly, how to build websites that are accessible to everyone. It’s a little easier to refrain from building a navigation that’s five levels deep when you remember that a site visitor with limited manual dexterity will have a hard time drilling down through your complex site structure.
“The one argument for accessibility that doesn’t get made nearly often enough is how extraordinarily better it makes some people’s lives. How many opportunities do we have to dramatically improve people’s lives just by doing our job a little better?” ― Steve Krug
Accessibility: The Right Thing to Do
I’d like to think that most companies/organizations will be mindful of accessibility guidelines whether or not they are mandated by law, but it’s also important to know that the laws are catching up with technology, slowly but surely. There are, indeed, ADA guidelines for websites. Not complying with these guidelines can absolutely leave site owners vulnerable to lawsuits. The original ADA legislation does not mention specific web accessibility standards. The Department of Justice, however, has indicated that under Title III of the ADA, businesses must either ensure that their websites are accessible, or provide “an accessible alternative.”
As part of your accessibility compliance efforts, it’s important to be aware that some of your site visitors may be using various accessibility tools. For example, a visually impaired site visitor may use a screen reader when visiting your site. The screen reader tool reads the content page aloud. (Note: your site needs to be set up correctly in order for the screen reader to do its job effectively.) Another visitor might use a special mouse that enhances his dexterity in clicking and scrolling. Other tools and add-ins enlarge the content on the page. The W3C WAI offers a great overview of how people with disabilities navigate websites.
Disabled visitors are doing all they can to reach you. It’s your responsibility to remove any barriers that might impede them. Otherwise, you are alienating approximately 19% of the population.
How Does My Website Stack Up?
When it comes to having a fully accessible website, there is a lot to know. Choosing a knowledgeable technology partner is critical.
Not surprisingly, ADA compliance can be a bit complex. There are three levels of compliance: A, AA, and AAA. Level A requires (somewhat) minimal effort (for example, making sure that screen readers work well on your site) but does not result in full compliance. It’s kind of like washing your clothes but not putting them away. The DOJ definitely wants businesses doing more than the minimum when it comes to providing accessibility. Level AA is a bit more stringent while still allowing for some creativity in the website’s design. Level AAA, not surprisingly, is the most complex and most restrictive, with the payoff being full accessibility. Many businesses strive to conform to Level AA (and may even include some of the Level AAA requirements for good measure). Government entities, on the other hand, may be required to aim for Level AAA conformance. The WCAG document (issued by the W3C WAI) does not recommend that Level AAA conformance be required as a general policy for all sites because it is not possible to satisfy all Level AAA criteria for some content. This site gives a great use case example of the difference between Level A and Level AAA.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that having a great designer is key to having an accessible website. In addition to having team members who are skilled in ADA compliance, we are fortunate to have a UI/UX expert on staff at Fyin.com. You can probably guess that it’s important to have good visual contrast between text and background, but what colors work best? Just how much contrast is enough? That’s where a UI/UX expert comes in.
If you're scratching your head over accessibility, you're not alone. The good news is that firms like Fyin.com are available to help you. We have assessment tools to help you understand where you stand with ADA compliance. These reports can look daunting at first, but again, a skilled partner can help take care of (and prioritize) the needed changes for you.
Is your site ADA compliant? Contact Fyin.com and we'll help you make sure that you are ready and able to welcome ALL of your existing and potential customers.