The Internet was created as a way to connect people. It's the ultimate equalizer: anyone can contribute to the Internet through a variety of ways and it can be used by almost anyone.
Almost… there exists an economic divide as with most things in this world, which is too large a topic to cover here. However, if we, for the purposes of this article, focus on those of us who are lucky enough to have Internet access, there is a significant group of people who get shut out – those with disabilities.
In the real, three-dimensional world, there are laws that require commercial spaces to be accessible by people with disabilities. That doesn’t fully translate to our digital world. And yet, the Internet has become such a major part of our lives, that website accessibility is still not considered by most of us in the commercial spaces online (government websites have Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act that they must adhere to).
Website accessibility & why it's important
Enacted in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law “that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.” It’s the main reason that there are elevators, signs and number pads with braille, ADA parking, and wheelchair access, to name a few benefits. The ADA ensures that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else.
Unfortunately, the ADA has never been updated to account for the Internet. Despite this, there are many individuals, agencies, and organizations that specialize in website accessibility.
Website accessibility is simply ensuring that online content can be consumed by people with disabilities. Sadly, most websites fail miserably when it comes to accessibility. As of this writing, that includes this website too.
Yes, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) has been around since 1999 and has been adopted by the US federal government, as well as the European Union and other nations. It’s the global standard. But as things stand, WCAG are just guidelines – there is zero legal protection for those with disabilities.
But as companies move more toward providing so much information online, website accessibility, despite little or no official regulation, can’t be overlooked or ignored by commercial businesses any longer. This becomes clearer when you consider that web accessibility lawsuits are on the rise1.
Simply put, if your website is not accessible, you’re denying equal access to your website.
Pizza and accessibility
The latest legal battle that has gotten the attention of a lot of people inside and outside the web development industry is that between Guillermo Robles and Domino’s Pizza. Robles is blind and is suing Domino’s over their website and mobile apps being inaccessible to screen readers. Specifically, he claims that “as an extension of their brick-and-mortar locations, the apps should be accessible under the ADA following the concept of "public accommodation" — a public space of a business and the services they provide have to be accessible and some digital apps and websites are extensions of that." In short, Robles couldn’t order a pizza because Domino’s website didn’t work with his screen reader software.
Domino’s, as their defense, is claiming that restaurants, banks, retailers, hotels, and the like, are not required to make their web and mobile apps accessible under the ADA.
A federal court in California ruled in favor of Robles. While that was deemed a win in the web accessibility industry, Domino’s appealed to the Supreme Court. If you have even a little bit of understanding of cases taken to the Supreme Court, you’ll know that they don’t hear every case sent their way. On October 7, the Supreme Court decided not to hear the petition from Domino’s Pizza regarding website accessibility. That meant that the decision of the lower court would stand.
All that doesn’t mean Robles has won his lawsuit just yet though. The Supreme Court’s decision simply means that the case is not over. It will go back down to the California Federal District Court where the suit will either continue or be settled. That said, from my reading on the issue, the case is expected to go to trial.
What these legal battles mean
So you’re probably wondering how this all affects you, if at all. While there have been plenty of lawsuits surrounding website accessibility, nothing has been set in terms of nationwide laws or regulation. Yet.
The outcome of these lawsuits, particularly Robles vs Domino’s Pizza, over time could have far-reaching effects for private sector websites and apps. That includes small businesses.
People with disabilities make up a large portion of the population. If a website is difficult to use for individuals with disabilities, 71% will leave the site altogether. So while many won’t sue, they’ll simply choose not to do business with you. That’s a loss in potential customers and potential revenue. Inclusivity aside, you’re leaving money on the table.
And here’s another way to think about it – if you make your website accessible for people with disabilities, you’re making your website easier to use for literally everyone. The fact is, businesses and organizations have a responsibility to ensure that all potential visitors can access their sites and content.
What you can do
The best approach is to make your website accessible from the get-go. Website accessibility is simply good business practice. It’s not going to cost millions as Domino’s might claim. Just like the cost of a website varies wildly, so does making it accessible.
“What if my site was just built a few months ago or isn’t ready for a redesign?” I hear you asking. That’s okay. I’ve got a few options for you to consider!
Option 1: Use a website accessibility tool/widget
Using a third-party website accessibility tool, such as Audioeye, Accessibe, or Userway, you get “instant” accessibility. It’s a matter of installing a script or a widget and when a person using assistive technology visits your site, the third-party tool kicks in. Tools like this help people with no vision, low vision, and those who are bound to a keyboard.
Pros: - It’s affordable. - It’s fast. - It’s relatively easy to add to any site (provided you can easily add scripts/widgets to your site)
Cons: - Doesn’t solve all of accessibility issues and guidelines. - It’s a band-aid approach. - It can impact your site’s overall performance (a slower site in the name of accessibility isn’t a good thing). - It makes your site “more accessible,” not “fully” accessible.
Option 2: Audit and fix your site for accessibility issues
Have your content and code audited specifically for accessibility. This is my recommendation for most sites. A website accessibility audit will find any issues that keep it from being accessible for everyone. There are fully automated, online audits you can run yourself, such as this one provided by Audioeye. These are a good place to start, but they’re limited since there’s no human reviewing your site’s content or code.
Pros: - You get a better sense of where your accessibility issues lie. - You might be able to perform some of the adjustments and fixes yourself without needing to know code or hire a web developer. - If you hire someone to audit your site, you’ll get a really good sense of what your accessibility issues are. And, they may be able to implement the fixes for you.
Cons: - It can be more expensive, particularly if you hire someone to do your audit. - If you use a DIY website service like Squarespace or Wix, you’re limited by what can and can’t be fixed, leaving you open to litigation. - A manual audit is more expensive than an automated one or a widget you simply install on your site.
Option 3: Redesign or recode your website
While your site may not need a full redesign, it might make sense to have your site completely recoded to line up with website accessibility guidelines. This is the most advantageous option, and it’s often done in tandem with having your site audited.
Pros: - Building accessibility into an upcoming redesign or rebuild is the safest and potentially least expensive way since it becomes part of the whole project and not it’s own budget-hogging project. - You somewhat future-proof your site for potential changes in the guidelines or the law. - It can be less expensive than option 2.
Cons: - It can take a long time depending on your site’s size, complexity, CMS, etc. - It is generally the most expensive option (but still less expensive than a legal settlement).
So, what’s your next step toward website accessibility going to be? Hopefully it’s to take one of the above options so you can be ahead of things. The last thing you want is to scramble to get your site up to accessibility par if a lawsuit like Robles vs Domino’s greatly changes things in your state or across the nation. I’m happy to help you determine next steps. And if I can’t help you directly with website accessibility, I can point you in the right direction. Just contact me here to get started.
1 Although the majority of lawsuits in 2018 were filed in just two states, accessibility lawsuits were filed all across the US. In fact, 29% of the companies were based elsewhere, including internationally. More info can be found here.