Website Accessibility: Is Your Business at Risk?

You pull up a website and suddenly your mouse stops moving and you can’t navigate the page. You start reading content, and it’s riddled with words such as “unknown,” “blank” and “not available.” How long would you stay on this website? How frustrated, annoyed or angry would you be? What if you were trying to pay a bill, signing up for a college class, buying a last-minute gift or trying to apply for a job?  What if there was no practical alternative other than using this website?

This is exactly what people with disabilities experience daily when using many websites, even websites of large companies and well-known universities. When websites aren’t designed with disabled users in mind, websites prevent users from accomplishing necessary, everyday tasks. Voice readers for blind users are forced to say “unknown” or “blank” when hitting elements of sites not properly designed; videos that rely on sound alone without accompanying text provide deaf users with only partial understanding. Many times, online tasks that the non-disabled population take for granted are impossible for disabled users to accomplish due to lack of website accessibility.

How Does Website Accessibility Affect My Business?

By ignoring website accessibility, not only are you failing your civic responsibility, but you’re missing out on new customers. The 2010 census reports 19% of the US population, approximately 56.7 million people, reported a disability. And, the report titled “Americans with Disabilities: 2010,” notes the percentage of people with severe disabilities is increasing. This group has buying power and brand loyalty and businesses would be wise to pay attention.

In June 2016, The Wall Street Journal noted shoppers reported buying 51% of their total purchases online. In a November 2016 article, Fortune magazine noted 50% of e-commerce searches start on Amazon. Both stats indicate a seismic shift in consumer buying habits. People are increasingly comfortable “doing life” online, and websites need to be ready.

Website Accessibility: Current Landscape

My earlier blog post offered an overview of ADA website compliance and how it affects websites. The Department of Justice was supposed to provide guidelines in 2016 for companies, but they’ve pushed that date to 2018. Although technically only federal agencies fall under the current Section 508 legislation, more and more businesses are being called to account by plaintiffs claiming websites are inaccessible and therefore discriminate against the disabled.

In November 2016, The Wall Street Journal reported 240 business have been sued over website accessibility since 2015. Lawsuits have involved H&R Block, JC Penney, Anthropologie, Patagonia and Winn-Dixie. And courts aren’t waiting on the Department of Justice guidelines before handing down their rulings. A March 2016 Forbes article noted a judge ruled in favor of a blind plaintiff, awarding $4,000 plus attorney fees in a case against Colorado Bag’n Baggage for complaints against the website. In most cases, businesses are settling out of court.

While those being sued for inaccessible websites are most often retailers, they’re not alone. Other industries facing legal proceedings include the hospitality industry, restaurants and entertainment companies. Schools and universities aren’t exempt either; according to legalnewsline.com, the Office of Civil Rights has more than 350 open investigations into schools underway. In early 2016, Federal Magistrate Judge Katherine A. Robertson in the District of Massachusetts decided a lawsuit against Harvard University and MIT (regarding the lack of captioning in online course videos) will proceed to discovery. The two universities had petitioned for a dismissal or delay.

If you haven’t paid attention to the accessibility of your website, it’s time to do so before the lawyers do. Dealing with a lawsuit drains energy, time and finances from what you should be focused on–excellence in your business and customer service.

What You Can Do:

1. Start with an Assessment.

Begin by getting an assessment of the accessibility of your website. The evaluation can be handled by an in-house team member or an outside company, such as EVG. No matter who you use, they should understand the  WCAG 2.0 guidelines, the current, widely accepted principles for ensuring accessibility of websites. The assessment should use best practices to determine what is accessible, what your site lacks and specific and strategic recommendations for moving forward. The assessor should use the Title II Checklist (Website Accessibility), published by the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, to review your websites. The checklist includes 11 yes/no questions to evaluate a website’s level of accessibility. Fifteen additional questions determine whether your website’s accessibility policy and procedures are in place and up to date.

The assessor should also use the HTML 508 Checklist, published by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, to review 67 criteria, answerable by yes or no questions, to evaluate your website’s level of accessibility. This is a more detailed assessment and dives deeper into the technical aspects of the website.

Finally, in addition to evaluating the website based on these two checklists, the assessor should also use a full range of adaptive technology to test the experience of using the website via keyboard navigation, screen readers, text-to-speech technology and text only versions.

You should receive a robust report that provides you with education on the issues at hand, a percentage of pass/fail in each major category according to the checklists and specific tactical items you can begin improving immediately if you so choose.

2. Develop a Project Plan.

Once you have your assessment in hand, it’s important for you to develop a plan to address your website’s accessibility issues. The plan should focus on which elements need immediate attention, the cost for these changes and the timing and resources necessary to enact the changes. Focus on the critical issues first, ones which affect the largest number of users. You can also start with easy wins. What are the items you can change quickly and inexpensively in order to get momentum going on the project?

After you have a clear plan about what needs to be done, how much it will cost and a timeline (even if it’s spread out over several years), work with your executive team to get buy-in. This isn’t a “one and done” project, and it will require long-term and ongoing support.

3. Execute Your Plan.

Unless your website was designed and built with WCAG 2.0 guidelines in place, you’re going to need resources from a number of areas to successfully implement a fully accessible website. That means you’ll need to communicate clearly and share the vision with all of your employees, programmers, marketing people, administrative staff and C-level officers so everyone is on the same page. You’ll find you need to continually educate your team and update your project plan as time goes on. Staying abreast of the latest news in digital accessibility will help you adjust and adapt.

If you’re ready to start thinking about your website’s accessibility before your legal team insists you must, email me at [email protected].

Note: We at EnVeritas Group are not attorneys. This information should not be considered legal advice. We encourage everyone to read the Americans with Disabilities Act, by visiting https://www.ada.gov and to review Section 508.

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