Imagine being blind. Now image that you want to research something online.

You fire up your computer, which has special software enabling it to translate on-screen information into speech, which is output to braille or to audio. You select a website to view.

But once there, you have trouble navigating. There are no headers or other structural elements telling the screen reader to convey the information in an organized way. The website doesn’t work with keyboard shortcuts, and images on the screen lack text alternatives to describe their content.

The site simply is not able to accommodate you and your disability, providing a totally inaccessible webpage.

But should it?

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination in employment, government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation and telecommunications. It outlines rules with regard to an employer’s hiring practices as well as pay, training and privileges, ensuring employers make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities; it outlines rules related to state and local government allowing individuals to benefit from all programs and services such as recreation, voting, town meetings; it ensures public transportation provides vehicles that meet accessibility requirements; it governs public accommodations which include not only restaurants, stores and hotels but also courses and examinations related to licensing and certification; and lastly, it outlines rules related to telecommunication, specifically to telephone and television access.

But it never mentions websites.

Despite this, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has maintained that the law does apply to websites on the basis that a website is a public accommodation as defined in Title III of the act.

Additionally, there have been several lawsuits brought against businesses and organizations whose websites did not provide appropriate access to individuals with disabilities, notably, a case against Harvard for failure to provide closed captioning in the video content of online courses.

But, for the most part, according to the New Hampshire Business Review, the DOJ has allowed many websites to avoid any action against them, instead focusing on websites providing e-commerce (which would be the online equivalent of a retail outlet) or video streaming (which would fall under telecommunications).

But if you thought your informational, text only website was free from regulation, you might want to think again.

On June 13, 2017, a Florida judge issued the first web accessibility trial verdict, citing Winn Dixie for not having a website usable by the blind. Because the website listed store locations, it was argued that the site was a gateway to the physical stores and thus a public accommodation.

Getting more complicated

While websites maintained by the federal government or maintained by organizations who receive federal funds have had to be compliant per Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act since 1998, many businesses are now facing legal action as a result of recent court decisions.

And though your business and website may not fall into the types of business included in the definition of public accommodation, such as movie theaters, schools, recreation facilities and medical practices, it might be best to implement accessibility on your site, despite a recent executive order moving the DOJ’s proposed 2018 regulations for all websites to adopt WCAG  as the standard for accessibility  to an inactive list. According to the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, the lack of clear standards as proposed by the DOJ will leave accessibility to interpretation and will likely contribute to the growing number of lawsuits.

Do it for the SEO

If compliance to laws, fear of a lawsuit, or the simple act of doing the right thing isn’t enough to persuade you to check your website’s accessibility and modify it if necessary, do it for the SEO.

A large part of accessibility involves including “alt” text on images for screen reading devices which can’t “read” images and instead use alternative text to describe image or media content.

Google bots, like screen reading devices, also read the alt text. Thus, including alt tags – and keywords within them – makes a website easier for Google to crawl and index.

How do you become compliant?

A compliant website needs to a address variety of disabilities such as visual impairment, hearing loss and motor impairment using a variety of methods including: coding for screen readers, contrasting colors for the colorblind, closed captioning on audio and video for the deaf or those with hearing loss, and keyboard activated links and buttons for those with fine motor disabilities.

To help ensure your site is compliant, there are a number of checklists and automated compliance checkers available online that you can use. Automated checkers can give you a good sense of your site’s level of compliance, reporting pass/fail results for things like color contrast or alt text on images. However, these checkers can also report some false positives while missing problems only found via manual testing.

We utilize browser-based extensions and developer tools to conduct accessibility audits on websites and to make improvements, as well as visual reviews of layout and code.

Siteimprove is a Chrome extension that allows you to audit any web page against various compliance levels (A, AA, AAA) and to prioritize and address more severe errors over warnings and reviews. It also gives detailed information about how to fix issues that are flagged. 

Regardless of your legal requirements, at minimum, we recommend that your website is accessible ahead of any new regulations, and that you improve SEO, allowing you to better serve all of your website visitors.

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