What is website accessibility?
Simply put, web accessibility means that websites are developed in such a way that people with disabilities can use them. The more exact language used to set the standards for web accessibility further defines accessibility as the ability to perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web. There is no legal standard for website accessibility compliance, so we’ll use the more recent court rulings as our guideline.
Does your website need to be accessible and ADA Compliant? The short answer is most likely yes, but let’s work through how we come to this decision.
ADA and Website Compliance
First, we’re only going to focus on the laws and regulations that apply to private businesses. When we talk about ADA compliance and accessibility for private business websites, we are primarily referring to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act regulations.
Title III prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodations (businesses that are generally open to the public and that fall into one of 12 categories listed in the ADA, such as restaurants, movie theaters, schools, day care facilities, recreation facilities, and doctors’ offices) and requires newly constructed or altered places of public accommodation—as well as commercial facilities (privately owned, nonresidential facilities such as factories, warehouses, or office buildings)—to comply with the ADA Standards. (ada.gov)
You might notice that there is nothing in that statement that refers to websites or online accommodations. In large part, that’s because the current ADA regulations became law in 1990, well before internet use was so ingrained in our daily lives. That hasn’t stopped lawyers from suing businesses claiming their websites are in violation of ADA regulations. In most cases, the courts have sided with the plaintiffs and ruled that websites are a place of public accommodation, and thus, ADA regulations apply.
What does this mean for business owners?
We’ve seen an uptick in ADA compliance lawsuits focused on website accessibility. While many of these might be viewed as “money grabs” by the plaintiffs and their attorneys, the courts are often ruling in favor of the plaintiff and requiring websites meet a minimum standard of compliance. So, you can wait until you are the target of a class-action website accessibility lawsuit and spend thousands of dollars on attorney fees, or you can act now to minimize or eliminate your risk exposure.
What might that look like? We’ll break it down by separating private business into 2 broad categories; places of “public accommodation” versus those not considered as such. First, determine which of these groups you fall into.
Places of Public Accommodations
If you operate a private business that falls into one of the 12 categories outlined below, then your website and mobile apps should be fully accessible by those with disabilities. As outlined in the ADA, these 12 categories of private business are considered places of “public accommodation” and are required to accommodate persons with disabilities:
- (A) an inn, hotel, motel, or other place of lodging, except for an establishment located within a building that contains not more than five rooms for rent or hire and that is actually occupied by the proprietor of such establishment as the residence of such proprietor;
- (B) a restaurant, bar, or other establishment serving food or drink;
- (C) a motion picture house, theater, concert hall, stadium, or other place of exhibition entertainment;
- (D) an auditorium, convention center, lecture hall, or other place of public gathering;
- (E) a bakery, grocery store, clothing store, hardware store, shopping center, or other sales or rental establishment;
- (F) a laundromat, dry-cleaner, bank, barber shop, beauty shop, travel service, shoe repair service, funeral parlor, gas station, office of an accountant or lawyer, pharmacy, insurance office, professional office of a health care provider, hospital, or other service establishment;
- (G) a terminal, depot, or other station used for specified public transportation;
- (H) a museum, library, gallery, or other place of public display or collection;
- (I) a park, zoo, amusement park, or other place of recreation;
- (J) a nursery, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate private school, or other place of education;
- (K) a day care center, senior citizen center, homeless shelter, food bank, adoption agency, or other social service center establishment; and
- (L) a gymnasium, health spa, bowling alley, golf course, or other place of exercise or recreation.
Simply put, if you fall into one of the groups above, your website should be fully compliant. We’re not lawyers, but the case law for these types of businesses has seen mixed results. Whenever possible, we recommend you takes steps to make your website fully accessible and ADA compliant. We’ll outline what that means below.
Other Private Businesses
What if your business isn’t a place of “public accommodation”? What that means in terms of accessibility is that you fall into a grey area. In the U.S., you can still be the target of a class action lawsuit if your site is not accessible. In other countries, you might soon or already be breaking accessibility laws. Can you afford to take the risk? Are you prepared to hire an attorney to fight this type of lawsuit? Can you afford to lose this kind of lawsuit? These court cases also have mixed results in the U.S. To avoid the headache and hassle, we recommend everyone take steps to minimize their risk exposure and do what you can to accommodate visitors with disabilities.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
The World Wide Web Consortium(W3C) has been around since 1994 and has set the international standards for the web and its various technologies (e.g., HTML, css, DOM, etc). In the late 90s, the W3C developed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) with the intention of creating a set of guidelines for web accessibility. The most recent version, WCAG 2.1 contains the latest guidelines, but many court cases have ruled that WCAG 2.0 Level AA is the minimum standard for web accessibility compliance. At the global level, some countries are also considering WCAG 2.0, Level AA as the minimum standard for legal compliance.
If you operate a business that falls into a place of “public accommodation”, then we highly recommend a full site audit that identifies any accessibility issues and correction of all issues to gain WCAG 2.1 at Level AA compliance.
For other private business that fall outside of the “public accessibility” definition, there are a few alternatives. For some companies, a site accessibility audit and self-remediation of any issues is also an option. The challenge with this approach is that the regulations and guidelines are in flux, thus this is not a fix it and forget it issue. You will need to perform regular check-ups and updates to stay on top of the changing accessibility guidelines.
For many businesses, an audit, remediation, and accessibility maintenance might be cost prohibitive. For cases like this, we recommend accessiBe. accessiBe enhances your website accessibility without modifying the underlying website code. Instead, you install a small script that incorporates the accessiBe widget on your site. This widget gives the user a website adjustment tool that allows them to make accessibility adjustments to the site based on their individual disabilities or preferences. We like this solution for many businesses, as it puts the compliance burden on accessiBe, which is in-tune with the latest laws, regulations, and guidelines in website accessibility compliance.
Whether you operate a small or large business, we recommend you take immediate steps to make your website more accessible to those with disabilities. If you have the resources, a full site audit and issue remediation should be a top priority. For other business and those who are currently taking steps to resolve web accessibility short-comings, we recommend accessiBe to support your online visitors and reduce your risk of defending a class-action lawsuit.