Author’s note: I’m a writer, not an attorney. Therefore, this article is not legal advice. If you need legal advice, you should speak with a lawyer. I wrote this article solely to open a dialogue with the digital marketing community about the issue of website accessibility.
Early this year, I was surprised to hear that a colleague of mine had been threatened with a lawsuit for having a website that was allegedly not ADA compliant. The lawsuit alleged that the website was not fully accessible to disabled users and the law firm that filed the suit would be willing to settle the matter for a small fee.
This particular lawsuit amounted to nothing more than a shakedown for cash, as the current laws would make it difficult to win the suit in court (more about this later) but it prompted me to dive deeper into the issue of ADA compliance. Through my research, I discovered there are some new laws on the horizon that could make ADA compliance mandatory, which means web designers and digital marketers need to know how to prepare.
Before we look at the guidelines for accessibility compliance, we need to look at the history of the ADA to understand the context of the law.
What Is ADA Compliance?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (also known as ADA) is a comprehensive civil rights law that was enacted to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination.
The law has a wide scope. It applies to:
- State and local government.
- Public and private spaces.
- Building codes.
The ADA is the reason we have things like disabled parking requirements, service counter height requirements, and wheelchair ramp mandates in building codes.
Title III of the ADA mandates that all 'places of public accommodation' (all business open to the public) are legally required to remove any 'access barriers' that would hinder a disabled person’s access to that business’s goods or services.
When the ADA was enacted in 1990 (while the internet was still in its infancy), 'access barriers' was widely understood to mean literal barriers, like stairs that would hinder a customer in a wheelchair from accessing a business, for example.
But then in 2010, the US Department of Justice issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking indicating that they intended to amend the language in Title III of the ADA to ensure it would also apply to website accessibility.
The announcement stated the DOJ’s intention to:
“Establish requirements for making the goods, services, facilities, privileges, accommodations, or advantages offered by public accommodations via the Internet, specifically at sites on the World Wide Web (Web), accessible to individuals with disabilities.”
Since 2010, various courts have heard parts of the DOJ’s argument. The results have been mixed.
Some courts have ruled that only websites with goods or services tied to a physical location, like a retailer that also sells its products in an online store, are considered “places of public accommodation” and would, therefore, be covered by the ADA.
However, other courts have more broadly argued that any website offering goods or services online should be considered 'places of public accommodation', even if they don’t have a physical store presence. A final ruling is expected to be announced sometime in 2018. This will set the official standard for website accessibility for businesses.
This set of guidelines will outline precisely which websites will be eligible, and what those website owners will need to do in order to be ADA compliant.
W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
In an August 2016 case involving the University of California Berkeley, the DOJ ruled that the public university was in violation of ADA Title II (similar to Title III but it instead applies to government organizations) because their YouTube channel’s videos didn’t include captions for hearing impaired visitors. The DOJ found this to violate the ADA as deaf users did not have equal access to the online content.
So, where did the DOJ point UC Berkeley for guidance?
The World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0 AA).
The Department of Justice ruled that UC Berkeley should use the WCAG as their guidelines for accessibility, leading many to believe that the upcoming 2018 ruling may use the same set of standards as the benchmark.
What Is WCAG?
The WCAG is a set of accessibility standards created by the World Wide Web Consortium in partnership with various other groups to help guide web content producers in making their work more accessible to all, including users with disabilities.
WCAG 2.0 is the technical standard featuring 12 guidelines under four categories:
Each of the 12 guidelines contains testable 'success criteria' which can be used to measure the usability of your website.
The official WCAG documentation contains an exhaustive list of the guidelines that can be found here, but I’ve broken out the main points below as a quick reference to highlight each section and its main topics.
WCAG Cheat Sheet
1. Perceivable Category
This section helps content producers ensure their media is usable by all. The category gives recommendations on how to present content in alternative forms (like adding captions to videos) without losing the meaning or coherence of said content (if a user increases the font size on the page, does the page structure stay intact?).
This section also gives recommendations on using contrast in images and text to ensure content is readable.
Additionally, every image should contain a caption and alt text – unless those images are purely for decoration or spacing (in which case they should be implemented so that they can be ignored by assistive technology).
As the WCAG 2.0 perceivable guidelines state:
- Guideline 1.1 Text Alternatives: Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols or simpler language.
- Guideline 1.2 Time-based Media: Provide alternatives for time-based media.
- Guideline 1.3 Adaptable: Create content that can be presented in different ways (for example simpler layout) without losing information or structure.
- Guideline 1.4 Distinguishable: Make it easier for users to see and hear content including separating foreground from background.
2. Operable Category
This category gives guidelines to ensure the functionality of your website does not create problems for users. This category includes things like:
- Having a website that can be navigated with a keyboard.
- Making sure moving sections can be paused if a user needs more time.
- Ensuring pages and sections are clearly labeled so users can decipher where on the website they are.
As the WCAG 2.0 operable guidelines state:
- Guideline 2.1 Keyboard Accessible: Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
- Guideline 2.2 Enough Time: Provide users enough time to read and use content.
- Guideline 2.3 Seizures: Don’t design content in a way that is known to cause seizures.
- Guideline 2.4 Navigable: Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are.
3. Understandable Category
This category is designed to ensure that web pages feature logical functionality and language. This section of guidelines mandates that:
- The language of the page should be programmatically identifiable.
- Navigation is consistent across the website.
- Areas of the website that require user input (like contact forms) have ample instructions included.
As the WCAG 2.0 understandable guidelines state:
- Guideline 3.1 Readable: Make text content readable and understandable.
- Guideline 3.2 Predictable: Make Web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.
- Guideline 3.3 Input Assistance: Help users avoid and correct mistakes.
4. Robust Category
This is the smallest section of the guideline, but also the most technical. This section gives guidelines to ensure that a website’s code is 'robust' enough to help assistive readers understand the code. The basic idea is that your code needs to follow current web standards.
Use standard HTML tags that are universally recognized by browsers. Also, your code should properly validate (all tags that open should be closed) to ensure assistive technologies can properly understand and render the content.
As the WCAG 2.0 robust guidelines state:
- Guideline 4.1 Compatible: Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.
Why SEOs Should Care About Web Accessibility
SEO professionals should be especially interested in web accessibility since there are many areas where the WCAG guidelines and SEO best practices align. In general, ADA compliance and SEO exist harmoniously, as both aim to improve the functionality and usability of web pages.
For example, SEO best practices and WCAG guidelines both dictate that HTML code should validate, that images should use alt text, and that website navigation should be intuitive and usable. However, there are certain areas of SEO that could conflict with accessibility guidelines, primarily in scenarios where keyword optimization is concerned.
When adding alt text to an image, most SEOs want to include language descriptive of the image in relation to their content and keywords, which may lead to alt text that is not ideal for assistive reading devices. SEOs need to think about using descriptive needs for assistive readers, rather than keywords.
Because of this, it is the responsibility of SEOs to think about accessibility when working on website optimization. There are ways to achieve both search engine optimization and accessibility optimization; it just requires consideration of all users (instead of optimizing for Google at the expense of inclusivity).
The Department of Justice has made it clear that these legal requirements are on the horizon. Optimizing websites for accessibility and ADA compliance will serve to create better content that is usable by more people, which makes the internet a better place for all.
Some accessibility guidelines require extra technical work, but overall the guidelines align with web design best practices: make your content available in different forms for different devices and audiences, make your website logical and easy to use, and make your website technically sound.