Most small business owners have at least a passing familiarity with the Americans With Disabilities Act (or “ADA”), a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. The ADA is about more than service dogs and curb cuts, though. Nearly every business now has a digital presence. An increasing number of plaintiffs are filing claims for damages against businesses, alleging that their websites aren’t accessible to all. If you haven’t started thinking about website compliance, don’t wait for a demand letter; take your first steps at making your digital presence compliant with the ADA.
What does the ADA require?
Sometimes it seems like nothing in the law is simple and that’s certainly the case with website compliance: the ADA requires it but doesn’t tell business owners exactly how to comply. If you aren’t particularly tech-savvy or don’t have much of a background in disability-related access, the simple mission – to make your website accessible to all – can seem overwhelming. Enter the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (or WCAG), a set of protocols designed to guide business owners to improve accessibility.
Don’t despair when you first look at the WCAG (as of this writing, the latest version is WCAG 2.1). It’s a dense document, with lots of technical terms. It’s also written in “layers” – going from the general (four overall principles of accessibility) to the more concrete (a set of guidelines under each principle, with each guideline broken down even further).
My suggestion: before you read through the entire WCAG, look at its four basic principles to get an overall sense of the kinds of changes that may be required. Let’s start with the first guideline, perceivability – making certain that each website visitor can access the content of your website. Think of someone who is blind or has a visual impairment, who uses a screen reader that can’t process photos. Or someone with a hearing impairment, who can’t hear verbal instructions that accompany a video.
The second requirement is that your website be operable. Can every visitor use your website given its current configuration? Disabled people use adaptive devices that mimic keyboards, for example, so your website content should be operable using a keyboard or a keyboard interface. Another aspect of operability is the way your website allows users to navigate. Putting headers on each page that explain the subject of the page can help with navigation. A clear site map in text or with alt text helps the user orient themselves and is an easy way for all users to switch from section to section.
No doubt you believe your website is understandable but is it comprehensible to all visitors? Making your website understandable can encompass such diverse things as adapting the reading level of the text, defining unusual or proprietary terms, maintaining overall consistency of terms, and pointing out potential user errors so that they can be corrected.
The last requirement is that your website be robust. This characteristic refers to the website’s ability to be used successfully by a variety of users, including users of various types of equipment, such as assistive equipment.
Web Accessibility Suggestions
The courts take a flexible approach to web accessibility and the WCAG’s criteria are only suggestions, not mandatory steps you must put into place immediately. To get you started, we’ve assembled a list of compliance steps, beginning with the most do-able. Decide which steps are the easiest and most cost-effective, then tackle those changes first. Over time, keep chipping away at the rest of the list or review the WCAG for more ideas. You can do additional research on Google or if you feel this is too complex a job for you, given your particular website and/or tech familiarity, you can hire web site compliance consultants to help.
Web Accessibility Checklist:
Add a text equivalent for every image on your site. Text equivalents are sometimes called “Alt Text” because they are commonly added with the HTML “<Alt>” tag. A text equivalent should be descriptive and specific. Use identifying information, such as “Shepherd Simon Tibble, shearing a Wensleydale sheep” or “Bolts of Liberty of London floral cotton fabric displayed on shelf.” Vague alt-text (“Beads” or “Woman pointing to basket”) doesn’t cut it.
Is your font large and easy to read? Changing fonts is a very easy way to make your website more accessible to those with vision issues. Your website should be accessible if the user changes the size of the text. Test your website in several browsers by clicking on “View” and enlarging and/or decreasing the size of the text. Does the website still make sense? Is it still fully accessible?
Check the labels your website uses for its links. Don’t rely on link labels like “Read more” or “Click here.” Better to show the reader where the link takes you (“Craft Yarn Council Sizing Chart”) so that the user can decide if it’s worth the trip. While you’re at it, make sure all underlined text is a link (or remove the underlining).
Some websites have flashing lights or moving objects. If possible, eliminate flashing lights that may trigger seizures in some users. If you have moving objects, include a way to pause or stop the motion.
Don’t rely on color contrast to distinguish options on the site (e.g., “click on the yellow button to go back”). Likewise, don’t rely on images to distinguish options on the site. That cute little printer icon to click on isn’t legible to a screen-reader; make sure it has alt-text or better yet, change the icon to text.
Make sure you use a strong contrast ratio between the color of text and the background (nothing worse than pale gray text on a just-slightly-darker gray background). Google to find free contrast checkers (like WAVE) that will allow you to test your combination against ADA standards and tweak as necessary
Consider whether pop-ups are worth it. A pop-up may end up covering the entire screen, making it impossible for a user to exit it and go on with what they were doing. If you keep pop-ups, they should be closable with the ESC key and return the user to exactly where they were before the pop-up popped.
Think about document delivery. Some screen-readers don’t read PDF format documents. Offer an alternative HTML or Rich Text Format document so the user can download their preferred format.
Take a look at your website for broken links and error pages and fix them. Even a dropped bracket at the end of an html phrase can throw a user off.
If your website uses background audio – say, music playing in the background while someone speaks – provide options for turning off the background music, remove background music entirely, or make sure that background audio is at least 20 decibels quieter than the speech.
Add captioning to all videos or other audio components. If that isn’t feasible, offer a transcript for download.
Remember that your website must perform on different platforms and using different default systems. Try using your website on another person’s computer and/or with the default settings on your own computer. Make note of any performance changes.
Website compliance isn’t always easy, but it’s necessary to provide equitable access to all customers. It may also pay dividends in the form of increased sales, as your website’s accessibility results in sales by new users who can now navigate with ease. When everyone is welcomed, more people can discover what your business has to offer.
Carol J. Sulcoski is an attorney by day and a knitting author, designer and dyer by night. Her latest book is “Yarn Substitution Made Easy” (Lark Crafts 2019). She lives outside Philadelphia with her three nearly grown-up children and a fluffy orange cat.