Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title III and Your Website

UPDATE: Since this article’s publication last year, we’ve seen several important updates pushing website accessibility from a “must have” to a “seriously must have”. Google is (rightfully) advancing accessibility as a necessary step to create a more inclusive world, and their recent update of the official Webmaster Guidelines – always big news in the SEO world – included accessibility as a must for any website for the first time. Companies that haven’t yet updated their website are more and more often facing legal challenges. (A move that is, sadly, sometimes the only way users can ensure that companies meet their ADA requirements – at least until the Department of Justice puts down a final ruling, now postponed to 2018 ).

The good news is that we’re hearing from more and more people asking for an audit and assistance to make sure their website is available to everyone and meets accessibility guidelines. If you’re curious about website accessibility, read on or contact us for more.

Website accessibility means that all users – that is, all potential buyers – can easily and evenly navigate your site. This might seem self-evidently important. In fact, accessibility overlaps with many best practices already in place, like responsive design and search engine optimization, and case studies show that accessible websites see increased audience reach and better search results. Sadly, not all websites are built with equal access in mind. Technical standards are available but not enforced – at least, not yet. A Department of Justice ruling on ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliancy is expected soon and it’s expected to shake up current standards.

Why does Web Accessibility Matter?

When enacted in 1990 internet usage just wasn’t on the radar. But Congress didn’t enforce ADA Title III in 2008 either when website-accessibility was fought for, though they mandated the accessibility of federal government websites. Since then internet use has skyrocketed and ADA requirements remains an open question. Numerous court cases have come up but no circuit court has issued a firm decision, sometimes enforcing accessibility but usually dismissing the claim by declaring a website not a place of public accommodation.

Now that’s likely to change. The DOJ has announced its intention to issue a final ruling – rumor has it this June – and it’s expected they’ll confirm that Title III of the ADA should apply to commercial websites.

What does ADA Accessibility Mean to my Website?

First of all, this is really good news. Not only is full accessibility the right thing to do, but it benefits online companies by opening the available market to all users. (And as the boomer generation ages, accessibility needs are only on the rise.) The extra steps often improve user experience and functionality across the board and heighten website performance. In fact, you’ll see that many ADA website recommendations are already SEO best practice. This is where user use and search engine use overlaps beautifully for a high-functioning, well-organized website.

Corporations and nonprofits alike continue to strive to make websites fully accessible to all people, not only because full accessibility is the right thing to do, but because it will benefit those companies that do business online.” (Minnesota State Bar Association)

That said, it will require some extra attention. This is the best time to ensure your website meets basic ADA requirements; get ahead of your competitors and eliminate the rush in June. Who knows, there might even be an “accessible” tag coming from Google. They haven’t made any comments about the approaching DOJ decision, but like the mobile-friendliness tag it’s the kind of user benefit they like. And if such a tag existed it’d be an important element to your SERP.

How do I prepare my website for ADA Accessibility?

The Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is the technical standard developed through the W3C for content accessibility. Designed to meet the needs of individuals and organizations, it provides helpful testing standards and a larger look at what accessibility means. There are steps you can take today that will significantly improve your website and SEO. To make your website ADA compliant start with…

Page Titles: An SEO best practice, comprehensive and informative page titles tell your user what page they are on. This way users with screen readers can easily navigate around.

Headings: An SEO best practice, organized information under headers and subheaders help users understand where they are on the page and where they’re going.

Alt Text: An SEO best practice, alt text informs users and search engines what the image is about. Accordingly, we want to label the image with specific and helpful information, the same way you would briefly describe the photo and its context to a person next to you.

Video Transcript: An SEO best practice, captioning and transcripts of videos are helpful for users who can’t hear or users who can’t play a video right now but still want to consume your content. There are transcription services available online or uploaders can write their own version; just make sure that all corresponding elements are noted, like who is speaking at what time. Transcription helps search engines understand your videos better too.

Contrast Ratio: Some users cannot read text if there is not a sufficient contrast between text and background, like a light grey on white. Others need high contrast or low luminance. Now don’t worry about changing your design: web browsers allow people to adjust the text and background colors as they need. This step is just confirming the website has a minimum contrast by default ( 4.5:1 is the standard ratio) so that the page is readable however adjusted.

Resize Text: Many users need to adjust text to a larger size. Unfortunately some pages aren’t designed properly and columns of text will end up overlapping or dropping off, making it impossible to read. You’ve likely had to scroll horizontally to read through a paragraph and know how frustrating that can be. All this test requires is that you increase text size and make sure copy, images, and buttons are still visible and usable.

Keyboard Access: Many people use a keyboard to navigate the entire website instead of their mouse. Here you want to ensure a user can tab to all elements (like the next field in a form, or the submit button), in a sensible left-to-right top-to-bottom sequence and that they do not need to use their mouse to perform any important function. This is an upgrade that appeals to users of all abilities.

For more about each recommendation summarized above, check out W3C’s “Easy Checks – A First Review of Web Accessibility.”

Accessibility is essential for developers and organizations that want to create high quality websites and web tools, and not exclude people from using their products and services.” (W3C)

Full compliance with WCAG 2.0 requires work and testing by a knowledgeable web design and SEO team. It is an investment that pays dividends. It will open your website and potential client base to all users, improve your website’s functionality, and improve your website’s standing for search engines. Whatever the DOJ decides next month is the right decision, and if decided now could save you a lot of effort and penalization in the future. For further questions about your website and ADA compliance, please reach out to us.

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