ADA Compliance in the Digital Space - Is Your Business Ready?

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By the BlackDog Internet Marketing Team

Until recently, the digital frontier had been largely untouched by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Companies knew they had to adhere to certain standards when it came to providing access for those with disabilities in public and private spaces like parking lots, restrooms, etc.; but most didn’t consider their online presence as falling under those mandates. The rules have changed and online content of all kinds is now required to be accessible to all—including those with physical limitations, sensory limitations, and cognitive impairments.

This emergence of digital accessibility means companies around the country are facing new standards and mandates that if ignored, could cost them thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars. Just last year, there were 2,285 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) website lawsuits filed in federal courts across the nation – an increase of 181% from 2017, according to the website accessibility company UsableNet. These lawsuits were initiated by people who claim they were unable to use the business’ website because it was not ADA compliant. Suits were brought against organizations of all sizes and industries, including Winn Dixie, Dominos Pizza, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—and many small, privately owned businesses as well. Although larger corporations may be better equipped to deal with these suits, settlements ranging from $5,000 to upwards of $50,000 could be devastating for many companies.

What is digital accessibility?

Before you can protect your business from an ADA compliance lawsuit, it’s important to understand just what this new accessibility arena encompasses. Here’s a quick explanation:

Digital Accessibility is when anyone, regardless of their cognitive and physical needs, skills and capabilities, can equally perceive, navigate, interact and communicate with content that is provided online or through digital tools.

How do you know if a website is ADA compliant?

Although the term has been buzzing around lately, digital accessibility is brand new ground for most businesses and it’s because of this that many of them are caught off-guard, unaware that they aren’t compliant. The novelty of this set of ADA mandates also poses a challenge for companies because the guidelines may not be as obvious as necessary. But help is available. And although it may take some time and money to update websites and other digital content, it’s crucial that businesses do what it takes to become accessible online.

Take a look:

Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

WCAG is a set of guidelines that provides clear direction and recommendations for making web content more accessible to all. While WCAG is a lengthy document, it offers a breakdown of four important principles using the acronym POUR to assist businesses in creating accessible content:

  • Perceivable: When content is perceivable, it means that users can easily identify content and interface elements by means of their senses. For example, for some, this means they can perceive content visually, while others can only do so via sound or touch.
  • Operable: In order for a website or other digital tool to be operable, the user must be able to successfully use controls, buttons, navigation and other interactive elements. For some people, this means they can navigate by swiping, clicking or tapping; others may need to use voice controls or a special computer keyboard.
  • Understandable: Information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable so that users comprehend the content and learn and remember how to use the interface.
  • Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted by a wide variety of user tools, including assistive technologies. Users should be able to choose the technology they use to interact with websites, online documents, multimedia and other digital formats.

What does ADA compliance in the digital space look like?

After an audit has been conducted of the website – Google Chrome’s WAVE tool can help assess any accessibility issues – here are some standard capabilities and tools that websites and other online content should provide:

  • Closed captioning of videos
  • Adding descriptive alt tags to all images and graphics
  • Cleaning up outdated code to be readable by screen readers like JAWS, NVDA & COBRA
  • Creating a website that is navigable with a keyboard

Who is required to follow the ADA Website Compliance Guidelines?

Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t mention websites (it was established in 1990, before websites and the evolution of the digital world we now live in,) the courts have determined that Title III of the ADA applies to websites. And in order for websites and other online content and interfaces to be ADA compliant, they must be accessible. Although the rules apply to everyone (ignorance of the mandates isn’t an acceptable excuse,) certain organizations must make accommodations:

  • Organizations with more than 15 full-time employees, which are open 20 weeks or more throughout the year
  • Desktop and mobile websites and Apps (and all subsequent updates)
  • Third party links that organizations use including shopping carts, booking sites, online ordering and all subsequent updates
  • Website plugins (and all subsequent updates)

Because failure to comply with digital ADA requirements can put companies at risk for lawsuits, financial liabilities and damage to their brand, no organization should ignore these new rules.

ADA compliance is ongoing

It’s important for all organizations to realize that ADA compliance doesn’t end when a website or other digital interface has been deemed accessible. Because this arena is so new (there aren’t ADA police officers scouring the Internet for offenders), there aren’t any specific rules that determine if a website is ADA compliant. The key is to ensure that your websites are accessible by providing the basic accessibility elements mentioned in POUR above and to follow the direction set forth in WCAG and World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) guidelines. Once this is done, it’s also vital to perform ongoing accessibility scans and remain up-to-date with the latest tools and technology.

In addition, remember:

  • Litigation is still possible even after your websites have been updated to these guidelines
  • It’s recommended that recurring scans are performed on these websites and applications to ensure that the organization stays up-to-date
  • You should consult a lawyer that specializes in ADA compliance in addition to website scans

ADA Compliance and GDPR

Another important aspect of ADA compliance in the digital space extends to visitors to your site from the EU. GDPR, or General Data Protection Regulation, which was established in 2018, mandates how you can track visitors and use the data you collect from cookies. And when it comes to ADA compliance, there’s several ways GDPR mandates need to be considered.

Take a look:

  • Under the current ADA regulations, anything that activates on your website, including cookie pop-ups, privacy acceptance policy, etc. without being prompted by the user, must have the capability of being paused, hidden or stopped.
  • When visitors to your site utilize a screen reader, the application must not only be able to read the consent pop-ups but it must also read them when the individual first accesses the site.

Addressing ADA problems & concerns

While you may make every effort to ensure that your site is accessible for visitors, problems and issues can still occur. And just like collecting feedback on your products or services or asking customers to get in touch with comments, it’s important that you provide a way for site visitors to report a problem. Doing this shows you’re committed to providing accessible content and ensures that issues can be remedied as quickly as possible. One suggestion is to provide an ADA dedicated contact form to address any accessibility issues.

ADA compliance is good for everyone!

While new rules and regulations often cause stress and discomfort to business owners and marketers, companies that make their websites accessible to everyone gain a very valuable advantage — they are accessible to everyone! That means a whole new field of customers who can buy their products, book their trips, go on their tours — you get the idea. And many of the action items needed to become compliant can boost a company’s ranking in organic search results — like adding descriptive alt tags to include relevant content and keywords to all images and graphics. So one could say that ADA compliance is the all-inclusive marketing solution for our digital space.

What to do next

BlackDog can help you assess your website for ADA compliance and offer guidance on what steps to take to ensure accessibility. Get in touch with us today for a consultation.

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