Accessible Websites are No Longer an Option—They’re Law

David Linabury, Element5 Digital
January 23, 2019
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"The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” —Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

"The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.” —Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

What is website accessibility?

An accessible website is one that includes certain features that create a comparable experience for all visitors, particularly for those who may have challenges experiencing the web. Most people are not aware that using the web is not an apples to apples experience for everyone.

A quadriplegic for example, might browse webpages with a joystick powered by the tongue. Blind individuals have browsers that read websites to them. What would happen to either individual, if they encountered a site with all images and no text, or drop menus that required excessive mouse movements?

There are four basic categories of website accessibility

  1. Visual: This includes non-sighted visitors, visitors with low-vision, visitors with obstructed vision (the author writing this post suffers from this), colorblindness, glaucoma, albinism, myopia, and yes, getting older.
  2. Auditory: Most of the Web is visual, but captions and fallbacks for audio-based media (videos, podcasts) need to be considered for hearing-impaired visitors.
  3. Motor: Visitors with motor impairments use assistive technologies, ranging from specialized keyboards, to eye trackers, to using single buttons or joysticks to navigate their computers.
  4. Cognitive: Visitors with who process information differently. Dyslexia, autism, and Downs Syndrome are a few of the issues that fall under this category.

Can I be sued if my website isn’t accessible? YES.

Over 5,000 website accessibility lawsuits were filed in the United States between January and June last year. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was created. At first, it only dealt with “barriers to entrance” meaning physical barriers, such as installing wheelchair ramps for stairs, doors, etc. In 2010, the Act was updated to included websites. The ADA determined that denying access to information constitutes a barrier to entrance.

Did you know: There are over 50 million Americans with some form of disability.  

The W3C defines web accessibility this way:

Web accessibility means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them. More specifically, people can:

  • Perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web
  • Contribute to the Web

Web accessibility encompasses all disabilities that affect access to the Web, including:

  • Auditory
  • Cognitive
  • Neurological
  • Physical
  • Speech (this will be more of an issue with the explosive usage of voice assistants, like Alexa, SIRI, and Google Now).
  • Visual

The disabilities that make the web challenging may not be permanent and some may be the result of aging. For example, 90% of all people over 65 develop cataracts. I developed cataracts at the age of 40. They have been surgically removed, but I now have vitreous floaters—permanent residue from the surgery. I often have to wait several minutes until the floaters move out of my line of sight—before I can read. Imagine sitting through a business meeting without being able to read the presentation until 10 minutes in. That is my life.

For seniors, low contrast colors or small font sizes (under 16 point) make reading unnecessarily difficult, even painful. Over 8 million Americans have suffered some type of repetitive strain injury that make scrolling a page—or using a mouse—painful during recovery. This is known as a temporary disability.

“Let’s stop ‘tolerating’ or ‘accepting’ difference, as if we’re so much better for not being different in the first place. Instead, let’s celebrate difference, because in this world it takes a lot of guts to be different.” ―Kate Bornstein

What are the Business Benefits of Website Accessibility?

So now you know what accessibility is, and you know some of the disabilities that are affected. What you should know is that making your website accessible has other benefits to you and your company.

Here are the top business reasons to have an accessible website:

I. Humanity

Accessibility is the right thing to do. For the same reasons we put wheelchair ramps and handicap parking spots close to entrances, we should make websites and apps easier to use and experience.

II. Legal Requirements

Your industry may be legally required to be accessible. It’s not just government sites. For example, if your business offers online-only discounts, and your site is not accessible, you could be in trouble. Why? Because you’ve prevented the only means to that offer—the online store. You’ve also cost your company sales.

During the first half of 2018, 1,053 accessibility lawsuits were filed. Over 470 website accessibility lawsuits were filed in Q3 2018 alone. Know that disabled Americans are not a silent group. They are more than happy to call you out publicly, or in court if necessary.

  • 2000: Bank of America was the first company to be sued for web accessibility.
  • 2008: Target was hit with $6M in damages and $3.7M in legal fees over accessibility.
  • 2011: Wells Fargo had to shell out $16M for violating the ADA.
  • 2011: Disney was hit with a class action lawsuit for having autoplay video.
  • 2014: H&R Block paid $45,000 to two plaintiffs and a $55,000 civil penalty.
  • 2017: Kylie Jenner Cosmetics was taken to court. The plaintiff did not want money; just for the site to be accessible so the plaintiff could purchase products.
  • 2018: Burt’s Bees' website can't be interpreted by screen-reading software used by the visually impaired, according to a discrimination suit filed in New York federal court
  • 2019: Beyonce’s Parkwood Entertainment was served a class action lawsuit for violating the ADA.

III. Loyalty

Accessibility builds loyal customers. People with accessibility needs have it tough enough. When a company takes the time to make their life a little easier, they remember those companies. They are also loud promoters of brands who take care of them (and conversely, equally loud detractors against the companies who do not).

IV. Simplicity

Adding these features is not difficult, but that said, most web developers don’t know how to implement them. You see their lack of knowledge on this subject frequently. A common example is a form that says, “Errors marked in red.” If you can’t see the color red, that’s a problem (Over 8% of males). Accessibility features are hidden from most visitors—only those using assistive technologies for browsing the web encounter them.

V. When Your Site is Accessible, Everybody Wins

When sites are made accessible, everyone can use them equally. And for those who are fortunate enough to have no disabilities of any kind, you will benefit as well. An accessible site just works. The navigation makes sense and doesn’t have annoying drop menus. The contact information is easy to find. The forms aren’t written for software engineers—they’re in plain language and use indicators other than just color to convey information.

VI. Everyone wants the web to be fully available to them at all times.

Why should we see ourselves as more deserving of the web than our differently-abled friends and relatives? Would you have told Steven Hawking he wasn’t welcome on your site? No, of course not. But your site was probably a nightmare for him.

“We need to make every single thing accessible to every single person with a disability.” ― Stevie Wonder

Make your site accessible.

Send out a newsletter after you do, letting your customers know the changes you’ve made. You’ll be surprised how many of them will thank you for it. Don’t stop with your site. Tell your customers they need to do this, too. The UK is way ahead of us (and harsher on violators). Accessibility is something that’s openly discussed on the news there. Why not here? We can do better.

David Linabury, Element5 Digital
David Linabury, Element5 Digital

David Linabury is the Brand Strategy Director of Element5 Digital. Dave has been discussing (and building) accessible websites since 2004.

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