According to the CDC, as much as 25% of the population have a disability that may exclude them from using your website.
That is one in four people who may struggle to interact with your site.
But it does not have to be that way.
Here are the five “W”s for making sure your website is accessible to everyone.
We’re quick to think of folks with visual and hearing disabilities that may exclude them from using a website. But there are others, including physical disabilities, that impact a person’s ability to use a mouse or keyboard, cognitive and neurological disabilities that affect how people interact with and perceive the website, among many others that influence how people navigate this world, in which so many facets are experienced online.
But in reality, making a website accessible does and will continue to benefit people beyond the percentage of the population with a disability. Universal design—design intended to work for everyone—benefits cascade into the broader community. Consider the curb cut—there’s even something called the curb cut effect that embodies this whole concept. Curb cuts were first installed for people in wheelchairs, but over time, they have also made traversing the streets and sidewalks easier for people using walkers, pushing strollers, or pulling wheeled carts.
In the digital space, the curb cut effect already exists. We see it daily in the dictation function on our phone or the captions on a video you are silently watching on your phone. And time and technology will reveal additional ways that making a website accessible will actually benefit everyone.
Ensuring that your website is accessible may seem like an intimidating and complicated endeavor—and without the right team and resources, it is! But the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG, are based on four straightforward principles: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.
Perceivable has to do with the way your audience takes in the content through their senses: sight, sound, and even touch. Visitors to your site should be able to adapt their experience with respect to the font size and spacing, color and contrast, and captions or alt text for video, images, and even PDFs. Can folks with various levels of ability tell what’s on your site?
Operable refers to the way your audience interacts with the site, like navigating menus, sections, and links across pages. Folks who have motor disabilities may navigate your entire website with a keyboard, a non-traditional mouse, or even sight-assisted navigation tools.
Understandable is in reference to the way the website content is written and organized. It’s best to avoid specialized legal terms and references. Make sure the writing is clear and straightforward to understand, even if the subject matter is complex.
Robust references the technical code for the site and that it must meet certain standards and be compatible with the assistive technologies that support user accessibility. Examples of this include screen readers, braille terminals, as well as software like speech recognition and text magnification. All users must be able to interact with your firm’s website across various browsers and devices.
Your firm website! It’s helpful to understand that the WCAG guidelines provide a structure, but do not intend to tell you exactly what needs to be done to ensure your website is accessible. That said, there are a number of things your content editor can do to make your site more accessible, including adding appropriate alt tags to images, charts, and infographics that describe the relevant content of the visual in a meaningful way. This relates back to the perceivable principle and someone understanding what’s on the page.
Your website may also link to other types of media content like video and PDFs that have to be remediated to be accessible to folks with assistive technology. Videos must be transcribed with the words that describe the content as well as a description of other relevant cues that give context and meaning. PDFs must be tagged and coded to support assistive technology as well.
There are several approaches to ensuring your law firm website is accessible. Some design and develop for accessibility right off the bat. This helps ensure there isn’t a tricky development adjustment that needs to be made down the line. This can also address other visual design issues from the start, like font size and contrast. Another approach is to design and develop the website and then evaluate what adjustments need to be made for accessibility in the design or development.
If your firm has separate blogs, a microsite, or even apps, those should be evaluated too.
Now! But first, some context and background. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in activities of public accommodations. Next, consider that public accommodations include business and private entities that are open to the public or that provide goods or services to the public. It’s the responsibility of the companies and business owners to eliminate barriers to access.
A public park, library, or store must be accessible, but your personal residence or a private club is not subject to the standards of accessibility. The ADA was passed in 1990—well before the public was interacting with websites as part of daily life and the rules have not changed, but the interpretations have been widely discussed.
Is a website a place of public accommodation?
Many people believe they are, as supported by the fact that there have been thousands of website accessibility lawsuits each year, over the past four years, and the count keeps climbing. In 2016 a blind person sued a grocery store chain, alleging that the website was not compatible with his screen reader technology to refill prescriptions and use online coupons. Even though he could complete these tasks inside the brick and mortar store, the Eleventh Circuit Court ruled in his favor and required the store’s website to conform to the WCAG guidelines.
However, in 2021 the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion on this case, Gil v. Winn-Dixie. It said that “websites are not places of public accommodation under Title III of the ADA.”
And there is no specific language about websites in the 1990 ADA, so why should law firms worry about making their websites accessible?
Well . . .
First, ensuring that everyone can access website content is just the right thing to do. Excluding people from accessing your website content because they have a disability feels, quite frankly, wrong, considering there are many tools, resources, and experts to help you.
Second, even though the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, does not consider the internet a place of public accommodation, other courts appear to be undecided or will rule against the businesses. Nearly 100 state and federal lawsuits are filed each week, most of which are in California and New York, but the internet goes beyond those state lines—no matter where your firm is physically located. For now, many filings are brought against e-commerce sites, but other types are also in the mix, like colleges, medical companies, and other services.
Third, something called the Unruh Act supplements the ADA regulations in California. Businesses can be on the hook for $4,000 in statutory damages to each user for violations on an inaccessible website. Depending on where the physical space of the business is located and other factors, these damages have the potential to really add up, which may incentivize businesses to make their websites accessible! However, even though website remediation is possible, many businesses opt to settle rather than evaluate their websites and find out that it is subject to the ADA requirements.
The focus of many digital ADA lawsuit claims is that the site is not compatible with screen-reader technology for blind visitors, and as well as claims by deaf users who cannot perceive video content because it’s missing proper captions. Additionally, the websites are missing an accessibility statement or policy, which is an important part of the whole accessibility equation. The accessibility statement should say that making the site accessible is a priority, what steps your firm is taking to make it accessible—even if those steps are in progress—and ask for comments and provide a way to contact if folks have suggestions and feedback on accessing the website. It’s not necessary to acknowledge and present shortcomings to a plaintiff’s lawyer, particularly if your firm is actively working to remediate accessibility issues.
Be on the lookout for trends in digital ADA litigation rather than be blindsided when users can’t access your firm’s website. Start with some low-hanging accessibility fruit, like alt tags, captions in video, and an accessibility statement, and enlist an accessibility expert to evaluate and remediate your site for ADA. If you are planning a new website soon, make sure your developer has experience with digital accessibility and can guide you through the process. It’s not hard to do the right thing.