The Internet is no mere luxury. From applying for jobs to retail shopping to seeking new knowledge, modern consumers use the web for a wide variety of important activities. In the United States alone, almost 220 million people go shopping on the Internet, meaning their ability to navigate and understand websites is critical to their experiences as consumers. Organizations with websites thus have a responsibility to make those sites accessible to all potential users.

In making their websites accessible, organizations often fail to account for a key demographic group: those with disabilities. Of those 220 million online users, 20 million are people who have physical or mental disabilities, many of whom need unique accommodations to use the Internet effectively. Despite having a legal obligation to make their sites accessible to these users, many retailers have failed to accommodate them. Thanks to a string of recent legal rulings, however, there is increasing pressure for organizations to create fully accessible sites, ensuring that users of all backgrounds can navigate them without issue.

What Is Web Accessibility?

Web accessibility is the act of eliminating all barriers that prevent people with disabilities from using websites. Visual, auditory, mobility, and cognitive disabilities all interfere with a user’s experience, preventing them from navigating or understanding a site. Web developers can address these issues by:

  • Accommodating Speech Software Users who are blind can employ speech software, which reads the text of the website aloud. This software only works, however, if the website’s developer uses the right HTML protocols and includes semantic equivalents for links and images. Otherwise, the software will not be able to correctly interpret the website.
  • Cultivating Color Contrasts Individuals who are colorblind or highly sensitive to light may have trouble distinguishing tabs, hyperlinks, and other features that are necessary to navigate a website. Web developers must thus be careful about what colors they choose for these features, making sure that each of them is fully distinguishable from the others and does not put too much strain on the eyes.
  • Subtitles, Transcripts, & Signs Video plays a growing role in online content, creating new challenges for individuals with hearing impairments. To meet these challenges, web developers must include subtitles and transcripts on all videos with meaningful spoken content. Alternatively, they can create versions of each video that use sign language.

Ever since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, businesses have had an obligation to accommodate consumers with disabilities. Federal authorities are now modifying that act to include website accommodations. In particular, they are requiring users to comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. Created in 2008 as part of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative, these guidelines explain how to make web content accessible for all users, with a particular focus on those with disabilities. In May of 2016, the Department of Justice announced its intention to mandate WCAG 2.0 compliance. While the department has not yet published specific standards, businesses are already vulnerable to litigation if they fail to comply.

The Growth of Web Accessibility: Compliance, Enforcement, & Lawsuits
Despite the Department of Justice’s announcement, many organizations have been slow to adopt accommodations for users with disabilities. For many of them, the issue is cost. Retrofitting their websites for greater accessibility, they claim, would require them to spend tens of thousands of dollars. These organizations have thus opted to wait for regulatory authorities to issue more specific guidelines, after which point they will comply in earnest.

Americans with disabilities are not content to have their right to use the Internet deferred. Many of them have filed individual and class action lawsuits against organizations that have not made their websites accessible. There have been more than 240 such lawsuits in the past two years; the organizations targeted include:

  • Winn-Dixie This grocery chain is the subject of a lawsuit from Juan Carlos Gil, a Florida resident who has cerebral palsy and is blind. Gil claims that Winn-Dixie’s website uses a code that does not fully accommodate screen readers, causing them to stop after images and blank spaces without continuing down the page.
  • Harvard & MIT A class action lawsuit has accused these schools of failing to provide subtitles for their online videos, making it harder for those with hearing impairments to understand their websites. Harvard and MIT have responded that they should not be expected to modify their sites until the Department of Justice issues specific instructions.
  • Californian Retailers Whereas most of these web accessibility cases focus on accommodations for potential consumers, one set of cases in California looks instead at prospective employees. A man who suffers from a visual impairment has sued six separate companies in the Golden State, charging that he is unable to fill out their online job applications. While employment cases do not specifically relate to the Department of Justice’s announcements, these suits will likely put additional pressure on companies to make sure their websites are accessible to all.

Of all organizations, retail businesses have consistently been the least likely to have proper accommodations for those with disabilities. According to a review of recent accessibility lawsuits, 43 out of the 61 cases studied were filed against retailers, compared to four against hospitality businesses, three against restaurants, and two against academic institutions. This suggests that retailers have been particularly slow to make their websites accessible, though it may also reflect the fact that web users spend a particularly large amount of time on retail sites.

So far, few organizations have taken these suits all the way to court. Most have settled with their plaintiffs, awarding them between $10,000 and $75,000. These sums are typically enough only to cover the attorneys’ expenses and fees.

A few organizations have sought to have these cases thrown out, typically on the grounds that they cannot have an obligation to change their practices until the Department of Justice issues specific guidelines. This strategy has proven unsuccessful thus far, with a Federal magistrate ruling in February of 2016 that the lack of specific guidelines was not grounds for dismissing these cases. While this ruling does not guarantee that the lawsuits will be successful, it at least ensures that organizations cannot get out of defending themselves. Unless they are willing to settle, these cases must go all the way to court.

Whatever the ultimate rulings are, these lawsuits will likely encourage American businesses and other organizations to take online disability accommodations more seriously. Firms complain that redesigning their websites for greater accessibility will cost tens of thousands of dollars, but many are already spending that much to settle the lawsuits against them. Combined with the damage to their reputations and the risk of a negative court ruling, these organizations have a strong incentive to update their websites as soon as possible.

Improving Customer Engagement & user Experience With Web Accessibility

In addition to the cost of settlements, the damage to their reputations, and the threat of negative rulings, businesses and organizations have more positive incentives to pursue greater web accessibility. Failing to accommodate those with disabilities is not only a moral and legal failure, but a missed business opportunity. According to the United States Census, more than 56 million American citizens have some form of disability. Despite the barriers they face to web use, 20 million of them are already online shoppers, and millions more will likely join them if those barriers are taken down.

Thus, by pursuing greater web accessibility, organizations could gain access to tens of millions of potential customers, employees, or partners. The better an institution is at making its website accessible, the easier it will be for it to:

  • Enhance Engagement If websites do a better job of accommodating users with disabilities, those users will be more likely to fill out surveys, link their social media accounts, or leave comments. All of these activities provide information on consumers’ interests and shopping habits, allowing companies to engage with those consumers more effectively. Firms can offer personalized, targeted advertising and products to users with disabilities, increasing the likelihood of a successful sale.
  • Stand Out Companies are most successful if they can make potential customers feel valued. For customers with disabilities, part of feeling valued is having equal access to web services. The earlier that a company provides website accommodations, the more it will stand out from the competition for valuing customers with disabilities, convincing those customers to remain loyal for the long haul.
  • Obtain Useful Skills Online applications allow companies and other organizations to recruit more widely than they would otherwise have been able to, discovering people with new ideas and valuable skills. By enhancing web accessibility, organizations allow individuals with disabilities to apply and contribute their ideas and skills.
  • Shore Up SEO The same modifications that make a website more accessible to individuals with disabilities also allow it to perform better in web searches. When companies provide alternative text for their images, for example, they not only make it easier for screen readers to read them, but also for Google to interpret them. This will raise their search rank and improve the effectiveness of their marketing efforts.

It’s worth considering that even web users who do not currently have disabilities may develop them in the future. When this happens, these individuals will want to know that they can expect the same level of service from a company that they enjoyed before. The better firms are at accommodating people with disabilities, the more confident users of all abilities and backgrounds will be that they care about them and want them to have the best experience possible under all circumstances.

Accessibility in Action: Enhancing & Testing Websites
Accessibility is clearly beneficial for any business, school, or nonprofit, but many organizations are unsure how to make it a reality. Through the following steps, institutions of all stripes can enhance their websites quickly, affordably, and effectively:

  1. Audit for Accessibility The first step to improving accommodations is to conduct a comprehensive audit of all the website’s features, testing each for accessibility. The organization that conducts this audit should have experience with both designing more accessible layouts and inspecting the underlying code for issues that will affect screen readers. By auditing the entire website at the beginning, a company can coordinate all of its accessibility improvements, reducing the risk that different changes will counteract each other.
  2. Engage the Entire Organization Once the audit is complete, an organization should inform all personnel of its findings and their goals for improvement in as much detail as possible. This helps to get everyone in the organization on board and reduces the risk that individual departments or employees will make further changes to the website that undermine accessibility efforts.
  3. Rank by Ease & Importance An organization should prioritize different improvements based on how important they are to user accessibility and how easy they are to make. This will allow them to make quick, meaningful improvements to the website from the start, saving subtle changes for later in the process.
  4. Document Diligently While modifying its website, an organization should keep detailed records of all changes that it makes, as well as the impact of those changes on company operations and user experiences. Not only will this documentation make it easier to prove in court that the organization has met its accessibility obligations, but it will also help managers to identify factors that delay or undermine the improvements and control for them in the future.
  5. Reassess Regularly After the initial changes are complete, an organization should develop a schedule for reassessing the website. This will allow them to catch any new issues as they arise, as well as enhance and reinforce changes they already made.

As important as disability accommodations are, they are only the beginning of making the web accessible for people of all backgrounds. ImageX is committed to improving accessibility and enhancing user experiences on all fronts. For more information on making these enhancements to your website, contact us today.

Main photo credit: Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash

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