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Commentary: Retailers must make websites fully accessible — or face ADA lawsuits

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps America and shelter-in-place orders drag on, online shopping, once a convenience, is now a necessity. 

But for many of our parents and grandparents, the web is full of stumbling blocks. The vast majority of websites do not meet even the most basic accessibility standards laid out by the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which has become the de facto standard businesses must adhere to in order to fulfill their obligations under the Americans With Disabilities Act, the landmark 1990 ruling which guarantees that all businesses provide “full and equal enjoyment of the goods and services” they offer to all Americans, including those with visual, auditory and other impairments.

As more and more aging populations are homebound and attempting to shop, order medication and complete routine errands online, it’s not just Americans with disabilities who are being stymied by a lack of access. It’s senior citizens, as well. 

Since well in advance of the coronavirus pandemic, our lives have increasingly moved online, and the lack of accessibility in this space has led to a spike in lawsuits against companies for failing to comply with the ADA’s standards. It’s become more difficult to name a common household name brand that hasn’t been sued than it is to name one that has. Lululemon, Louis Vuitton, Build-A-Bear Workshop and hundreds of other retailers have all been sued in the past few months. In each case, the plaintiff argued that digital access barriers blocked their ability to fully access those companies’ websites or mobile applications. 

In the digital age, making websites accessible is just as important as ensuring physical accessibility. Unfortunately, today, there are not nearly enough retail businesses prioritizing digital accessibility.

More than 1 billion in the world have some sort of disability, and in the United States alone, the number of people living with a disability is more than 56 million. From shopping online to applying for a job, or even managing mundane municipal tasks like paying utility bills or filling out a forwarding address form, these online tasks that many take for granted can be infinitely more difficult for individuals with disabilities.

Despite thousands of website accessibility lawsuits each year, and countless examples of courts ruling in favor of accessibility, so many companies continue to just not get it. Many have even been sued multiple times. The costs of settling out of court are far higher than the costs of overhauling your website, and today, when we are facing a shut-in nation desperately in need of access for basic goods and services online, it’s never been more important to prioritize accessibility and to ensure equal access for everyone, regardless of their individual abilities.

So how did we get here? One primary reason is a general lack of knowledge and awareness. For many businesses, they aren’t learning about digital accessibility until they first receive a legal demand letter or are served a lawsuit. Implementing and adhering to the guidelines and standards for accessibility require subject matter expertise and, since accessibility isn’t engrained in most university and trade school curriculum, there simply aren’t enough experts to go around. For many businesses, because these resources are finite and the process can be tedious, implementing and maintaining digital accessibility remains cost prohibitive.

So here we are in 2020, in the grips of a pandemic, and the vast majority of businesses have websites that still do not meet compliance standards. As a result, we risk leaving behind a massive population of individuals with disabilities, which is disproportionally comprised of seniors.  Today, when it can be a genuine health hazard to head to a physical store or stand in line at a pharmacy, this creates a legitimate crisis.

For companies looking for clarity on how to become more accessible, here are several important steps to consider:

1. Is your site clear and easy to understand?

ADA-compliant sites must be: Perceivable; Operable; Understandable and Robust. The site should be easy to navigate, user-friendly and predictable. Site navigation should be consistent, the colors we choose matter, you should limit the use of too much industry-specific jargon or acronyms, and anticipate users who rely on assistive technologies to engage and interact with your website.

2. How accessible are your images and multimedia content?

Video captions are essential for individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing, but they also benefit everyone. Have you ever had to watch a video in an extremely loud or overly quiet environment? Captions are key. So are transcripts. Provide transcripts of your archived webinars, podcasts and audio materials. It’s also great for SEO. Be sure that any images you have on your site do not flash more than three times per second, which may pose an immediate threat to those prone to seizures brought on by epilepsy.

3. Can your code be read by an assistive technology such as a screen reader?

Images must include meaningful alternative descriptions. Web forms, links, and buttons must be properly labelled to convey their meaning and intent. Most importantly, you should have your site tested by individuals with disabilities and those versed in the many nuances of navigating with screen readers and other assistive technologies.

4. Is everything navigable via keyboard?

Touchscreens and traditional mouse navigation may present significant challenges for those individuals impacted by mobility impairments and ambulatory disabilities. Testing your site for those relying on a keyboard to navigate your website is essential. Ensure focusable elements receive visual focus and make sure core features and functions may be controlled by a keyboard, alone. This includes pause and play features, advancing carousels, collapsing and expanding accordion menus, filling out web forms, and driving keyboard focus to modal views.

5. Are you up to date?

Compliance regulations are never set in stone. WCAG is actively evolving. While there are helpful checklists available to access if your current site is ADA compliant, it’s crucial to be open to adopting new best practices as they emerge. WCAG 2.1 is the current standard.

Equal access online still isn’t a guarantee. It’s a moral imperative that businesses prioritize digital accessibility. Now, more than ever, it’s critical that we get this right. Together, we can work to eradicate every barrier to digital access.

Sean Bradley is the co-founder, president and CEO of AudioEye.

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