Web Accessibility: Where Do We Stand?

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The government finally takes a stance…

Many of us have been wondering if we would ever see movement from the Department of Justice (DOJ) to give direction on the responsibility of online retailers and service providers to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It has been a number of years since website accessibility rulemaking has been put on the inactive list, and up until this spring, the DOJ appeared reluctant to offer direction. Possibly as a response to the letter they received signed by 181 disability organizations urging them to take a stance, the DOJ surprised us by offering their position. In a press release that went out on March 18th, they finally declared that ADA requirements apply to goods and services offered on the web.

Unfortunately, aside from providing that websites must comply with the ADA, they did not offer much additional direction. This has led to some grumbling over whether the expectations are any clearer than when the DOJ had not provided its stance. According to their press release, they are giving businesses flexibility over how they comply. While the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and Section 508 standards are offered as resources, a specific standard that will be used to determine if a website is considered compliant is not mandated.

…And they are serious

While the direction offered with this release is vague, new legal action shows the intention is serious. Up until recently, the US Government has been hands-off when it comes to website accessibility litigation. This year, they have enforced their position by coming after several businesses that operate online. Well-known retailers included Kroger Co., Meijer Inc., and Rite Aid Corporation.

In the case of Rite Aid, the business responded to recent needs to offer services virtually by providing the option to schedule appointments online. The US Government hit them with a lawsuit, accusing them of excluding individuals by not providing an online scheduling option that was accessible. According to the United States, visitors using screen reader software and keyboard-only navigation were prevented from using the scheduling service because of poorly executed labels, buttons, links, and alternative text.

An important takeaway from this case is that the US Government is not turning a blind eye to web accessibility. While they may not be clamoring to dictate standards, they clearly have expectations of online retailers, and those expectations align with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). These guidelines give direction on how to apply labels, buttons, links, and alternative text along with other standards to help individuals who have disabilities have equal access to the world wide web.

Reasonable asks

What is encouraging about this case is that the government is not making unreasonable asks. They want businesses to be able to demonstrate that they are making an effort. Settlements entered into with the defending businesses recommended automated website accessibility testing, evaluation, and consultation with recordkeeping and reporting. Every website offering goods or services online should have ongoing reports showing that they are continuously monitoring their site for issues that could be obstacles to people with disabilities.

As online businesses are looking for creative ways to connect with their clientele, it is important to consider the entire audience they are offering their goods and services to and research options that can be accessed and used by everybody. Live chat, video chat, interactive calendars, appointment scheduling, and audio-video content are all popping up on sites across the web. The result is that, in an effort to be available without requiring in-person interaction, many businesses are becoming less accessible.

By trying to connect with their market online, businesses are making a group of visitors feel isolated and less connected. Many apps that are meant to make relating to your audience easier are prepackaged plug-and-go apps offering little control over making accessibility changes. It is important to research before implementing something that could bring you and your clientele grief.

Because these virtual options can be difficult to navigate, it is important to provide an alternative method to complete the interaction or access the goods or services the visitor is interested in. A good standby is providing easily identifiable contact information on every page.

Beware the easy fix

A common solution that has been popping up is an accessibility overlay. Experts advise caution when turning to these. These widgets promise an accessible experience for all visitors with assistive needs by changing font size, text or background colors, and other methods that guarantee equal access to information on the page.

In reality, these overlays often interact poorly with screen reader software, end up confusing visitors, and are seen as little more than a band-aid to a problem the site owner doesn’t want to invest the time or energy into to address properly. Websites using accessibility widgets can even become targets for litigators because they are advertising that the bones of their site are not accessible.

Where do we stand?

While we do not know if and when the DOJ is going to provide clearer direction on how they expect web accessibility to fit under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is clear the issue is not going away. Demand letters are on the rise, and without a definitive legal standard, defendants have limited defenses.

The Rite Aid case demonstrates that the US Government does have an opinion on the matter. But for the time being, they are leaving it up to the circuit courts to decide how cases are addressed. Depending on the state where the case is brought, the outcomes can vary widely with most cases popping up in New York, Florida, and California.

Concern for community

While this article is meant to offer information only and not legal advice or guarantees against litigation, it is recommended that any website offering goods or services stay ahead of issues by conforming to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines as named in the Rite Aid settlement agreement.

For credit unions, this means caring about all your site visitors and investing the time and resources to make sure you are not excluding members who have accessibility needs. Do your research and stay away from easy fixes. Monitor and document your efforts regularly. Be convenient to reach out to in person when virtual options fall short. After all, isn’t it the way of credit unions to demonstrate a concern for their community?

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