Website Accessibility under the ADA

What Small Businesses Need to Know About Website Accessibility under the ADA

by Cornelius Butler |  Jan 28,2021 | 15 Min Read

Website accessibility under the ADA has become an increasingly hot-button issue for businesses of all sizes, and with good reason. The number of businesses taken to court or threatened with litigation over website accessibility has skyrocketed in recent years. Picture this: over 80 website owners were sued for non-compliance in November 2020 alone, with an estimated further
  117+ ADA website accessibility lawsuits filed the previous month.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is one of the most eclectic pieces of legislation in the US when it comes to civil rights. You may be familiar with physical adjustments that your business has to make, such as wheelchair-accessible doors and zero-step entries, to accommodate people with disabilities. But the ADA also requires certain entities to make their web applications, websites, and web content accessible to people with a broad range of disabilities, including speech, physical, neurological, cognitive, visual, and auditory disabilities.  

What you may not know is that small businesses, including those that don’t fall under ADA’s website accessibility requirements, can also be threatened with lawsuits or sued over non-compliance. This explainer post takes a closer look at website accessibility under ADA for small businesses — what it is, why it matters, what’s needed, and general advice on how to bring your site up to compliance. 

Why is the ADA Website Accessibility Important?

The ADA has for many years influenced the way physical businesses operate, but the legislation has also pitched a tent online in the form of website accessibility. This begs the question: why does it matter for small businesses? 
Making your website accessible to all is the right thing to do. Make no mistake; web accessibility isn’t all about avoiding keeping ADA lawsuits off your back. It’s, now more than ever before, just the right thing to do, all the more so that Americans with a disability make up roughly 15 percent of the US population, according to a report from Time.

That’s right; over 61 million Americans have one or multiple self-reported disabilities and, therefore, will require some assistance using your site. So, compliance with ADA means that you’re not only making your website more inclusive but also increasing your reach by opening it up to more people. 

As of writing, much of the world is reeling from the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic. As more people choose to shop, play, and work from home in order to social distance, the internet has proven itself to be one powerful tool for doing so. More importantly, people are using websites to get helpful information, connect one-to-one, do business, and much more 

However, the fact remains that 1 in almost every five Americans lives with some sort of disability that may hinder them from taking full advantage of the digital world. As small businesses, this is a clear call to action — to stand with our communities, customers, and employees. It’s a time to show that we truly care, and one of the best ways to do that is to make sure that all our digital assets are accessible to everyone who lands on our websites. In saying so, website accessibility is not just the right thing to do; it’s an effective way to express that we care and provide everyone with equal opportunity.
ADA compliance can enhance your website’s user experience (UX). 
When you make your website ADA compliant, you make it easier for people with a disability to use and find what they are looking for, which actually makes your site easier to use for everyone else.
With nearly 80 percent of web visitors saying they’ll ditch a site for poor user experience, this should be beneficial to you in more ways than one. For instance, if you’re a small business going up against the big sharks, this could give you the much-needed competitive advantage.
Don’t get sued! Today, staying on top of ADA website accessibility has become undeniably crucial simply because you can get threatened with litigation or, even worse, slapped with a costly lawsuit for non-compliance. Well, the risk of getting sued or receiving a letter threatening litigation has gone up dramatically in the last five or so years.

In fact, the number of ADA website accessibility lawsuits has breached the 2,200-mark for the past three years in a row. Get this: 
at least 2258 lawsuits were filed under Title III of ADA in 2018 alone, marking an uptick of a whopping 177 percent from 2017.

Don’t assume that just because your business is small your website will go unnoticed by hawkeyed ADA lawyers and disabled visitors who may sue you. Accordingly, the vast majority of ADA lawsuits filed last year were leveled against the so-called small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which will certainly feel more of an adverse impact than large corporations.

Even more concerning, the number of website accessibility lawsuits filed as class-action suits has also increased drastically. These are legal actions brought upon your business by one or several plaintiffs on behalf of a large group. Looking at the numbers, 
class-action suits accounted for 77%, 75%, and 91% of total ADA lawsuits filed in October, November, and December 2020 respectively.
The cost of battling a class-action ADA lawsuit is tremendous both in terms of money and time. And if you end up losing the case, you could be looking at hefty legal fees, penalties, and damages. When all’s said and done, ADA lawsuits and settlements can be a massive financial burden to small businesses. Some businesses even go bankrupt trying to settle the issue, be it by out-of-court settlement or through the court.

Put your best foot forward. 
By making your site accessible, you’re opening your business to an important demographic: individuals with disabilities & the baby boomers elderly population. The group with the biggest share of the national wealth who numbers grow daily. The disability community combined with the elderly in the US has a reported spending power in the neighborhood of $645 billion, which is massive! More than that, persons with a disability in the US influence trillions of dollars in purchasing power through families, friends, and colleagues, as per a report from the Return on Disability Group.
That’s a huge loyal market you’re losing when your website is ADA non-compliant. It’s unfathomable to let such a big opportunity slide or go to your competition. When your site doesn’t provide proper accessibility, you’re making it difficult for individuals with a disability to subscribe to your services, purchase your products, interact with your content, engage with your brand, and much more. Think of website accessibility as a necessity and an opportunity to serve every demographic.

Who is affected?

The Americans with Disability Act expressly prohibits any discrimination against persons with a disability in communications, commercial facilities, public accommodations, transportation, government activities, and employment, amongst other important aspects of your lives. This law covers a wide range of businesses, including small enterprises.
All private businesses that currently have at least fifteen full-time employees that work for a minimum of 20 weeks annually must abide by Title I of the ADA. Likewise, Title III of the ADA covers all businesses that provide “public accommodation.” The same is true of all businesses that either work for the benefit of the general public or rely on them.
Small businesses’ websites usually fall under one or more of those categories. Don’t forget that federal courts have interpreted “public accommodation” as described in the ADA’s Title III to apply to websites, as well. Also, if you’ve got a physical storefront, office, etc. that must be ADA-compliant, your mobile apps, web content, and websites are seen as an extension of your brick-and-mortar business.

What Does the ADA Require for a Website to Be Compliant?
Here’s the simple answer: your website must be accessible to persons with disabilities to be ADA compliant. That’s to say, you must make your website such that people with disabilities can enjoy equal and full use of it. They should have an equal opportunity of accessing your web content, engaging with different aspects of your site, and navigating every corner of it.

Be that as it may, there are no current specific regulations for website accessibility for small businesses in the United States, but court interpretations and lawsuits have provided the precedence for compliance. The closest you can get to ADA website accessibility requirements is the WCAG 2.0. Short for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, the WCAG 2.0 AA details the technical measures you need to put in place to make your website accessible on desktop and mobile for persons with disabilities.

Of more importance, most ADA web accessibility lawsuits reference WCAG 2.0 AA, which provides reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, including those with visual, speech, physical, neurological, cognitive, and auditory disabilities, to use your website. These accommodations include adaptive software, closed captioning, voice-overs, image tags, and so on.

How to Make Your Website ADA Compliant
Over 85 percent of websites don’t offer an inclusive experience because they lack important components that could limit persons with a disability from using it to the fullest extent. Could yours be one of them? And what can you do to bring your website up to ADA compliance?

Take a top-down look at your website: A thorough audit of your website design, content, and code will zero in on areas that don’t meet the standard requirements of accessibility under the ADA. If your site is inaccessible to any group of people with a disability, get in touch with your website’s manager or admin to make the necessary changes.

Even if your site meets the minimum specifications for accessibility, you might want to bring in a digital agency or 3-party IT professionals to do a more incisive audit of your entire website. In the end, they should take the necessary steps to improve the accessibility of your website and make sure it’s fully ADA compliant.

Dedicate a section to people with a disability: Create a web page or a whole section on your site that serves as a central place where your clients, employees, and customers with disabilities go to get relevant, up-to-date information on just about everything, from your latest sales to upcoming launches.

This section could also feature information on accessibility accommodations or considerations like where to access wheelchair ramps or get in touch with disability-dedicated customer support. It may also include events, services, or rewards geared towards persons with a disability. This is also a great place to spotlight your accessibility statement, policies, and customer service.

Take advantage of assistive technology to make your site ADA compliant: Assistive technology (AT) has come a long way, but it’s not always readily available. That’s why you should go the next mile by providing a free downloadable AT on your site. This way, persons with disabilities can easily browse the internet and access your website.

AT tools like voice mouse control, screen magnifiers, and text-to-voice translators can come in really. Supplying these assistive tools means that disabled customers and clients can easily interact with elements of your site, carry out transactions, and spend more reading your content. It’s a win-win.

Highlight people with disabilities in your ad campaigns
when it comes to providing proper website accessibility, it pays to go above and beyond. One of the best things you can do is include persons with a disability in your marketing. They’ll feel valued and appreciated when they see themselves featured in your advertising, social media posts, and much more.

Get down to brass tacks: The best way to boost your website accessibility is through your content. To address accessibility issues, you’ll want to go back to the basics:

● Generate and embed closed captioning (text transcripts) for your multimedia content. This makes your web content accessible to people with hearing impairment.
● Add alt tags to all audios, videos, and images
● Identify clearly what language is used on the site in the header code
● Create an organized, clear, and consistent layout for your website and content

There are of course plenty of other ways you can tweak your site to make it more accessible and compliant with the ADA regulations.
What should you do when you receive a demand letter?

Right from the outset, you should contact your insurance company and attorney to discuss the content of the letter. You’d be better off not contacting the author of the demand letter until you have the blessing of your attorney. Additionally, you can get in touch with your website admin to see if the letter points to any accessibility issues that can be rectified right away. 

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