When most people think of the Americans with Disabilities Act, they envision our physical landscape — wheelchair ramps, elevators and other adjustments that improve accessibility through ease of movement.

Here’s the twist: the Department of Justice is now enforcing ADA guidelines online.

And you should being paying attention — to the changes, new requirements and how they affect your website and digital communications. Our team recently went through an audit of our own site to offer you an overview of what to know.

Website Accessibility

But first, a look back: The DOJ, which published the original ADA guidelines in 1990 and released the ADA Standards for Accessible Design in 2010, applies its standards to commercial and public entities that have “places of public accommodation” — and that includes the Internet.

As our digital landscape evolves and consumers shift online for services, businesses and organizations are encountering a new set of challenges. From paying a bill or making a donation to registering for an event, everyday online activities that users may take for granted can present serious barriers for individuals who may be blind, deaf or have mobility issues that prevent them from using a mouse.

Web designers and developers — even those well-versed in creating a positive user experience for able-boded individuals — can often forget this group of consumers.

Does it apply to your website?

The DOJ is “currently determining the specific regulations” as to how the ADA Standards will affect websites and digital offerings. How “currently” they will be released to the public is up for interpretation: The DOJ announced recently that it would delay issuing these regulations until 2018. Understandably, there has been some confusion as to how companies should react to the news. What kind of impact will it have on your business, and in what timeframe?

Added to these shades of gray is the distinction between the as-of-yet undefined ADA Standards — applicable as noted to entities that have places of public accommodation — and Section 508, part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 508, which outlines more restrictive rules, is currently applied to and enforced for private entities that work directly with or take money from the federal government.

Recent uptick in lawsuits

Any ambiguity hasn’t stopped a recent uptick in disability-rights cases, as reported by the Wall Street Journal in March 2016, and it’s affecting companies both large and small, across industries.

TechCrunch notes that notable companies or organizations — such as The National Collegiate Athletic Association, J.C. Penney, Sprint Corporation, Hard Rock Café International, Red Roof Inns, Huntington National Bank and even the U.S. Small Business Administration — have been involved in lawsuits alleging the company “violated the public accommodations provisions of the ADA and similar laws by not being accessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision or other disabilities.”

Without regulations, how does the DOJ determine that companies are out of compliance with ADA guidelines? Industry experts are recommending the public pay close attention to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), which have their own series of key requirements.

accessiblity-icons

Should you consider adjustments?

Many companies may have believed they had a few years to worry about ADA guidelines when it comes to the Internet. Lawsuits are indicating otherwise. Should you consider adjustments to your website?

Start from a place of knowledge: Google offers a Web Accessibility Audit Tool as a Chrome extension that allow you to identify specific accessibility issues and gauge how close (or how far) you are from compliance.

Many of the issues you identify will boil down to one challenge: Improving user experience. (For everyone.) We’ve identified a few areas where you can begin, all of which will help any website interact better with assistive technology such as voice recognition software or screen readers.

  • Provide alternative text and descriptions for links and images
    All links must be defined with a description (just like an image), so that screen readers can identify them. All images should have alternative text as well — is that your company logo, or a photo of a new product offering?
  • Be careful in creating and developing forms
    Forms must have field elements that are clearly labeled and that are accessible through keystrokes. If error lists are used, they should be defined in an alternative color to make them more noticeable.
  • Be flexible in design when it comes to fonts and colors
    Provide sufficient color contrast between the foreground and background to accommodate for low-vision users. (Start with this Accessibility Color Wheel.) Ensure fonts are not too light or too small.
  • Consider any and all multimedia elements
    Videos should be closed-captioned or have text transcripts available. Information contained in PDFs must be available in another format, as these documents are considered “locked” and unreadable by screen readers.
  • Don’t forget your user
    Skimping on back-end development work or getting carried away with flashing or blinking buttons will hurt your site in the end. Clear titles, H1s, H2s and other descriptors will help a screen reader navigate the page well, and blinking functionality can induce seizures.

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Not sure where to start in assessing your website’s needs or how to begin the process of updating your site to become compliant with these changing standards? Talk to Gavin.