How to Help Your Business Achieve ADA Website Compliance in the COVID-19 Era

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E. M. Forster’s book “Howard’s End” begins with the brief epigraph, “Only connect….” The words become more significant as we deal with the impact of COVID-19 and how we connect. Most companies are responding to social distancing by limiting travel, canceling or postponing large events, replacing in-person events with virtual ones, and requiring employees to work remotely. Most individuals are limiting their travel and direct contact with others, but the need to connect remains. The amount of people working remotely and relying on digital devices is booming.

Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Twitter have asked employees to work from home. As the number of people working remotely increases, the need for companies to make sure that their websites and applications are connecting with everyone globally rises. The reliance on devices for connecting and working remotely increases the need for websites and apps to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, commonly referred to as ADA compliance.

Did you hear that Beyonce’s entertainment company was sued in 2019 due to its lack of accessibility for those with visual impairments? Or how about the 2019 Supreme Court decision that Domino’s would still have to go to trial for not granting disabled people the same level of access as non-disabled people to their digital ordering system?

In 2019 alone, there were 2,235 lawsuits filed against businesses with websites or apps that allegedly violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Over 20% of those were against repeat offenders, 66% against popular retailers, and 60% against top restaurants. Access to digital resources is a big deal to Beyonce fans, pizza lovers, and everyone in between. That means it also needs to be a big deal to businesses that their consumer-facing digital platforms are accessible — no matter how large, small, public, or private they are.

Let’s dive deeper into what ADA website compliance means, why it matters, and steps you can take to make sure your business is accessible for all.

What is ADA Website Compliance and Why Should It Matter to My Organization?

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a civil rights law that was established in 1990. The goal of the ADA was to make sure people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as non-disabled people. The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of “public life,” such as at work, in school, on transportation, and in any other place that’s open to the general public. Any language you didn’t notice there? That’s right, no explicit mention of the internet, websites, or other digital platforms.

Still, the U.S. Department of Justice almost always applies the law to websites, using the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (the most recent of which is WCAG 2.1) that were developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative (a subgroup of the World Wide Web Consortium) as a guideline. If you weren’t aware of any of this or aren’t paying attention to ADA website compliance, it’s time to start.

Why? First, due to the rise in people connecting remotely, there are statistically a lot of disabled consumers who are interested in your business who deserve the same treatment as non-disabled consumers. And second, because you may be subject to all kinds of punishment if you are not ADA compliant.

ADA website compliance violations can mean scary penalties. Depending on your violations, your business could face fines in the thousands and may even have to go to court. Aside from the cost associated with a lawsuit, just imagine the negative publicity, erosion of trust, and loss of customers that could result from getting pegged for discrimination.

Want to avoid all of that? Follow these next three tactics to make sure your business is above-board when it comes to the ADA.

How to Put Your Business on the Path to Achieving ADA Website Compliance

1. Check How Your Existing Website and Content Align with Accessibility Regulations

There are vast resources out there to help businesses make sure their websites and content are accessible to everyone. And many of them are extremely valuable.

However, we chose to go straight to the source here: The 2007 website accessibility addendum to the ADA Best Practices Tool Kit for State and Local Governments. This checklist helps government agencies (and pretty much any other business that interacts with the public) conduct a preliminary assessment of their website accessibility. While it is sure to help you uncover any glaring issues on your website or in your policies and procedures, it may not identify every single accessibility problem.

This site is a great place to start as it gets you familiar with the language of accessibility regulations as well as what’s going on with your website and content that’s valuable as technology and laws continue to evolve. Later in this article, we’ll cover some more in-depth tools.

Step 1: Gather Your Materials
Here are some things it would be useful to have handy while working through the checklist:
– A copy of your website accessibility policy (if you have one)
– Any info about actions you’ve taken to work toward accessibility, including staff training
– Information about any accessibility testing conducted and feedback from users
– Access to the inner workings of your website and assistance from the person who manages it

Step 2: Assess Your Website and Digital Content
This section consists of yes or no questions about your website’s content. If you answer “no” to any that apply to your website, that’s an issue you’ll want to come back to address.
– Does the top of each page with navigation links have a “skip navigation” option? This feature commands screen readers to bypass the row of navigation links and start at the webpage content, enabling people who use screen readers to avoid listening to all the links each time they move to a new page.
– Do all links have a text description that can be read by a screen reader?
– Do all photographs, maps, graphics, and other media have HTML tags (like an alt tag or a description tag) with text that adequately describes the online material?
– Are all of the documents posted on your website available in HTML or another text-based format (for example, rich text format)?
– If your website has forms, do you have HTML tags that describe all of the controls (including all text fields, checkboxes, drop-down lists, and buttons) so that people can complete and submit them?
– Does the default setting in drop-down lists describe the information instead of displaying a response option (e.g., “your age” instead of “18 to 21”)?
– If you’re displaying data charts or tables, is HTML used to associate all data cells with column and row identifiers?
– Do all videos have audio descriptions to provide access to visually-conveyed information for people who are blind or have low vision?
– Do they feature captions of spoken communication that are synchronized with the action to provide access to people who are deaf or hard of hearing?
– Does your audio have written captions of spoken communication to provide access to people who are deaf or hard of hearing?
– Have all pages been designed for viewing using different web browsers and operating system settings for colors and fonts?

Step 3: Review Your Website Accessibility Policy and Procedures
This section also features yes or no questions about how you ensure website accessibility. If you answer “no” to any that apply to you, that’s a sign of something to explore deeper or, probably, fix.
– Do you have a written policy on website accessibility (if not, here’s a template from the National Disability Authority)? Is it posted on your website in a place where it can be easily, well, accessed?
– Have procedures been developed to ensure that content, features, etc. are not added to your website until they’re confirmed to be accessible?
– Does the person in charge of your website and digital content check all the HTML to confirm accessibility before posting it to the site?
– When adding documents to your website in PDF format, are text-based versions of the documents (HTML, RTF, word processing format, etc.) added at the same time?
– Have in-house staff and contractors who interact with website changes or content creation agreed to uphold your website accessibility policies and procedures? Have they received the appropriate training to do so?
– If your website contains inaccessible content, is there a plan in place, including timeframes, to make it accessible? Have you made this plan public on your website and invited suggestions for improvements?
– Does your homepage include easily-found contact information so users can report website accessibility problems and request accessible services and information? Do you have procedures in place to ensure a quick response to these reports and requests?
– Have you asked disability groups or consultants to provide feedback on the accessibility of your website and content?
– Have you tested your website using one of the products available to test website accessibility? (Keep reading for suggestions.)
– Are alternative ways of accessing your web-based information, programs, activities, and services available for people with disabilities who cannot use a computer?

So, how’d you do? If you did pretty well, congrats! If you ended up with a long to-do list, don’t worry because next, we’re going to talk about software that will make those updates much easier to implement and maintain.

2. Implement Website Architecture that Makes Updates and Ongoing ADA Website Compliance Easier

Keeping up with hard-to-decipher regulations and fast-moving technological advancements is difficult enough — why keep working with website tools that just make everything more complicated? Unfortunately, a lot of businesses are doing exactly that without even realizing it.

The main culprit for many organizations is the traditional, monolithic content management system (CMS) upon which their entire website and content catalog is built. A traditional CMS, such as WordPress, uses an all-in-one, or “coupled,” system with a single codebase that manages everything from the content creation to the development for a unique, static website. While they leave little room for error, they also leave little room for creativity, future updates, and integrations. There’s no denying the traditional CMS was cutting edge when digital content management first hit the scene. However, like the internet, digital devices, and software that improves accessibility have evolved, traditional CMS platforms haven’t been able to keep up.

So, let us introduce to you the modern website and content platform for maximizing ADA compliance: The headless CMS.

A headless CMS “decouples” all the technology that goes into creating and managing a content-based website. What that means is that content management, design, and development functionality all exist separately—yet they can efficiently work together using connective technology known as application programming interfaces (APIs).

This modular architecture makes it easy for everyone at a business to maximize their efficiency and effectiveness when it comes to achieving ADA website compliance without stepping on each others’ toes.

For example, with a headless CMS, a developer can update an HTML form to make it more accessible, a designer could be launching a new disabled-viewer-friendly page design, and a writer could be uploading text-based versions of PDFs for use by screen readers all at the same time!

Because a headless CMS uses APIs to make different functionality play together, it’s also easy to integrate with tools that help optimize for ADA website compliance. And as an additional business bonus, this level of flexibility and scalability also means you’re never limited to the number or type of channels and devices to which you distribute your content by supporting omnichannel delivery.

As a critical element in the livelihood of many modern businesses, we can’t stress enough how important it is to choose the right platform for your website and digital content. Sure, re-platforming may cost you some money right now, but the cost of continuing with an ill-fitting platform could impact you astronomically in the long run.

No matter what CMS you use, you need to be careful choosing the tools and technology that you use to make your site ADA compliant. Javascript overlays may look like a simple solution, but using JavaScript layers can be troublesome and fail to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

Building a separate “accessible version” of the website is also not recommended. Having a separate but equal website is likely to be problematic. Besides being a more costly alternative, the ADA states that people with disabilities are entitled to “the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations.” It is unlikely that having two separate sites is going to offer everyone the same experience.

3. Put Your ADA Website Compliance Efforts to the Test

Whether you want to test the updates you’ve made or are establishing your baseline, the following are some great tools and tactics businesses and users of all skill levels can use to measure their ADA compliance efforts. Be aware that automated tools can only detect some disability issues. Manual and assistive technology testing is the only way to make sure your compliance efforts are working correctly.

– Manual accessibility testing: We’ll be the first to say that software is a fantastic resource. However, as previously mentioned, sometimes you have to go beyond algorithms to recognize the nuances that go into creating a website that caters to people of varying abilities. Accessibility Works, WebAIM, Knowbility, Deque, and Level Access are just a few organizations that can provide professional, manual accessibility testing.

Lighthouse is an open-source, automated tool from Google that you can run against any web page to audit accessibility and other usability concerns.

Axe is an accessibility testing toolkit from Deque that allows developers to test their Web or Android applications to identify and resolve common accessibility issues.

WAVE, created by the folks at WebAIM whom we mentioned above, offers a suite of web accessibility evaluation tools including extensions for multiple browsers, an API that can collect data from any combination of pages, an enterprise-level accessibility reporting and tracking tool, and more.

The Functional Accessibility Evaluator can evaluate a website against WCAG standards just by plugging in a URL.

Siteimprove offers a free Chrome extension that highlights accessibility concerns right on the page.

Monsido is a subscription-based service that can scan your website weekly and provide a dashboard from which you can monitor your progress toward ADA website compliance.

Build Toward Better ADA Website Compliance

In this new era of social distancing, ADA compliance is especially useful for businesses to connect. It allows disabled consumers interested in your business the same access as any other consumer. It also protects you from lawsuits if you don’t comply with the ADA. Following the tactics and using the helpful tools outlined in this article is sure to put you on the path to better ADA website compliance and empower your organization to create websites and digital experiences that cater to people of all abilities.

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