“How do I make my website accessible?”
It’s the latest trending question coming through my door.
Followed by the almost inevitable “so-and-so said my website needs to be ADA compliant – it’s the law!”
(It’s not…but it kind of is?)
So you come to me, panic stricken, credit card in hand and looking for a way out.
I’m flattered, really! I’d love to help you. You should have an accessible site. And you could get sued for not having one. But I can see that – frankly – you’re not clear what you’re buying.
You’re terrified the internet police will whisk you away to cyber jail because your images don’t have alt text. (“What the frick is alt text?!” We’ll get there…)
And I get that, truly. As a small business owner, the idea of getting a letter with a legal seal and court date makes my stomach churn.
“Yeah I’ll take the #2 special with a heaping side of stress induced ulcers please.”
-A small business owner somewhere, probably.
The thing is, this fear makes you a big ol’ target for accessibility vendors peddling gimmicky solutions that don’t actually work.
What if instead you knew the facts about website accessibility, how it applies to your online business, and could make an informed choice about what to do?
If that interests you, keep reading…
What is Digital Accessibility?
Somewhere along the way someone mentioned “ADA compliance” or “web accessibility” to you.
Let’s start with some definitions:
- The ADA = The Americans with Disabilities Act: The law that primarily governs accessibility in the U.S. prohibiting discrimination against those with disabilities.
- Web Accessibility: The inclusive practice of ensuring there are no barriers that prevent interaction with, or access to, content on the World Wide Web by people with disabilities.
To recap: one is a law and one is a practice.
When people talk about “compliance”, they are talking about being in compliance with The Americans with Disabilities Act, the law which states that places of public accommodation need to be accessible to all.
When people talk about how “accessible” something is, they’re referencing how easy – or not easy – it is for people with varying abilities to use.
The Problem In a Nutshell
The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed by Congress in 1990, before small businesses websites were really a thing. In fact, there are no instances of the word “internet”, “digital” or “website” in there at all (source).
(There is a law that government websites need to be accessible. I’m paraphrasing pretty hard, but Section 508 is what you’re looking for if you wanna get nerdy.)
So if the ADA doesn’t mention websites…why are we getting so bent out of shape about it?
Because the ADA does say that “places of public accommodation” need to be accessible to all, and “places of public accommodation” has been interpreted by the Department of Justice and U.S. courts to apply to websites.
Your website = probably a place of public accommodation.
In the past 10ish years there’s been an increasing number of lawsuits over this, including some very legitimate ones like NAD v Netflix where The National Association of the Deaf called out the media giant for failing to provide closed captioning on most of its streaming content.
But there’s also been a surge in what seems like unscrupulous lawyers filing lawsuits against small businesses in an attempt to shake them down for lunch money.
This has created some boogeyman lore that:
A) Freaks online business people out. The idea of getting sued and having to settle for megabucks is scary, and has people buying snake oil solutions.
B) Shifts the conversation away from what really matters: creating inclusive spaces that everyone can experience and benefit from.
Lawsuits?! How Freaked Out Should I Be?
While you very well could get a demand letter, and you probably know someone who knows someone who has, it’s not likely that you will. Here’s a few stats to bring your blood pressure down:
- 96% of websites are non-compliant, so you are most definitely not alone in this.
- 77% of digital accessibility lawsuits are against e-commerce sites. So if you’re a service provider, you’re less of a target.
- Most of the lawsuits being filed are in New York and California, and by a huuuuuge margin. So if you’re in another state, you can breathe a little easier.
That being said, think of it like a canary in the coal mine – these lawsuits are a sign of things to come. Digital accessibility is becoming more widely accepted as the way of the future, and it’s time for you to get on board too.
How To Start Your Accessibility Journey
Real accessibility takes genuine time and manual effort. There’s no quick fixes, and “solving” for accessibility isn’t a one-time thing – you make a commitment to continually address it. If someone claims otherwise, ask lots of questions and be on the lookout for faux-accessibility vendors.
To the lovely readers who are interested in genuine accessibility, I suggest a layered approach:
A) Scan your website for low-hanging fruit. Automated scanners only catch 20-50% of issues, but it’s a good start towards recognizing your problem areas and starting to fix them. (Psst, I have a lot more to say about the responsible use of automated scanners! Click here to read Why Accessibility Overlays Aren’t Enough.)
B) Hire an accessibility specialist. If being ADA compliant is your goal, you’ll want to bring in one of these head honchos. Expect this to cost 4-5 figures depending on how many pages your website has, plus the costs of fixing the issues that are found. Keep in mind, digital accessibility is not a one and done – you’ll need to keep up with it. As soon as you post a new blog article, send a newsletter, or design a new downloadable PDF, you could go right back to creating inaccessible content. So you’ll need to…
C) Get used to creating accessible content. That means learning how, looping in your team and hiring contractors that design with accessibility in mind so that it becomes a day-to-day habit. (Get started with this checklist for content editors & creators!)
Looking for a tech + marketing superhero that designs with accessibility in mind?
Hey there, I’m Caitlin!
I work with online service providers, course creators and community leaders to create digital marketing + client systems that look darn good – and work together seamlessly.
Grab the Ebook:
Digital Accessibility for Online Business Owners & Content Creators
If you want to build an accessible online business but the “how” feels elusive, it’s not just you – digital accessibility is in its wild west years, with snake oil salesmen to boot. Get the facts – and learn to spot the quacks – with this easy-to-read ebook.