For website managers at many businesses, large and small, this past season was the winter of their discontent. Beginning in December, dozens of art galleries in New York City were named in lawsuits, and the galleries weren't alone. Many hundreds of suits have been recently filed against businesses, cultural institutions, advocacy groups and even the pop phenomenon Beyoncé, whose website was named in a class-action suit filed in January.
The vulnerability that they have in common? These websites weren't accessible to the blind or visually impaired. The resultant lawsuits were filed by plaintiffs to compel businesses to bring their websites into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, thereby making them accessible to the blind and visually impaired.
If you operate a website as a part of your organization's work, the question you should be asking is:
Is my website fully accessible?
Are You Shutting Out Potential Customers?
Blind and visually impaired people like me are often cut off – however unintentionally – from a big part of life that you likely take for granted. Concern about blind students being shut out of online learning compelled me to write an article on the need for a universal design for the May 8th 2011 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education, a piece designed to raise awareness among educators and their IT teams.
Americans with Disabilities Act
For the blind, that need for website access – and the ADA compliance that can ensure it – extends across sectors, from education to businesses, services, cultural institutions and other organizations. If you have sight, think about how dependent on the Internet you are in your daily work and home life. How many websites do you visit in a typical day? Imagine what it would be like if you simply couldn't access those sites, and almost every day, you encountered several things that you simply could not do.
Despite the law, fair and equal web access has been elusive. Being shut out, being denied access to the websites upon which so much of commerce, business, and life itself depends in our world today, can prompt blind plaintiffs to go to court. When plaintiffs file suit, they do so citing the ADA. You may remember the ADA as the law that helps the wheelchair-bound gain access to public buildings, but that isn't all there is to it.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) recognizes that people with all disabilities have the right to equal access, including the blind and visually impaired, and this means access to digital and online media in addition to physical spaces. It's at the heart of the issue in the current flood of ADA suits.
Blind and visually impaired people use a reader to help us navigate and use websites. Readers decipher what's on the screen and electronically read it out loud, making it possible for us to access what we can't see. It's a technology that levels the playing field.
But, we are literally locked out when confronted with websites that aren't coded to be navigated by us. If you're trying to order groceries, book a hotel room or access your doctor's website and the site isn't set up for access, you're done. Imagine trying to get your job done without being able to read the screen; that's what confronts the blind and visually impaired worker on a daily basis.
Prevent Your Site from Becoming an Achilles Heel
For large business, the moves toward a fix are straightforward. They have the resources and compliance, legal and IT staff to quickly bring their websites into line with the ADA's requirements. They can redesign features and re-write code quickly to accommodate the needs of blind visitors, granting access and essentially extending a welcome.
But, small and medium-sized businesses and organizations are more often resource challenged. In news interviews, small and medium business owners who have been called out in ADA suits say that they feel vulnerable.
This can be easily addressed to everyone's benefit. Consulting with advocacy groups for the blind and visually impaired can be a great start for these organizations, and there are a number of guidelines to keep in mind as they begin the process of achieving ADA compliance with their websites.
What You Can Do to Ensure Your Website is Accessible
What can you do if you own a business and want to avoid being forced to comply at the point of a civil suit? Getting ahead of the problem costs less and is the smart move:
- Work with your compliance officer or professional to ensure that your websites are fully in line with ADA regulations and the internationally recognized WCAG 2.0/2.1 website accessibility standard;
- Seek counsel from advocacy groups for the blind or visually impaired, like ours. They can offer website consultations, audits, and access to tools that can keep you in compliance;
- Encourage your coders and content creators to improve your website by:
- Label buttons, links and images with text descriptions, known as alt tags;
- Adjust designs so that foreground and background colors have sufficient contrast;
- Ensure that your website is easily navigable using a keyboard interface.
- Use free training and online resources to stay on top of the law.
- Partner with other organizations and businesses, mutually pledging to make your websites accessible to the visually impaired by a deadline that you set together.
These actions benefit organizations in many ways: by being inclusive, you invite more customers and supporters in through your website – the front door of your organization. By taking the lead, you improve public perception; your value increases when you create more opportunities for access. That’s why the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired was one of the first to offer businesses and corporations nationwide website consultations to ensure compliance with the ADA.
Ultimately, this is about doing what's right. By increasing access, you are complying with the law and making sure that people – no matter their abilities – are given the same chance as everyone else. It’s not only fair, it’s inherently American, and our businesses, cultural institutions and even big stars like Beyoncé should remember that. Inclusiveness is not just a good thing – it’s the right thing.