Websites Must be Accessible to Americans with Disabilities

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    Website with icons representing disabilities to cater to

    In the USA, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been around since 1990, before the advent of the world wide web. The law bascially states that public facing business cannot discriminate against individuals with disabilities. Until recently, this mostly involved physical access to facilities. This is changing quickly, however, and leaning towards laws, regulations, or interpretations that include website accessibility.

    Last Monday, the Supreme Court denied Domino's petition to review their case where they are being sued by a blind man. The man claims he cannot fully use Domino's website and mobile app through screen-reading software. Domino's asserts the man can achieve the same service by using the telephone and that the ADA's regulations predate the world wide web.

    Who's right?

    The Problem

    Blind or visually impaired people use screen readers to work their way through website content. The difference between a good website experience and a poor experience for them has to do with how the site was coded. 

    As an example, the following is the HTML code that shows an image (HTML is the markup language used for websites).

    <img src="394949.jpg" />

    Notice the filename of the image. Some screen readers will see this and read the name of the image which tells the visitor absolutely nothing about the image. What the website owners should have coded is this:

    <img src="394949.jpg" alt="Delicious three-cheese pepperoni pizza" />

    The difference is the alt tag. Originally, the ALT tag was meant for browsers and visitors that couldn't download images because of bandwidth constraints or some other reason. The ALT text would display instead of the image. As time went on, however, this tag was used for search engine optimization as well as screen readers for the visually impaired.

    Solutions for Visually Impaired People

    Several initiatives have been gaining momentum over the last decade. One major initiative, upon which most accessibility guidelines are based, is the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0). That's quite a mouthful, I know. 

    The WCAG provides guidelines for coding websites and providing alternative content options.

    The ADA website also provides a website accessibility toolkit for state and local governments. Paragraph B discusses common barriers faced by people with disabilities. It's an interesting read for any website developer, content marketer, and digital marketing agency owner.

    The Challenge

    For existing facilities built before the ADA that do not meet ADA requirements, there's an argument against costly structural improvements and accomodations. This can be a large gray area of the law.

    For websites, however, it may not be that clear. Modifying existing websites to accommodate WCAG guidelines could be costly but not unachievable. There are simple changes that can be made throughout the site, such as adding ALT tags to images and TITLE tags to links. Some of the more challenging guidelines may call for restructing and rewriting code that website owners may or may not have access to.

    There are a great deal of variables that impact the cost and difficulty of implementing WCAG guidelines. One of those is the underlying content management system (CMS) that controls and renders content for viewers. Some CMSes will lend themselves to easily restructuring code. Others may have their functions so deeply embedded in the core system that it would be an exorbitant cost to change.

    What You Should Do?

    We don't know exactly where the laws and regulations for accessible websites will end up. What we do know, though, especially in light of the Domino's SCOTUS denial, is that anyone with a public facing company can be sued for not having an accessible website for individuals with disabilities.

    Our recommendation is to use and build website templates that already have some WCAG recommendations built in. This allows content editors to write and manage content without having to know all the gory details of HTML code. If you're a digital marketing agency or web developer, designate someone on your team as the ADA expert and have them learn, consult, and lead the effort with others regarding best practices.

    It's better for customers to spend a little money now than to be sued by an angry patron and shell out mega bucks later for their legal defense and settlements.

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    About the Author

    Matt Zentz

    Matt Zentz launched Marketpath from a small Broad Ripple bungalow in February 2001 with a focus on custom web application development. He built the first, basic version of a hosted CMS called Webtools and shortly afterward expanded his team and created the first version of Marketpath CMS.

    Matt has worked for a national consulting firm, taught computer programming to high school juniors and seniors , and led the information technology arm of the auxiliary business units at Indiana University.

    Matt graduated from Indiana University in 1999 with a B.S. in Computer Science and has built custom web applications since 1995. Matt is husband to an amazing & supportive wife, has three beautiful children, supreme master to Archimedes (Archie) the dog, and mostly tolerant victim of 2 flying rats (cockateils).

    He coaches various kid sports, enjoys furniture and home renovation projects, and plays guitar and piano. Matt is also active with his church as a parishioner, technical advisor and board member on the festival committee.

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