Website accessibility has grown to become a necessity for many businesses today. Even small business owners need to put up their own fully accessible websites now, or else they get buried alive by the competition or, worse, be embroiled in legal storms. For the many hesitant small business owners who think that their company is too small to begin worrying about web accessibility, this article should be an eye-opener.
Owners of small businesses are often caught between a long list of business chores that include building a customer base, setting up a functional business model, directly dealing with customers and suppliers, running everything hands-on in their physical location, and being decision-makers in their enterprise. This then leaves them with less time to attend to other important support functions such as maintaining an accessible website. Our team at ADA Site Compliance completely understands this small business owner dilemma, so we will talk about how small business owners can deal with this and provide ways how they can overcome their compliance issues.
A 2021 survey conducted by Top Design Firms revealed that 28% of small businesses do not have a website, although 44% of those surveyed said that they plan to create one. There are a number of reasons why small businesses do not operate a website. There are survey participants who revealed that they have no idea where to start, while some find the task of building and maintaining a business website difficult, and others think that it’s too expensive for them.
For those that do have their websites, the primary reason they created an online presence was to showcase their products and services. In this group are small business owners who comprehend the value of investing in website performance and optimization. According to the survey, these small businesses plan to improve their website performance and speed in 2021 (43%), optimize for a mobile website (34%) and integrate voice search (17%).
Why do companies care about website accessibility?
Small business owners need to be able to fathom the importance of website accessibility. It is important that they know where they stand because, sooner or later, they will feel the impact of not complying with accessibility regulations on their business. And when they do, it could be potentially disastrous for their bottom line.
While most website users just leave an inaccessible website, there are those who have filed accessibility complaints against the non-compliant sites. Many website business owners are being sued for the reason that their websites do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This regulation provides a shield for people with disabilities from discrimination and requires all establishments to provide equal access accommodations.
Does a small business website need to be ADA-compliant?
The answer is definitely yes. Small business owners are required to be ADA compliant and make their websites accessible to people who have visual impairment, hearing problems, or cognitive disabilities in order to avoid dealing with demand letters and lawsuits. Published in 2010, the ADA Standards for Accessible Design covers all electronic and information technology and applies to all commercial and public organizations that provide public accommodation.
In addition, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) lays out different techniques that provide guidance to site developers and website owners when it comes to making a website accessible and, thus, avoiding situations involving accessibility problems. The WCAG standards help to develop a website that is “perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust to all users, including those with disabilities.” The WCAG’s goal is to provide “a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments internationally.”
Web accessibility lawsuits in the U.S.
Website accessibility is considered part of Public Accommodations and Commercial Facilities (Title III), which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodations.” The numbers gathered by the Seyfarth Shaw study included Title III lawsuits filed on various grounds, such as websites and mobile applications. Complainants with a disability alleged they were unable to use websites because they were not coded to be accessible to them or could not accommodate assistive technologies such as screen readers.
The general trend of web accessibility lawsuits in the country has been on the rise since early 2021 and is expected to be a record-breaker. According to research by Seyfarth Shaw LLP, the total number of ADA Title III lawsuits reached 10,982 in 2020, despite the pandemic. The figures are down by only 1%, from 11,053 in 2019, but still exceeded 10,000 for the second time since the company began tracking the lawsuits in 2013.
Small businesses are potential targets of accessibility lawsuits
If you’re a small business owner who thinks your business is too small to worry about website accessibility lawsuits, you may be setting yourself up for lawsuits and legal fees. In fact, lawyers will find such small business owners as easy targets who may be quick to agree to quick settlements. With lawsuits permeating into all types of businesses, no business, regardless of size, is immune.
So, it is imperative for small business owners to include website accessibility in their top business priorities. They must set aside a budget for the improvement of web accessibility. While this may mean significant expenses, it will provide protection for the business in the long run.
How can I improve the accessibility of my website?
To improve accessibility, a website may need to be modified to meet the requisite guidelines. This could translate to hours of work, but it will protect the small business owner from lawsuits and legal costs. Here are several ways to improve the accessibility of a website:
Provide a web accessibility statement.
Creating a web accessibility statement tells site visitors the target level of the site’s web accessibility and any efforts or methods used to improve it. It may also inform users of alternative routes to access when there are obstacles or violations. W3C provides a tool that allows website owners to create and customize an accessibility statement.
Provide adequate color contrast.
Color and contrast are crucial elements of accessibility on a business site. Users must be able to perceive content on the page, including those with low vision and visual impairments. Plus, it will not leave out potential customers with color blindness.
Include alternative text for all images.
Alternative text, or alt text, provides descriptions of images to users who are unable to see them. This does not only refer to blind people, but to users who opt to disable images on their devices as well. For screen reader users, the alt text should be read aloud.
Provide appropriate keyboard input.
People with disabilities rely heavily on adaptive keyboards apart from other types of assistive technology. Design the website so that its layout and navigation are keyboard-friendly. Also, visually-impaired users should be able to navigate the entire website without difficulty.
Include audio and video transcripts.
Transcripts refer to a text version of speech or non-speech audio data. They are necessary for deaf users or those with hard of hearing to understand the content. For videos, include descriptive transcripts that provide visual information necessary for them to interpret the content.
Getting help to improve web accessibility
For many small business owners, the idea of doing all that’s necessary to make their website accessible is daunting and overwhelming. Aside from that, the lack of education, time, money, and resources all play a part in their inability to work on their website accessibility. This is why there needs to be another option that will help deal with the problem. The quickest way around this is by hiring a website accessibility expert who can implement web content accessibility guidelines.
Web accessibility service providers evaluate a site’s accessibility features to assess the level of its ADA compliance, make recommendations on what needs to be improved, and enhance the website to make it comply with WCAG guidelines and ADA standards. Their services also include implementing state and federal accessibility requirements so that they are in line with regulations mandated by government organizations involved.
Since the web is considered public accommodation, every business operating on it is under obligation to ensure that it is ADA compliant. The current flood of accessibility lawsuits filed in state and federal courts is an indication of how crucial adherence to accessibility standards is. Therefore, there has never been a more critical time to implement website accessibility standards as a top priority than today.
For small businesses to continue to thrive in an already cutthroat industry, ADA compliance is a must to ensure continuous business operation. On the brighter side, implementing an ADA-compliant accessible website also encourages prospects and customers of all types, to return to the website due to an intuitive user experience. Thus, investing in an accessible website provides a user-friendly experience for regular clients and prospective customers, ensures the website caters to the disability market, and offers an excellent customer journey while protecting the business from the possibility of getting hit by ADA lawsuits due to inaccessibility.
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The ADA prohibits any private businesses that provide goods or services to the public, referred to as “public accommodations,” from discriminating against those with disabilities. Federal courts have ruled that the ADA includes websites in the definition of public accommodation. As such, websites must offer auxiliary aids and services to low-vision, hearing-impaired, and physically disabled persons, in the same way a business facility must offer wheelchair ramps, braille signage, and sign language interpreters, among other forms of assistance.
All websites must be properly coded for use by electronic screen readers that read aloud to sight-impaired users the visual elements of a webpage. Additionally, all live and pre-recorded audio content must have synchronous captioning for hearing-impaired users.
Websites must accommodate hundreds of keyboard combinations, such as Ctrl + P to print, that people with disabilities depend on to navigate the Internet.
Litigation continues to increase substantially. All business and governmental entities are potential targets for lawsuits and demand letters. Recent actions by the Department of Justice targeting businesses with inaccessible websites will likely create a dramatic increase of litigation risk.
Big box retailer Target Corp. was ordered to pay $6 million – plus $3.7 million more in legal costs – to settle a landmark class action suit brought by the National Federation of the Blind. Other recent defendants in these cases have included McDonald’s, Carnival Cruise Lines, Netflix, Harvard University, Foot Locker, and the National Basketball Association (NBA). Along with these large companies, thousands of small businesses have been subject to ADA website litigation.
Defendants in ADA lawsuits typically pay plaintiff's legal fees, their own legal fees for defending the litigation, and potential additional costs. In all, the average cost can range from tens of thousands of dollars, to above six figures. There are also high intangible costs, such as added stress, time and human capital, as well as reputational damage. Furthermore, if the remediation is incomplete, copycat suits and serial filers can follow, meaning double or triple the outlay. It's vital to implement a long-term strategy for ensuring your website is accessible and legally compliant.