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Android cowboy and horse riding into the sunset of web accessibility

ADA Web Compliance: Managing What You Can and Can’t Control

Dave Gibson

As a marketer in charge of the website and growing business (or in compliance in charge of protecting your business), you might feel that ADA website compliance is the wild west, where some things you can control, but some you can't. And those that you can’t, may get at you like a thorn in the saddle. No worries. Marshal WCAG will set you straight.

Ride along. I love metaphores. 

First, let's establish why you should want to make your website accessible. Accessible websites are not only a legal requirement but also a gateway to broader opportunities. By ensuring your site meets accessibility standards, you open your doors to 61 million users with disabilities while also tapping into another 60 million seniors, who just happen to be holding $1.3T in those saddlebags. Yes web accessibility will also improve SEO and AI bots. But what we focus on is that accessibility is the pinnacle of usability. Good usability ensures deeper engagement and more conversions. (more on benefits)

The benefits are clear, but the risks of neglecting accessibility are equally significant. Non-compliance can lead to legal actions, brand damage, and lost business opportunities. It's just not a good look to get labeled as a company that discriminates against seniors and people with disabilities.

The good news is that we have an international standard for accessibility that governs compliance with the ADA, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and various state laws mandate accessibility. Plus laws in other countries - in particular the upcoming European Accessibility Act which takes effect next year and promises to be the next GDPR for many companies here in the US.

Web Accessibility Compliance Liability of Website Owners

First things first: if it’s on your website, you own it—liabilities and all. In the digital age, website accessibility isn’t just a nice-to-have; it’s a must. If your site isn’t compliant, you could face lawsuits, brand damage, and missed opportunities. So, tighten those stirrups and giddyup.

Uncontrollable Factors in Website Accessibility

Third-Party Plugins and Widgets

In the untamed landscape of web development, third-party plugins, apps, modules, and widgets are like meeting cowboys on the trail—it’s hard to tell friend from foe by just looking at them. These external tools often don’t meet WCAG standards, even if they say they do. Each is developed by different developers who may or may not have incorporated accessibility into their design or development. You don’t know how well they’ve been tested. They might break your site’s accessibility features or introduce new barriers. In many cases, you may need to go back to the plugin developer and request they fix their accessibility gaps.

CMS Limitations

Content Management Systems (CMS) can be segmented into two categories: installed platforms and hosted platforms.

Installed Platforms
These are built on platforms like WordPress or Drupal which require hosting and offer more flexibility for developers. To save development time and money, developers rely on prebuilt plugins/apps/modules to deliver special functionalities. As mentioned, these add new risks, and require diligence in selection and testing. But in general, the platforms themselves provide complete access to the code to allow developers to address any WCAG gaps.

Hosted Platforms
Platforms like Shopify, Wix, and SquareSpace are designed for ease of use but come with significant limitations to control a website’s accessibility compliance. Shopify, for example is a very popular ecommerce platform (which we use), and while we haven’t bumped into issues with its core, many and perhaps most third party apps no longer provide developers access to the front side layers. This requires developers to contact the app provider and try to get them to address the issue. Some are very responsive, while others aren’t. 

While Shopify offers some customization options, Wix and SquareSpace are more restrictive. For instance, with Wix even though they’ve made commitments and huge strides in accessibility, there can still be elements that just cannot be fixed. SquareSpace has not been as committed, and in these cases there’s nothing you can do, except try a different theme, or shift to a different platform. support.


Controllable Aspects of Website Accessibility

Human WCAG Auditing and Manual Website Testing

In most cases other than those previously mentioned, your devs will have all the access they need to audit and remediate issues. Still, there are always those complex elements that may never be feasible to make accessible in every user scenario. In such cases, perhaps the element can be made more simple. Or perhaps you can provide an accessible alternative. At the very least provide a text description of the element and how it would be applied. 

In normal circumstances, you’ll want to have the website or web app/SaaS properly audited by qualified consultants. In a plug-in web development world, one would simply assume there is a plugin that could make a website accessible. However in this case, the WCAG is nuanced and interpretive and there are user scenarios that automated testing or remediation tools simply cannot even detect. Automated tools are helpful for catching low-hanging fruit, but can only catch about 30% of WCAG issues. Human auditors, however, can dive deeper, identifying and addressing the nuanced barriers that automated tools miss. This combination of automated and manual testing ensures a comprehensive audit, revealing gaps that need fixing.

Content Management and Regular Updates

Regular audits and updates are your best defense against accessibility issues. Websites are living entities—they grow, change, and evolve. Keeping up with these changes is crucial. Regular accessibility checks ensure that new content and updates don’t introduce new barriers. Best practices include scheduling periodic audits, training your team on accessibility principles, and using automated tools to catch low-hanging fruit between manual audits.

Choosing the Right Guide

Before you saddle up and head off, in these parts you’ll want a guide. Yes, you can use automated tools to get you partway down the trail, but they won’t get you all the way. You need manual WCAG auditing by a qualified accessibility tester. What you want from a web accessibility consultant is not just knowledge and experience in WCAG compliance. It's not that hard to train someone to identify WCAG barriers. What is rare are consultants who understand the code itself and can speak geek with your developers. Here, experience really matters, and this is what we offer.

Avoiding Overlays

Let’s talk about overlays, those so-called silver bullets that promise instant ADA compliance. Spoiler alert: they don’t work. These are the snake oil salesmen of these parts. Overlays add a layer over your existing site to mask accessibility issues, but they don’t fix the underlying problems. And as an automated tool, they can’t even detect 60%-705 of WCAG issues in the first place - so their claims are hogwash. They obstruct screen readers and can even introduce new barriers. And do they offer any legal protection? No. The opposite. Last year, 30% of all web accessibility lawsuits involved websites using these things. More about these rascals.


Wrap Up

In this wild west of ADA compliance, it’s essential to know what you can control and what you can’t. While third-party plugins and CMS limitations pose challenges, there are many aspects of web accessibility you can manage effectively. Regular human audits, adapting to CMS constraints, and steering clear of overlays are crucial steps. By focusing on accessibility, you not only comply with legal standards but also create a better, more inclusive user experience for all. Remember, true accessibility is an ongoing commitment, not a one-time fix. So, get on that horse and ride into the sunset following the best path, and give us a holler if you want that guide.