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How do I make my Shopify Website ADA compliant?

David Gibson

Shopify website owners are rapidly learning that website accessibility is a new cost of doing business that cannot be ignored. We have passed the legal tipping point and today websites are considered "places of public accommodation" and thus subject to the American Disabilities Act. Ecommerce and Shopify websites that are not ADA compliant are ripe targets for trolling law firms looking for easy money. In fact retail is the number one segment for website-related ADA lawsuits. Even during the pandemic, the demand letters and lawsuits are not slowing. Demand letters appear to be increasing in fact. 

What is the ADA and the WCAG?

The American Disabilities Act of 1990 was designed to ensure that people with disabilities can enjoy and use “places of public accommodation” equally. Today, the DOJ, courts, and advocates have crossed the tipping point where websites and mobile apps are considered such places, and thus protected. While the DOJ has failed to then implement clear technical guidelines, in practice, the Web Content Accessibility Guideline as the de facto standard for digital accessibility. The current version of the WCAG is 2.1 and comes in 3 levels: A, AA, AAA. To conform to Sect 508 and the ADA your website must meet WCAG 2.0 A, AA levels. 

Tips for making your Shopify ecommerce website accessible and ADA / WCAG compliant

To ensure your website is accessible and insulated from legal action, you need to first audit the website to identify all WCAG violations, and then you need to remediate and fix those issues to comply with the ADA. Be sure to avoid the increasing number of short-cut “solutions”, which I’ll cover further on.

Step One : Automated + AT Manual Audit of the Shopify Website

The best practice is a 3-factor audit that combines the results of automated, manual, and assistive technology into one comprehensive audit. Do not even consider relying solely on an automated audit. Even the best can only detect ~30% of WCAG issues, because these issues are nuanced and interpretive. To do this right you need to also add manual and assistive technology testing (screen readers, etc) of unique pages/templates to capture the other 70% of issues. Further, you want to be sure that the consultant you use, provides remediation guidance for each and every item. This is what we do, and we even include relevant screen-shots. Quality reporting at this level will greatly reduce the number of false positives, and well written remediation guidance will greatly reduce the time/cost impact on the remediation team. Learn more about our WCAG auditing services for Shopify websites.

Step Two : Manual Remediation of the Shopify Website

Either your team or outsourced company specializing in WCAG remediation for Shopify will first segment the audit results based on task category and then severity or priority. In our reporting, we indicate the severity of each item and then assign a priority level to guide project management. Issues then fall into three category buckets: design, content, development. 

Design issues will include items such as color, contrast, size, spacing, and page structure. 

Content issues will include items that can be addressed through Wordpress. These would include items such as image labels (alt tags), or the structure of headings (H1, H2, H3, etc). The content team would also handle captioning video content. Content remediation is not technical but tedious and makes good work for interns. 

Development issues will include the bulk of issues found in the front-side code : the CSS/HTML/Javascript layer. The good news is that Shopify websites are built using templates, shared modules, global libraries, etc... so one issue found on every page in a header element for example can potentially be eliminated with one fix. If the audit reporting is thorough and provides strong remediation guidance, a team of experienced developers should be able to address most issues on their own. Otherwise you may want to consider bringing in a team of remediation specialists who are experts in both WCAG compliance and Shopify.


How will the pandemic affect ADA related legal actions?

I have been speaking with many attorneys that specialize in digital accessibility, and have been asking what they see looking ahead during the pandemic. Consensus is that legal actions will grow. With so many lawyers, paralegals and serial plaintiffs at home with much less to do, they are filling that time generating demand letters. Demand letters are very effective and cost less than filing suits. The court system is at a stand-still anyhow. And since these cases are basically unwinnable, defendants only want to settle as quickly as possible, so we can expect to see a new surge in demand letters as we look ahead.


WCAG Auditing and Remediation Short-Cuts to Avoid

There is a growing breed of too-good-to-be-true “overlay” solution providers who claim that by adding a plugin or javascript snippet they can automagically make any website WCAG compliant. Without naming names, these rely on automated tools that can only detect ~30% of issues in the first place. As the term “overlay” suggests, these methods fail to fix the underlying code. They also need to be manually turned on by the end-user. Attorney Richard Hunt of Hunt Huey PLLC was one of the first attorneys to specialize in digital ADA cases. He recently wrote Is there a silver bullet for ADA website accessibility? Sorry, but the answer is no. on March 31, 2020: "If your business wants to avoid getting sued under the ADA because of an inaccessible website an accessibility overlay or widget isn’t going to help you. I can say this with some certainty because in the last two weeks alone five lawsuits have been filed against businesses that use an accessibility widget or overlay on their websites."

Also be sure to avoid alternate “accessible website tactics. This approach fails the separate but equal mandate of the ADA, as such sites are never equal in practice. 

Here is an entire article about these and other things to avoid.


Final Thought

If you only remember one thing from this post…  automated solutions can only detect 30% of WCAG issues.