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AI generated image of a classroom with "Web Accessibility 101" on the blackboard. Rows of tables with computers. One screen shows the accessibility symbol

Web Accessibility & Legal Compliance Guide for Decision Makers

Dave Gibson

Making good decisions requires a fundamental understanding of the issues, plus good advice from trusted people. In the case of website accessibility, making the wrong decision can land you in court and turn off customers. So this post is designed to provide insight into just what executive team members need to know to make these important decisions about digital accessibility and legal compliance. And of note, this advice applies to websites, SaaS, and mobile apps, but I tend to use "web accessibility" as an umbrella term.

But Isn't Our Website Already ADA Compliant?

One might assume so. You may have even be told it is. Yet, unless the site was either built with accessibility in mind, or it has already been audited and remediated using proper best practices, you should assume it is not. In fact, each year, Utah State's Web AIM Million Project tests the top million website homepages, and found that last year 96.3% were not compliant. So, do you really think you're in the top 3.7%?

And, if your told you have an accessibility overlay widget or plugin to take care of this, think again. Today, one would easily assume that one would work. There's a plugin for anything in today's web world. I'll go into greater detail further on, but trust me, not only do these not deliver on their claims, but they're now an easy target for predatory legal trolls.

Benefits of Web Accessibility

I’ll assume you already know what web accessibility is and why it's important, and focus first on some of the benefits that may not be apparent. 

  1. Expand customer base: By making your digital properties accessible, you open up your products and services to a significant market segment thate  includes people with disabilities and seniors. Yes, with 71 Baby Boomers holding over $548 Billion in discretionary spending, this is a key audience to court.

  2. Meeting DEI commitments: Committing to web accessibility affirms your respect for the rights and dignity of individuals with disabilities and seniors, underlining your dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This commitment is increasingly valued by customers, employees, and stakeholders.

  3. Improve user experience: Accessible digital properties often have better usability, benefiting all users, regardless of their abilities.

  4. Boosted SEO: Pursuing ADA compliance best practices can significantly enhance your website's search engine optimization (SEO). Clear headings, alt text, captions, and structured markup not only make your site more accessible but also improve its visibility to search engines, thereby expanding your audience reach.

Legal Landscape in Digital Accessibility

This is one very active and dynamic area of law. While the ADA at the federal level is still the dominant legal force, many serial plaintiff attorneys are shifting away from federal courts toward state courts. In some cases, the federal courts have become less accommodating and patient. In other cases, state laws such as New York have anti discrimination laws at the state level with deeper teeth that allow for damages. 

And remember despite where your business is headquartered, your website is available anywhere in the world, so your website, app, SaaS must comply with laws in every state and country.

To that point, the upcoming European Accessibility Act (EAA) is set to introduce new accessibility requirements for businesses operating in the EU. This one is going to be a big deal. If you recall the EU’s GDPR privacy and security law that hit in 2018, this is going to have a similar impact. 

What Are the Standards of Digital Accessibility and ADA Compliance?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), serve as the international standard for web accessibility. Adhering to WCAG ensures that your digital properties are accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities. The current version is WCAG 2.2. In fact our team lead was part of the W3C working group that developed that standard and is on the next 3.0 team as well, ensuring that our clients are always up-to-date with the latest standards.

Getting Started: Establish A Plan with Parameters

  • Goals
    Is your mission to simply avoid lawsuits, or to actually ensure that all seniors and people with disabilities can easily use your site. No judgement (ok, just a little), but be clear internally.

  • Redesign or Remediate?
    This is an excellent opportunity to assess where the site is in its lifespan. Before investing significant money into an audit and remediation of the current website, it may make more sense to simply skip to redesign. And when you do, consider outsourcing to a specialized web development team that specializes in accessible custom web design - such as Propeller. OR perhaps make the decision after the audit is complete and you have an idea of what the remediation cost will be.

  • Who will be responsible for accessibility compliance and who's budget will pay for it?
    The two questions are closely related. I suggest that whomever holds the budget should not be in charge of oversight. There's too much of a conflict and risk that the proper investment will not be made. No marketing director wants this cost to come out of his/her budget - as it most often would. So there is a huge risk that unless specific compliance goals and testing methods are in place, marketing directors have a strong incentive to go with the solution that appears to be the least expensive in the short term/fiscal. It's for this reason, that the use of ineffective overlay widgets have exploded.

  • How will we maintain web accessibility once we have reached our goals?
    Depending on the scale of the company and whether web development is in-house or external, training programs can be implimented - not only for web designers and developers, but content contributors in particular. Every blog post risks compliance, so content teams simply need to learn some basic rules when publishing to the website.

    Establish an ongoing monitoring schedule that includes a manual test annually at least, or whenever the design is modified.

WCAG Auditing Best Practices

To ensure your digital properties are fully accessible, it's essential to start with a comprehensive accessibility audit. This process should include a combination of automated testing tools and manual testing by experienced accessibility experts that includes screen reader testing. While automated tools can identify basic accessibility issues, they can only detect about 30% of barriers. Manual testing is necessary to uncover the remaining 70% and provide practical guidance on remediation.

Choosing the Right Web Accessibility Partner

When selecting a web accessibility consulting partner, it's crucial to choose one with extensive expertise and a proven track record. Accessibility.Works' team consists entirely of seasoned pros with a minimum of 19 years of experience in digital accessibility. Our auditing process is extremely thorough and our resulting reports serve as training guides and provide everything your team will need to effectively and efficiently remediate your website. And then we return to verify.

What to Look Out For

First, remember that automated testing tools can only detect ~30% of WCAG issues. And also beware, when these companies use the term AI, it’s old AI; not generative.

Overall there is also a shortage of qualified and experienced auditors in the space. And demand has skyrocketed. So even the established big players have diluted workforces and rely more and more on automation and auditors with little experience.

Final and most importantly avoid accessibility overlay widgets. Yes, they sound good and are very tempting to believe. And we expect there to be an existing plugin for any issue with websites today. However, these just don’t work.  Last year, 30% of lawsuits involved websites using an overlay. Not only do they put a bullseye on your website or app, they often obstruct real users using their native screen readers. Do not take the bait!

How Do I Show WCAG Compliance?

A Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) is a document that explains how a product, such as a website, software application, or hardware device, conforms to WCAG accessibility standards. It's a self-reporting tool that originated in government procurement, but has quickly expanded into the commercial space as ADA and state level accessibility compliance becomes so important. An Accessibility Conformance Report (ACR) is essentially a completed VPAT. Often companies outsource the authoring to the third party auditing firm that conducts the audit, because they require both in depth technical and accessibility knowledge and an outsourced VPAT/ACR holds more weight when authored by a reputable accessibility consultancy.

Taking Action

To begin your web accessibility journey, partner with experienced accessibility experts like the team at Accessibility.Works. We will conduct a thorough audit of your website, mobile apps, and other digital content, identifying accessibility barriers and developing a strategic plan to address them. Remember, web accessibility is an ongoing process that requires continuous monitoring and improvement.

In contrast to others, we don’t have any junior staff. Only seasoned experts with over 19 years in digital accessibility will assist you in getting your digital properties into legal compliance and accessible to all visitors.

By prioritizing web accessibility, you protect your business from legal risk, demonstrate your commitment to inclusivity, and create a welcoming digital environment for all your customers.