All-Ability Access: The Dos And Don’ts Of Website Accessibility

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Let’s take a poll. When you need to know something about a business, where do you look? Call it a hunch, but we bet you look online, even if it is just to find the email address or phone number to ask a specific question. From time to time, we are all guilty of being the instant-everything, buy-it-from-your-couch-while-wearing-your-sweatpants consumers.

Now, consider what it would be like if the website you visited had all of the information you needed, and for some reason it was written in a code that you, your smartphone, and your computer couldn’t access. Hard pass.

This is often the experience for the estimated 20 percent of the population who lives with a disability and relies on assistive technology and devices to access online information. By not making your website accessible, your property is essentially saying “We’re OK excluding one in five potential self-storage renters.”

Since when are properties OK with taking a 20 percent loss? Make website accessibility a top priority. Learn how to approach website accessibility through this list of dos and don’ts.

Do: Read Between The Legalese
The website accessibility legal landscape is more unclear than even your favorite hazy IPA. Does the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) apply to websites? Maybe. This feels like a trick question and a poor answer, but bear with us because there have been some conflicting court rulings. The courts are divided over this, and to complicate matters more, there are also several state-level laws that may require websites to be accessible too, such as California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act.

If you’re reading between the lines, what does this mean? Self-storage operators are at risk of being sued if their website does not meet current industry standards for website accessibility. This isn’t a panic-inducing tactic; the risk is real.

Don’t: Dismiss The Rise In “Surf-by” Lawsuits
When we say “surf-by” lawsuits, does it sound like it belongs next to surf and turf on a law school-themed happy hour menu? “Hello; yes, I’d love the surf-by lawsuit small plate, medium rare, thanks.” Dad jokes aren’t bad jokes.

Perhaps your business remembers the so-called “drive-by” lawsuits, where plaintiff law firms filed lawsuits claiming that your parking spots or wheelchair ramp did not meet ADA requirements. True, these lawsuits may not have been grounded in truth, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t frustrating and expensive to handle. You have better things to do with your time, so pay attention.

The new wave of “surf-by” lawsuits make similar (often unfounded) allegations concerning website accessibility. They take advantage of the ambiguity of the law and regulations surrounding website accessibility. In 2020 alone, there were more than 3,500 digital accessibility lawsuits filed in the U.S., and an estimated 250,000-plus settlement demand letters sent to website owners. Before you wonder how this applies to you, know that it’s not just massive name-brand companies; plaintiff firms are going after small and mid-sized companies as well. Why? It is profitable. Website accessibility is a grey area, which makes many companies more apt to pay a settlement than to fight an expensive lawsuit in court.

Do: Bring Your A-Game
If legally there isn’t consensus on website accessibility, how do you make sure a website is accessible? Good news first: The Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the de facto accessibility standard. However, the bad news is that WCAG and website accessibility in general are moving targets and demand a long-term, big picture approach. You’ve got to bring your A-game, pun intended, because WCAG has three different levels: A, AA, and AAA.

In case all those As make you think we’re talking about the dean’s list, let’s do the college try and start with the easy A: Level A. Here the focus is almost entirely on the website code, so the website will signal to screen readers and accessibility devices how users can navigate your website. Visibly, you probably won’t see a difference between a website that meets Level-A requirements and one that does not. This is because website code is in the bones, and not necessarily in the aesthetics.

The next level is Level AA, which adds additional criteria to Level A. This focuses on website aesthetics, such as larger font sizes to increase readability. The final level is AAA. It’s a rather severe standard that is not recommended for most websites.

Don’t: Think Website Accessibility Is One And Done
Just in case all of these A-listers weren’t confusing enough, there are also different versions of the criteria as it gets updated. With each update in WCAG criteria, as well as each update you make to your website, there is an opportunity for your website to slip out of compliance. The details between these versions matter, and the details of making sure each website update is accessible matter. Right now, the most current version is WCAG 2.1, but don’t get too comfortable if your website is WCAG 2.1 compliant because the next version, WCAG 2.2, is expected to drop this year, and an even bigger upgrade may be released in early 2022.

Do: Make It A Central Process
Website accessibility needs to be central to your website process, not an afterthought. You want to work with a website partner who launches accessible websites right out of the gate. We’re not exaggerating by saying that you’d be starting at square one again if you launched an inaccessible website and then “planned to get it up to WCAG standards later.”

Don’t: Fix It With An App
Remember that Level A focuses on clear website code? Good. Clear code enables screen readers to navigate your website and share information with users. This is why you can’t simply slap an accessibility app on a website, without paying attention to the foundational website bones, and then call it accessible.

Do: Take Action
When evaluating a website services provider, or checking in with your current provider, ask questions and take action. Try these out: What WCAG standard do they use when launching their websites? How do they approach ongoing accessibility monitoring and maintenance?

You need to trust and rely on this partner as subject matter experts, because the technical requirements around this will continue to evolve. If they can’t answer simple questions like this, then you need to look for a new website provider.

Do: Keep The Receipts
Are you already working with a website provider? If so, make sure you or your service provider are checking back in on the website at regular intervals to ensure it continues to meet current WCAG standards. Keep the “receipts;” you’ll need access to those regular accessibility check records. If you are the recipient of a demand letter, it can be helpful to have a paper trail that proves your ongoing commitment to website accessibility. If you’re taking a more hands-on approach, be aware that there are many, many different website accessibility scanning tools available today. By our last count, there were over 160 different options. Some aren’t out there to tell you whether you’re meeting WCAG standards; instead they’re built to show you a “failing” score that can miraculously only be resolved if you buy their products and services. Others may show a website as passing, but if you were to run the scan again at a different time of day, it might fail based on page speeds, load times, and integrations. While you might see ads that suggest otherwise, software alone won’t keep you on top of the updates. It takes a combination of people and systems to ensure ongoing accessibility compliance.

Do: Talk The Talk And Walk The Walk
Include an accessibility statement on your website. This shows that accessibility is important to you and that you’re striving to make your website an inclusive place for people of all abilities. This seems straightforward, but, like an app, don’t include a statement on your website and call it accessible if you haven’t actuallybuilt an accessible website. There is no quick fix. A long-term website accessibility approach will help you mitigate risk and reach more renters.

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