Smooth Sailing to Website Accessibility
Thinking about making your website ADA compliant? Here are 5 tips to help navigate tricky waters.
Website accessibility is quickly becoming a “must have” component of successful law firm website development. More and more firms that are redesigning their websites are now factoring it into their requirements, while firms that recently launched a website without it are considering a retrofit to meet compliance standards. Because building a website to meet the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) accessibility guidelines can be a complex process that comes with additional expense, firms need to weigh the benefits when deciding whether it’s worth it to spend the additional funds.
When the ADA was signed into law in 1990, the first website was still a year away. The Act protected those with disabilities from discrimination in “any place of public accommodation,” but in practical terms, the focus was on ensuring that a business’s physical location was accessible to those with disabilities. As the world evolved and moved online in the years that followed, a company’s website replaced its storefront. Thus, the protections of the Act can likely be applied to a private business’s website as well. We say “likely” because the water is still a little murky. It’s generally expected that organizations receiving public funds (e.g., public universities) have accessible websites, but the burden for private businesses has been less clear. A few years ago, the Department of Justice (DOJ) was supposed to clarify the scope of the ADA, define how it relates to website accessibility for private businesses, and provide specific legal standards for applying ADA requirements to business websites. Unfortunately, these actions were put on hold while the DOJ continued to assess the situation. As of early 2022, we are still awaiting official guidelines. So what we’re left with are many shades of gray when it comes to what private businesses should do.
In the meantime, the number of lawsuits filed against businesses for having non-accessible websites has skyrocketed (especially in New York and California), and many judges have ruled that the ADA legally requires public websites to be accessible. While the issue may not be formally settled, thanks to the spike in lawsuits against larger businesses (including Netflix and Blue Apron) and the negative media coverage surrounding them, more and more businesses have taken a proactive stance to ensure their websites meet at least some level of accessibility.
In the absence of formal guidance regarding implementation of ADA accessibility standards, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a private international group of technology experts, developed their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that have become the standard for the industry. There are three potential levels of compliance: Level A, Level AA and Level AAA. Most law firms have chosen to follow Level AA to make their sites compliant as it is projected to be the standard that will most likely be adopted when web accessibility guidelines are clarified. But while the WCAG outlines general recommendations to make a website accessible (a technical checklist can be found here), it does not provide specific instructions for how to best achieve each of those recommendations from a technical perspective. In some cases, there can be multiple ways to meet a WCAG recommendation for a particular aspect of a website.
If your firm is thinking about retrofitting its website to be more accessible, or if you’re thinking about redesigning your firm’s website in the near future, consider the following five tips to help ensure a smooth transition and a thorough implementation of WCAG recommendations:
- Decide whether or not to make your website ADA compliant at the beginning of the design process if possible. Although many components of the criteria for ADA compliance deal with the technical coding and HTML structure of a website, there are requirements that can directly impact the visual design of a website, especially at level AA compliance. Color contrast requirements can have a significant impact in how colors are used throughout a website. If your firm's brand colors don't meet those required contrast ratios, it can add another layer to the design process as the firm will need to select colors that are compliant or limit the use of colors that don’t comply to certain applications that won't impact the site's ability to meet the criteria. An existing website can be converted to meet ADA compliance, but it is typically more complicated and costly to redo existing code than it would be to apply it during the initial site build.
- Look beyond the costs and consider the other benefits of an ADA-compliant website. Coding a website to meet ADA compliance criteria increases the development time and costs, and those additional costs often cause firms to second-guess the value of having an ADA-compliant site. But there are many other benefits that come from having a compliant website beyond the ability to check off a box on your "CYA" list. For example, it shows that your firm is socially responsible and concerned with inclusivity ¬¬— traits that will resonate with a market that is increasingly factoring a firm's corporate values into its own decision-making processes. If the firm is working in an area where types of disability issues are more likely to arise, such as Labor & Employment, it looks good to clients if the firm can show it takes these issues seriously as well. Additionally, there are SEO benefits to having an ADA-compliant website, as Google factors usability and content accessibility into its ranking algorithm. Plus, investing now in ADA compliance can help avert potential litigation since lawsuits related to non-compliant websites in various industries have increased in recent years.
- Don't rely solely on a single third-party plugin or software to tell you if your site is compliant. There are third-party plugins available, especially for Wordpress websites, that claim to provide automated web accessibility at a very minimal cost. While these plugins do have value and will certainly improve aspects of ADA compliance with your website, they are not infallible and don't always address all of the relevant criteria for compliance. Just like with automated language translation plugins, they may work great most of the time, but sometimes dialects or other intended meanings can get lost and the translation isn't entirely accurate. As mentioned previously, since the WCAG doesn't specify how to code your website in order to meet this criteria, there are often multiple approaches developers can take to meet certain guidelines. When different software programs scan a website to check for compliance, they sometimes flag different items and offer different solutions. It's not always a black-and-white issue — there can be shades of gray. It’s best to utilize multiple tools during the development stage to scan and test a site's compliance, and then strategically map the best path to implementation. Be wary of allowing AI to automate all of these decisions. If possible, try to manually test on an actual screen reader, or if you know someone who uses assistive technology to view websites, consider asking them to review your site for ease of use.
- Don't forget to check any third-party code used on your website. There are a lot of things your website development team can do directly within the code and framework of a website to ensure it meets the WCAG guidelines, but if your website incorporates third-party plugins or other third-party code to handle certain elements or functionality, you may run into a situation where those third-party elements are not compliant by default. For example, the code that some publications provide for lawyer award badges (so that firms can promote their accolades online) isn't always ADA compliant. Even some plugins from Google, such has Google Maps' embed code, aren't ADA compliant. In certain cases, your development team may be able to modify third-party code to meet compliance criteria, but there are instances where editing that code will not be an option. Firms should include an "Accessibility Statement" on their websites describing the firm's commitment to providing an accessible experience, outlining the steps they've taken and acknowledging any areas of the site that may not be compliant.
- Don't think of ADA compliance as a one-time task that you "set and forget." A website can be coded to meet ADA compliance criteria at launch, but there will still be work to be done post-launch in order to ensure a site remains in compliance as the firm continues to add and modify content over time. Make sure your CMS platform has built-in features that will allow the firm to maintain content compliance internally. Examples of these features include the ability to add or edit ALT tags for images, add meta data or include transcripts for videos. In the long run, it will be much easier for a firm to establish a standard in-house process for implementing compliance requirements when adding new content than it is to rely on an external agency to clean up and modify content on an ongoing basis.
As you contemplate charting the course for your firm’s future website, we hope these tips are useful as you evaluate what you’ll need to ensure ADA compliance. Like any venture, experience, expertise and expectations are critical to success, so source and pack your provisions accordingly!
Does your website need a refresh? If so, contact Herrmann’s Chief Business Development Officer John Albert today at email@example.com to see how Herrmann can help.