6 Tips to Avoid the Wrong Side of a Web Accessibility Lawsuit

web accessibility
Judge Dan Hinde

A recent audit conducted by the Bureau of Internet Accessibility found that many law firm websites in the United States fail basic web accessibility checkpoints.

In the current legal climate of web accessibility, thousands of business owners are finding out that by not ensuring their websites are accessible to people with disabilities, they are exposing themselves to costly lawsuits and legal battles.

While most probably wouldn’t think of law firms as targets for these cases, our analysis of some of the most prestigious firms’ websites shows major gaps and risks.

Why Does Website Accessibility Matter?

The number of web accessibility lawsuits nearly tripled from 2017 to 2018 and the trend doesn’t appear to be slowing. In fact, over 2,250 web accessibility lawsuits were filed in federal court last year. So, why is this happening?

Unfortunately, many websites are not designed with accessibility in mind. While the Section 508 Amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 only requires that access to information and technology be accessible for federal agencies, that does not mean all other websites are immune.

Most of the lawsuits allege that websites and apps are not accessible to people who are blind or visually-impaired, who may use assistive technology like screen readers, and are thus in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Although the ADA predated the modern web and doesn’t specifically mention websites, it does prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in places of public accommodation.

As the rise in web accessibility lawsuits shows and as evidenced by plaintiff-favored rulings, websites are increasingly interpreted under the law as places of public accommodation. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has confirmed the same.

While the DOJ has not formalized a specific set of technical requirements under the law, judges have determined that compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) meets an acceptable standard of accessibility. Said another way, not complying with WCAG can be a violation of people’s rights under the ADA, and many are demonstrating that they’re prepared to defend those rights through litigation.

So what’s the problem for attorneys? In short, many attorney and law firm websites still aren’t up to par when it comes to accessibility standards.

Current State of Law Firm Website Accessibility

The Bureau of Internet Accessibility (BoIA) recently performed automated accessibility tests on ten of the country’s most prestigious law firms and found some alarming results. Our proprietary analysis platform scanned each website against 28 WCAG 2.1 checkpoints, identifying:

  • An overall combined failure rate of 46% of checkpoints tested.
  • The most accessible website had a failure rate of 16%.
  • The least accessible website had a failure rate of 74%.

Some of the most common issues identified:

  • Missing or inadequate alt text, with all websites failing this checkpoint.
  • Meaning and structure of content conveyed only through visual presentation, with all ten websites failing this checkpoint.
  • Keyboard inaccessibility, with 80% websites failing this checkpoint.
  • Instances of unclear link labels, with all websites failing this checkpoint.

Given the volume of lawsuits related to website accessibility, the execution errors uncovered by BoIA’s audit show that most law firm websites are at risk of costly lawsuits.

Additionally, failure to provide an accessible website alienates almost 20% of the population who have disabilities – resulting in loss of potential revenue and harm to the firm’s reputation.

Tips to Improve Accessibility

The best way to avoid a web accessibility lawsuit, of course, is to have a website that is accessible to everyone; but where do you even start?
Here are some quick ways to check the accessibility of a website.

1. Check all images and non-text content for alt text

This is one of the true pillars of accessibility, requiring that all images, charts, graphs, and anything that isn’t actual text on a web page has a text alternative that is available to people who use assistive technology. Because tools like screen readers don’t inherently know what an image displays, it’s critical that thoughtful and accurate alt text is provided. Without this, people who can’t see the information would have no way of receiving it.

2. Make sure your site is keyboard-friendly

Many people can’t use a mouse to navigate the web, and instead use a keyboard or other alternative input device. For this reason, keyboard accessibility is foundational to web accessibility, and it’s the responsibility of site owners to make sure everything is accessible using only a keyboard. Every link and control, every form and button, and everything else that can be operated with a mouse needs to work with a keyboard. Additionally, users who have sight but navigate by keyboard need to know where they are on the page, so there must be a visible focus indicator that clearly identifies the active element the user is currently selecting.

3. Check color contrast

Color contrast refers to how well one color stands out against another. By using sufficiently-contrasting colors, a website’s font visibility is stark enough for most people to read. Fortunately, there are defined standards for meeting color contrast compliance and it is very easy to test. The a11y® Color Contrast Validator provides a free color analysis of any web page or color combination, per WCAG 2.1 requirements.

4. Check for closed captions and transcripts on videos

Multimedia, like videos, rely on visual and auditory cues to share information. In order to make the information available to everyone, it needs to be provided in multiple forms. Captions are text alternatives of the audio content, synchronized with the video. For people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, captions are critical. Text transcripts are incredibly important for accessibility, too, and usually should include not only what is spoken in the video, but also descriptions of actions or important on-screen information.

5. Make sure PDFs and other digital documents are tagged

PDFs and other documents that are available digitally can be easy to overlook but are vital to accessibility. These documents must be tagged for accessibility in order to be usable to people who use assistive technology like screen readers. If customers or potential customers can get to it, it needs to be accessible; that doesn’t only go for websites and apps themselves, but any documents you might link to or share.

6. Review or create an accessibility statement

An accessibility statement is a declaration on your website that tells visitors about your commitment to web accessibility. Typically, it should clearly state your firm’s target level of accessibility and how it is achieving compliance. Accessibility statements are becoming expected on public websites and many people will seek them out as a quick indicator of whether a business and its website prioritize equal access to information.

Please note these are some of the basic steps you can take to improve accessibility and compliance with laws like the ADA, but this list alone is not enough to demonstrate compliance. With that disclaimer in mind, the effort spent on implementing the changes can decrease the risk of costly accessibility lawsuits and increase your potential client base.

Mark Shapiro

Mark Shapiro founded the Bureau of Internet Accessibility and currently serves as its President. The company consists of a team of 150 people whose mission is to make the Internet accessible to everyone. Over the past two decades they have helped thousands of organizations in making their mobile applications and website accessible to everyone. Mark can be reached at [email protected] or through LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/markboia/

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