accessibility

People can sue you for having a website that isn’t accessible under the Americans with Disability Act

Domino’s Pizza Tracker wasn’t made to work well for people who use adaptive technologies like screen readers. So, someone sued, the Supreme Court let the case stand, and now there’s legal precedent in the United States for suing someone because their website is crappy.

I first noticed this case over a year ago. And several high-profile cases against breweries in New York State also caught my attention a summer ago. In New York, a few attorneys made a splash by suing breweries for having inaccessible websites — and they won. And they kept winning, all under the rules of the ADA. The Supreme Court decision relied on the ADA for businesses operating out of brick and mortar locations. To my best legal understanding right now, online-only businesses are still the Wild West.

To be clear, the lawsuits were for “injunctive relief”, not damages. In other words, people were suing not for money, but “to make you fix it”. That in and of itself might cost money, but it wasn’t just money awarded to another person for being wronged.

My brief opinion

Accessibility is usually good for everyone. Ever use an OXO can opener? OXO products are designed for people with low dexterity, but they’re also just really nice to use for people who’s hand mobility is otherwise fine. Or those blue automatic door opening buttons for wheelchair users. They come in handy when you’ve got a large cart or your hands are full and you can’t easily push or pull the door.

The same can be said for the web. Often the results from making a page more accessible just makes it better, clearer, and a little nicer.

But there’s a limit. Accessible websites built with accessibility as a focus are, often, just plain ugly. More on that in a moment.

What we’re already doing

Accessible websites feature some distinct things:

  1. Every image should come with brief descriptive text (called an “ALT Tag”). So if you see a photo of a banana, the ALT text tells a screen reader this is a “Photo of a banana”.
  2. Forms have labels that are descriptive of what they are for. Like “First name field” and “Last name field”. 
  3. A logical flow to the material on the page with a Page title, headings, body text, and sub-headings. Not only is this good for accessibility, it’s also just easier to read and skim.

We’ve been doing this for years as matter of good practice along with a bunch of other stuff, like focus order (so when you tab through the order is logical), input focus consistency, audio controls wherever sound is present, and logical structure. 

What we’ve started doing recently

Imagine if you loaded your homepage and you had to read every piece of text from top left to bottom right. No really, you have to read it aloud. And every piece. So that navigation menu you just skipped? Yeah, gotta go rattle that off.

We’ve introduced what are called “skiplinks” to many sites and continue to roll through on older ones. These “skiplinks” tell a screen reader, “This is the same menu again. You can skip ahead.” It’s the same thing you do when you load a page: you go read the material in the middle or watch the video and look at the photos. You don’t thumb through the navigation every time.

We’re also put functions into place that:

  • Add JavaScript support for quickly moving cursor focus with the keyboard, not just the mouse.
  • Enforce alt tags on images for user-submitted images.
  • Forces a search page error when a search is made on an empty search field.
  • Remove redundant titles from some category and archive lists.

Much of this has been work we’ve done that for sighted and non-adaptive users like yourself that you’d never notice.

The upper limits of accessibility we don’t think most people are willing to do

There are limits, often in cost, time, and even aesthetic choices associated with web accessibility. To be truly accessible, you need or must ensure:

  • A text transcript of every video and audio piece on your site, for people who can’t see or hear or both. This enables the use of captions, alternate audio, and/or braille-adaptive keyboards for blind and deaf users. 
  • All colors must be high-contrast, all text must be at least 12-point with buttons present to increase it on demand. So that grey text in the footer you never wanted people to read has to be as legible as everything else on the page. Every button must be a solid shade at maximum contrast. To pass most accessibility tests, that’s relying on primary colors.
  • Never include a time limit on a page.
  • All instructions must include details that use other senses, not just one.
  • No text is written above a 9th-grade reading level.
  • No images with text on or in them.
  • All links have ample spacing around them. 
  • No links are repeated in close proximity. So an image with a title beneath it that links to a page is non-standard. Only one should link to the page so users with hand mobility problems using, say, an iPad don’t accidentally trigger a link.
  • Complex words should have a mechanism to display the pronunciation. 

You can read a full breakdown at the WWW Consortium. These are the official rules.

I know from experience if I designed an email without pretty images that contain text, fail to link every imaginable piece of text and image to a product purchase or donation page, and start throwing things back at people not written for at most a 9th-grade comprehension level, I will have a hard time on my hands. I already get enough emails with “It needs more pop!”

What you can do as a site-owner

If and when you produce anything for your site, consider the following from the start:

  • Be specific with links. Don’t say “click here” or “read more”. Instead, “Read more about website accessibility”, or “Purchase your ticket now”. 
  • If you’re planning to record a video and you know you already have a script, work with your video producer to use the script for captioning. It’s really good for search optimization when you do.
  • Avoid text on images where possible. So all those holiday invitations and save-the-dates need a graphic as a graphic for aesthetics and the meaty details need to be plain text. This will help in email deliverability and reach, too.

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