Open and Equal Through Accessible Web Design
When you make website accessibility a priority, your firm will enjoy improved website performance and protection from lawsuits. More importantly, it’s the right thing to do.
Most of us use the Internet every day for work, shopping, socializing, staying informed, and procuring services. According to a Nielsen Company audience report, “The average American spends nearly half a day staring at a screen”, about “10 hours and 39 minutes each day”. No one should be excluded from such a ubiquitous aspect of modern life.
In our increasingly digital world, this is an issue of corporate responsibility and equal access. Website accessibility is especially important when it comes to accessing the legal system and the essential services lawyers and law firms provide.
Your firm’s website reflects on your brand, your public reputation and values. Most law firms—and all that we’ve had the pleasure of working with—are motivated a strong set of values: client service, community involvement, and, through pro bono, improving access to the legal system. Each of these values—client service, community, and equal access—intersects with website accessibility in online interactions.
The good news is that it’s relatively easy to make improvements and there is a strong business case for investing in this work. In addition, there is also a strong business case to be made for making website accessibility a priority, including improved website performance and reduced risk.
Web Accessibility Creates a Better User Experience
Accessible design is smart design.
Accessibility standards are considered best practices in the web development community. As you work to meet these standards, you will also be improving the user-experience for everyone visiting your site.
You will also be making life easier for a rapidly aging population. As the Population Reference Bureau reports, “the number of Americans ages 65 and older is projected to more than double from 46 million today to over 98 million by 2060”. That is a lot of potential traffic.
Regardless of age, everyone who has used the Internet has experienced the frustration of trying to read text that is too small or make sense of a complicated navigation menu. Accessible design also helps the temporarily restricted: users who have an arm in cast, have misplaced their reading glasses, or are viewing your website on smaller screens or through a slow internet connection.
Most visitors to a site are trying to complete an action or access information. The most effective websites are frictionless. Simplicity, and intuitive navigation, make it easy for users to engage with your firm—and that’s just good business.
Accessible Websites Enjoy SEO Benefits
Search engines love accessible websites!
In fact, many of the same practices involved in improving website accessibility also have a direct SEO benefit, including:
- Creating a clear site navigation structure
- Adding alt tags to images
- Providing captions and transcripts for videos
This is because of how Google and other search engines track, sort, and rank all the content that exists on the Internet. Obviously, there is a constantly deepening heap of content online. In order to fulfill its mission of organizing the world’s information and making it “universally accessible and useful” Google deploys automated bots and spiders that crawl around the Internet, following links, scanning through pages, and otherwise trying to make sense of web pages and websites. These programs struggle to make sense of visual information, which is why they “read” the alt tags in images and the transcripts provided for videos.
A person with a visual impairment might use a screen reader to access visual content. These screen readers similarly read out the text in alt tags and video transcripts. If you make your content more accessible for visitors with a range of visual abilities, you’re also making it easier for Google to understand what your content is about and this improves your website’s performance in the search engine results.
Web Accessibility Can Protect Your Firm From Legal Risks
Law firms operating in both the United States and Canada need to comply with evolving accessibility legislation as it relates to the digital world.
2017 saw a record number of website accessibility lawsuits filed in federal and state courts and there is no sign that this trend is slowing down. According to the Seyfarth ADA Title III Blog, “plaintiffs filed at least 814 federal lawsuits about allegedly inaccessible websites” in 2017. The authors admit that this estimate is quite conservative. Having your firm sued by a disability advocacy group would be an unmitigated PR disaster.
Legislation in the United States
When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990, the first web browser was still being developed and had not yet been released to the public.
The question of whether the ADA applies to the internet is centered around Title III of the Act, which protects against discrimination “on the Basis of Disability in Public Accommodations and Commercial Facilities”.
Title III has not yet been updated to include websites, apps, or online applications. A lack of clear legal standards has left the gate open to a flood of lawsuits. There has been litigation against healthcare operators, universities, education organizations, credit unions, and professional services firms. There has been an increase in both individual accessibility lawsuits and class actions. “In 2018, the number of federally-filed website accessibility cases skyrocketed to 2,285, up from 815 in the year prior. In the first half of 2019, these cases have increased 51.7% over the prior year’s comparable six-month period, with total filings for 2019 on pace to break last year’s record by reaching over 3,200,” notes an article in the National Law Review.
The Department of Justice (“DOJ”), the body charged with enforcing the ADA, has suggested that ADA applies to public accommodations’ websites. “This interpretation is consistent with the ADA’s title III requirement that the goods, services, privileges, or activities provided by places of public accommodation be equally accessible to people with disabilities,” the DOJ stated in a response to the House of Representatives on September 25th, 2018.
This DOJ’s response continues, however, adding another complication:
“Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of non-discrimination and effective communication. Accordingly, noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.”
How much “flexibility” do private entities have when it comes to interpreting accessibility? The DOJ’s letter doesn’t specify. Absent clear standards, the question of what constitutes compliance with ADA will continue to be decided in the courts.
Courts considering the question of how exactly ADA applies to the internet and what standard website owners must meet have often looked to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG requirements are likely to remain the “gold standard” until Congress clarifies the ADA. These are the standards we use to conduct accessibility audits and to perform remediation services.
Website Accessibility in Canada
Canada has numerous anti-discrimination laws including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which bans discrimination against people with a “mental or physical disability”. More recently, legislation focusing specifically on the rights of people with disabilities has been developed.
On June 21, 2019, The Accessible Canada Act (Bill C-81) became law. This bill applies to organizations under federal jurisdiction including the Federally-regulated private sector. One of the purposes of the bill is to identify, remove, and prevent accessibility barriers in “Information and communication technologies, including digital content and technologies used to access it.”
The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) became law in 2005 in Ontario. By law, you must make new and significantly refreshed public websites accessible if you are a private or non-profit organization with 50+ employees.
- Beginning January 1, 2014: new public websites, significantly refreshed websites and any web content posted after January 1, 2012 must meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level A
- Beginning January 1, 2021: all public websites and web content posted after January 1, 2012 must meet WCAG 2.0 Level AA other than criteria 1.2.4 (live captions) and 1.2.5 (pre-recorded audio descriptions)
AODA allows for “severe maximum monetary penalties for any violation to the Act.” Maximum penalties for a corporation deemed guilty can be as high as $100,000 per day.
Manitoba and Nova Scotia have put their own accessibility laws in place. Other provinces are not far behind. British Columbia announced an “Accessibility 2024 Vision”; one goal is to make internet access in B.C. the most accessible in the country by 2024.