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Date: 21 May 2018

How not to make your website ADA compliant!

I never cease to be astonished at how simple some web commentators and article writers think it is to make websites comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Their advice is simplistic in the extreme. Usually they limit it to a list of around 5 or 6 factors that if you fix, they claim, will magically achieve ADA compliance. And, by implication, will presumably make your website proof against the raging torrent of ADA compliance lawsuits, complaints and challenges that we see right now.

The ADA requires commercial websites to be accessible and usable by people with disabilities. The required standards to meet, that will be used as a reference in the ADA court room, are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). But if it were as easy as these articles make out, surely everone would have done it long ago. Web design agencies would be building accessible websites by default. The fact that most agencies clearly are not doing so sugggests there is a bigger issue here.

Some of the worst ADA articles

Example 1

One example of this type of article is found at ADA Compliance for Websites: ... What You Need to Know. This article lists eight, not entirely accurate, tips to follow, plus a somewhat confused section on color.

Example 2

Now here is a more promising article, from the banking industry no less, on the American Banker website. Surely we can expect a much more serious and informed explanation of the subject here? These are thousand-million dollar corporations, in a multi-trillion dollar industry. Their ADA compliance could be done out of the petty cash - they can surely buy the best advice? In the UK and Europe the banks are right in the front line of accessibility compliance - I have audited multiple websites for two UK based global banks myself, including their US web presences.

But no, this article on American Banker offers a highlighted list of just 5 matters for these billion dollar organisations to correct to fend off ADA litigation (which some have already been targeted with - 51 banks so far just this year). And to rub salt into the wound, the list is itself non-ADA compliant (the text is held in an image so cannot be displayed in different colors by vision impaired people, and does not have a correct alternative text for blind people!)

Example 3

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services became leader of the pack when it published their checklist of no fewer than 25 items to implement. Now 25 sounds a much better number - I mean, it is over half the actual number of required criteria (38, as we shall see below), so they seem to be getting there! And, being a government department it is trusted, and for that reason their checklist has been quoted and copied around the web in other articles about ADA compliance. (One URL that shows it is one by Tech Republic.com).

However, if we look at the Department's list more closely, the first five items are all about images and are covered by a single Success Criterion of the WCAG, SC1.1.1. And the next six are all about videos and other multimedia. The next two items involve certain HTML elements that are rarely used in the average commercial website....well, you get the picture! Suddenly that apparently promising figure of 25 seems not so large now! Probably the Department have realised its deficiencies as they seem to have taken the article down now, but the damage has been done - the checklist remains on many other websites, preserved for posterity!

The trouble with so many web articles, unless they are from a known writer, is that many websites engage writers who can write well and do a bit of research on any topic they are asked to write on, but who otherwise know nothing about the subject in question. Many blogs are written that way. The giveaway is when you see collections of articles all with no author attributed to them - that's the time to ask if they are being written by an expert or just a generalist writer for hire.

Unfortunately people read these things without knowing their dubious nature, and take their word for it.

So how many things to fix really?

Listen to all those advisors at your peril. Court actions about ADA compliance will use the WCAG 2.0 Level AA as the reference standard to meet. And Level AA contains 38 Success Criteria that are therefore required to achieve ADA compliance. And since several of them contain multiple requirements, the figure is actually a lot more than that.

So articles quoting just a few items are clearly of no use at all. Unfortunately the huge number of these articles lulls businesses and IT departments into a false sense of ADA security.

The Result

No wonder business in the US is being so slow to react to the crisis of lawsuits. Many business people have probably read these articles and picked on the message of apparent simplicity. Maybe they have had their web developers add a few alt texts to images (all the writers seem to advise adding image alt texts, that is one easy to understand concept they can get their heads around, though rarely if ever do they explain what these mysterious alt texts should actually say!)

Website ADA compliance is rapidly becoming a business disaster of gargantuan proportions. Sayfarth Shaw's ADA survey found that 814 lawsuits were started over non-ADA compliant websites in 2017 alone. And that does not include all the warning letters businesses received telling them to change their websites or face legal action. One very understandable reason for the lack of action is that the average business manager does not know where to start. But the level of guidance found on the internet does not discourage this complacent attitude.

Another reason for inaction is that some companies think they are too small for it to apply to them. That idea does not work very well either. The actual size for triggering the ADA is businesses with 15 or more employees, which is not very large at all. And that means all employees including the night cleaner. And including the two people you just hired that pushed your thirteen employees of last year into range of any ADA activist who wants to take a pot shot at you.

The state you are based in may have its own legislation as well, with a smaller entry size. It is true that the question of whether a website is actually a place of public accomodation has had attracted conflicting decisions in different courts, but it will be very expensive if you let it even get to the court stage.

So, a New ADA Planning list!

With so many misleading, complacent articles around the web I think it is time to redress the balance just a little. In my next post, I will offer a new checklist of what you should really do to correct your website. It will include around 70 matters in all, - yes, 70, not 5, or 8, or even 25! - drawn from the 38 required WCAG AA criteria. So you will be able to see that there is a lot more to it than web articles written by people with little knowledge of it make out.

The good news is that it is not usually technically difficult to achieve. The changes are almost all quite small ones. Read my next post to see the actual list of things you must do...

By Guy Hickling

I would welcome your thoughts on this subject...



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