ADA, WCAG, and Website Compliance: High Stakes or Table Stakes?

While the stakes for delivering a sensational digital content experience have never been higher, the level of tolerance for brands disregarding website accessibility standards has never been lower. 

When considering web accessibility, think of it in terms of a public venue—let’s say a municipal building. Most people will simply walk up the steps, pull open the door, read a sign on the wall, and head to the room they’re seeking. Others may require a ramp to reach the entrance, a button to automatically open the front doors, and visually-enhanced wayfinding or specialized audio to navigate and find their destinations. The web is no different, as visitors may have disparate physical and mental abilities, and may require assistance to fully immerse in your brand’s digital properties.

Since 1990, with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), progress has steadily been made. More recently, and specific to the web, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has created standards, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which define protocols and set parameters for compliance to ensure a more equitable digital experience for all web visitors. The newest level (2.1) includes guidelines on formatting, e.g., line height, and letter-word spacing, as well as hover and focus states, character key shortcuts, pointer gestures, and status messages, intended to improve accessibility guidance for three major groups: users with cognitive or learning disabilities, users with low vision, and users with disabilities on mobile devices.

WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind), a non-profit organization based at the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University, which conducts an annual study on accessibility recently released its 2020 results. The findings show that across one million home pages, more than 60 million distinct accessibility errors were detected (with an average of ~60 errors). In fact, the number of errors increased 2.1% between February 2019 and February 2020. Clearly, the vast majority of websites still lack adherence to ADA and WCAG standards.

While we have championed this cause and provided web accessibility and compliance offerings for years, we’ve seen a significant uptick in clients investing in these services recently—such that we believe ADA and WCAG compliance to now be a standard best practice for all web properties. There are two principle reasons for this:

1. You could get sued. As evidenced in recent years, the number of lawsuits alleging that plaintiffs with a disability could not use websites because they were not coded to work with assistive technologies (e.g., screen readers) increased by more than 150% between 2017-2018. (Please also note that the firm citing this, Seyfarth, is a RubyLaw client and has implemented a strict application of ADA and WCAG.)

2. You could lose traffic. While we can’t comment on #1, we can say that any digital experience that doesn’t resonate with your audience could result in an increased bounce rate—whether it’s compliance- or simply content-related. Expect, then, that a failure to adhere to WCAG standards will result in a loss of traffic by anyone with accessibility requirements. 

If neither lawsuits nor traffic losses concern you, consider this: Implementing ADA and WCAG standards can actually improve your SEO rank and increase your traffic. Quite simply, by implementing SEO best practices, including things like adding image alt tags and captions, video transcriptions and tags, and link anchor texts, your website will rank higher and be in closer compliance with ADA and WCAG standards.

Whether you’re about to begin a new website initiative, or if you’re thinking about upgrading your current properties to be more accessible, here are four things to evaluate:

1. Consider all audiences—While you may have many website visitors, you will only have a single opportunity to engage them for the first time. Remember that their backgrounds and levels of ability may differ. Consider all audiences when planning the experience you want your site to deliver.

2. Define your level of compliance—It may not be requisite for your site to adhere to ADA and WCAG in the strictest sense. But, it is critical to know how compliant you wish to be, and to define that from the outset.

3. Develop flexibly—Work with a development team that can support not only the level of compliance you wish to provide today, but one that can also allow you to tighten or loosen those restrictions over time. This could have budgetary implications, so it’s best to work with a team that can think strategically and creatively—while also having a full understanding of how to develop within an accessible environment.

4. Maintain and evolve standards—Having an expert partner is only half of it; educating yourself and keeping a watchful eye on current standards is also important, particularly as the stakes continue to rise over time.

Having implemented more than a dozen large-scale websites across the spectrum of accessibility compliance, our team of experts can assist you if your firm is exploring the best approach to ADA and WCAG compliance. Please contact us to schedule a conversation.

If you’d like to read more on this topic, please visit some of our previous articles:

Web Accessibility: The Benefits & Consequences of Compliance
Four Steps to Improve the Accessibility of Your Website
Web Accessibility: Giving access to everyone

Here are some additional resources:

WCAG 2.1 at a Glance
WCAG 2.0 (Checklist)
W3C Guidelines