In the age of lockdowns and shelter in place, Internet use has skyrocketed. Some estimates show that total website hits have surged by up to 70%. Also, e-commerce sales are projected to see a boost of up to $175 billion during 2020. Even as quarantines have eased in many areas, the trend of people staying at home continues—which means time online will remain high.

With this change in consumer behavior, many businesses have scrambled to upgrade their online presence. However, if the issue of website accessibility isn’t included in the process, it could end up causing big headaches for the unprepared.

Everybody Is eCommerce Now

From restaurants to groceries to gardening tools to investing, just about every brand has—or is planning for—some kind of online sales option. With the COVID-19 crisis, many have expanded or ramped up their online service considerably. For instance, some eateries that never delivered food in the past have had to resort to this tactic to stay in business. 

Many companies have re-invented their online presence to adapt to the new realities we all face. For any website, app, or digital platform, however, the risk of being sued for ADA website non-compliance continues to be a real and present danger.

What’s The Risk?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including all places open to the general public. Even before the current crisis, it has been ruled, or settled, in thousands of court cases, that these places of public accommodation now include websites. Today, as a business’s digital and physical presence become increasingly intertwined, access to both aspects of the business are important for any user.

Think about it. Some brands exist exclusively online, and if a blind person can’t navigate their website, it’s like being locked out of a brick and mortar store. People with visual or physical disabilities can use adaptive technology, such as screen reading devices, to navigate websites. However, if the site isn’t coded properly, then the devices won’t work, and the disabled visitor cannot access the website’s goods or services.

The Legal Landscape

Rocky Tsai, an expert attorney in technology litigation risk management, has this to say about today’s risk environment:

“In our current world of physical distancing, the increased restrictions on direct access to physical places of public accommodation will inevitably lead to a correspondingly increased emphasis on remote access to online services. With this increase in web-based commerce will come another wave of ADA website accessibility litigation.”

The legal consequences can be quite painful. For instance, violation of ADA guidelines could trigger what lawyers call “injunctive relief”. In a nutshell, this could end up with the defendant being held responsible for legal fees. Meanwhile, state disability discrimination laws may provide for additional remedies, such as damages. While some high profile ADA website compliance lawsuits have ended in millions of dollars in damages paid, even individual small and medium sized businesses have had to pay thousands of dollars per settlement.

What The Experts Say You Should Do

Tsai recommends the following strategy to avoid an ADA compliance lawsuit (if it sounds like too much, keep reading below):

  1. Businesses should craft a company-wide accessibility policy committing to WCAG standards (the international accessibility standards). A business without an accessibility policy will be viewed by a court as a higher risk for technical deficiencies, thus making a court injunction more likely.
  2. Companies should invest in a website accessibility audit. This reveals exactly where your site fails to meet ADA guidelines.
  3. Businesses should design any new customer-facing digital content to be accessible to disabled persons. For example, the website content should include screen reader and keyboard accessibility, properly coded structure information (e.g. alt tags for images), usable labeling of fillable forms, and purchasing mechanisms accessible by disabled persons.

An Easy Way to Comply

Tsai also recommends that businesses keep a record of IT personnel trained in WCAG guidelines as well as periodic training updates since accessibility specifications are constantly evolving. Since many businesses may not have the resources for this in-house, accessibility services, such as Adally, exist to fill the gap and make sure companies can remain compliant and minimize risk.

COVID-19 may have changed the way the world does business forever. Companies that continue to succeed will meet the challenges and maintain a proactive accessibility strategy. 

Wondering if your website is ADA compliant? Get a free Top Level Homepage Scan & Report today.

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