How Changes in Web Accessibility Standards May Affect Your Website

What Updates to the Standards and Recent Court Cases May Mean For You

New technology simplifying complex processes
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The U.S. Census Bureau reports that about 8.1 million people in the U.S. have difficulty seeing, 2 million of whom are blind. They are part of the 19 percent of the United States’ population which has some form of a disability. If your website does not work for these people, you will very likely lose their business and drive them away from your website. Additionally, changes to website accessibility standards have now introduced possible legal troubles for sites that do not comply with digital ADA compliance.

Changes to the Section 508 Standards

Federally-funded websites have been dealing with accessibility compliance for years. Those sites have long had to adhere to a set of rules known as the Section 508 Standards. These standards “apply to information and communication technology…that can be accessed by the public and employees with disabilities.” If your site is for a Federal agency, or if you receive Federal funds for your site, you likely already meet these important standards, but you should be aware of changes that have been introduced to them.

The Section 508 Standards were established in 1973. A lot has obviously changed since that time, which means the 508 Standards have had to change as well. An important update to those standards happened in 1998 and another is slated for January 2017. This recent update’s focus is on modernizing the standards in consideration of how dramatically devices have changed. The exact phrasing around these changes explains that they are due to the “convergence of technologies and the increasingly multi-functional capabilities of products such as smart phones.”

Basically, the devices today are more complex and capable than ever before. The clear lines between what one device can do and what another does is no longer so clear or well defined. Device capabilities now bleed into each other, which is why the latest update to the 508 Standards focuses on capabilities rather than rigid product categories.

In addition to a better way to organize the standards in light of today’s device landscape, these changes also bring the 50 Standards in line “with international standards, most notably the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0).”  Having these two important sets of accessibility standards in agreement makes it easier for web designers and developers to create sites that are accessible and which meet these guidelines.

Even if your website met the 508 Standards when it was developed, this does not mean that it will continue to meet them once the updates take effect. If your site is required to comply with these standards, it would be a good idea to have its accessibility reviewed against this latest update.

Website Accessibility Goes to Court

Federally-funded websites have dealt with accessibility standards for many years, but websites that did not fall under that “Federally-funded” umbrella have rarely made it a priority in their site plans. This is often due to lack of time or budget or even just simple ignorance to the larger picture of website accessibility itself.  Many people simply fail to consider whether their website can be easily used by people who have a disability. That sentiment may be changing in light of a landmark legal decision that was handed down in June of 2017.

In the first case of its kind that went to trial (all previous cases were settled out of court), the retailer Winn-Dixie was found liable for having an inaccessible website under Title III of ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). The basis of this case was that a blind user was unable to use the site to download coupons, order prescriptions, and find store locations. Winn-Dixie argued that making the site accessible would have been an undue burden on them. The judge in the case disagreed, saying that the reported $250,000 it would have cost the company to make the site accessible “paled in comparison” to the $2 million they spent on the site itself.

This case raises a number of questions for all websites, whether they are Federally mandated to meet accessibility standards or not. The fact that a private company can be found liable for having an inaccessible website should make all websites take notice and consider their own accessibility. If this case does, indeed, set a precedent and establishes websites as an extension of a business, and therefore beholden to the same kinds of ADA regulations that a physically building would need to meet, then the days of anyone being able to ignore site accessibility will certainly be over. That may be a good thing in the end. After all, making websites accessible for all customers, including those with a disability, is more than just good for business – it really is the right thing to do.

Maintaining Accessibility

Building a site that meets accessibility standards, or making changes to an existing site so that it complies, is really just the first step in an ongoing process. To ensure you remain compliant, you need to also have a plan for auditing your site regularly.

As standards change, your site could suddenly fall out of compliance. Regular audits will identify if changing guidelines mean that changes must also be made to your site.

Even when standards remain consistent, your website could fall out of compliance simply by getting a content update. A simple example is when an image is added to your site. If appropriate ALT text is not also added with that image, the page that includes that new addition will fail from an accessibility standpoint.  This is just one small example, but it should illustrate how a tiny change on the site, if not done properly, can cause a site’s compliance to come into question.  To avoid this, you should plan for team training so that everyone who can edit your website understands what is expected of them – and you will also want to schedule those accessibility audits to make sure the training is working and the standards you have set for the site are being met.