Understanding ADA Compliance and How It Relates to eCommerce Websites
September 8, 2020
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law by former President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. The ADA has been instrumental in improving quality of life and making public places more accessible to millions of Americans with physical disabilities. But these benefits often don’t extend to the digital world.
Though most eCommerce companies emphasize the importance of a great customer experience, many online stores are nearly unusable by those who have disabilities that prevent them from typing, clicking a mouse, or even seeing images and website content.
If we really want to enable great customer experiences, we must focus on all customers, not just those who are able-bodied.
In this blog, I’ll examine the importance of accessibility and its benefits for your company. I’ll also discuss how a recent court case, Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, could set a landmark precedent that would change ADA compliance for online retailers forever.
Understanding ADA Title III – Why Does It Matter?
The ADA was created to protect the civil rights of disabled individuals and prevent discrimination.
When it comes to the discussion of accessibility and eCommerce, we’re most interested in ADA Title III, which states: “No individual may be discriminated against on the basis of disability with regards to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.”
Among other categories, “places of public accommodation” includes stores, educational institutions, restaurants, places of recreation, and much more.
Are eCommerce Websites 'Places Of Public Accommodation?'
When the ADA was signed into law in 1990, the dot-com bubble was still looming far off on the horizon, and most people didn’t even know what email was.
As you may have guessed, there were no legal provisions that specifically outlined the steps that websites, including eCommerce websites, must take to accommodate disabled people. But over the past few years, there has been an increase in court cases challenging this notion.
From 2017 to 2018 the number of cases filed in federal court under Title III of the ADA exploded – increasing 177%, from 814 such lawsuits in 2017 to 2,258 in 2018.
Let’s take a look at a few of these lawsuits:
• National Federation of the Blind vs. Target Corporation, 2006: Target was sued due to a website design that made it impossible for persons who had low vision or no vision to use the website.
Target argued the ADA applied only to physical spaces – and not to the Internet. The court ruled that commercial websites such as Target.com are required to be accessible under the ADA and awarded $3.7 million in attorney's fees and costs to the National Federation of the Blind.
• National Association of the Deaf vs. Netflix, 2012: The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) filed suit against Netflix, citing its lack of closed captioning for streaming video as a violation of the ADA. Netflix argued it was not a “place of public accommodation.”
A federal district court in Massachusetts was the first in the state to rule that the ADA applies to website-only businesses. Netflix settled out of court for $750,000 and agreed to caption all of its videos by the end of 2014.
• Juan Carlos Gil vs. Winn-Dixie Stores, 2012: The defendant claimed he was unable to access certain functions of the website, like coupons and a store locator. Again, the defense for Winn-Dixie claimed the ADA was not violated because Gil was not “denied physical access” to Winn-Dixie stores.
A Florida federal judge thought otherwise and issued the first web accessibility trial verdict against Winn-Dixie, requiring the company to publish an accessibility statement and take steps to ensure its website complied with accessibility guidelines.
Guillermo Robles vs. Domino’s Pizza, 2019: The Case That Could Change Everything
In 2016, Los Angeles citizen Guillermo Robles filed a lawsuit against Domino’s Pizza because he was unable to order pizza online. The Domino’s website was not compatible with screen readers or voice navigation, which are often used by low-vision and blind individuals to navigate the Internet.
In his suit, Robles specifically cited the ADA provision requiring “full and equal enjoyment of the goods and services…of any place of public accommodations.” Initially, the case was thrown out, but the 9th Circuit Court reversed its decision, and the case will now go to trial.
Domino’s tried to appeal the decision with the Supreme Court, arguing that the ADA did not apply to online websites and only applied to brick-and-mortar stores. This appeal was rejected.
Litigation is still ongoing for this case. But if the court rules in the favor of Robles, this could be a historic verdict – and confirm that all websites are “places of public accommodation” in the eyes of the ADA. Accessible websites would no longer be optional. They would be written into law.
What Makes A Website Accessible? Understanding Key Concepts
Wondering what specific steps can be taken to make a website more accessible? Let’s explain how certain website elements can be adjusted to make them usable for disabled individuals.
• Menus: To assist users who use screen readers, menus should be navigable by using Tab to go to the next element and Shift+Tab to go to the previous element. Menu buttons should be navigable using left and right arrows, and drop-down menus should be navigable using up-and-down arrows.
• Forms: When an error occurs in a form, users should be taken to the first invalid field, and a visual and text-based explanation must appear to inform the user of the error. In addition, a confirmation message that’s readable to a screen reader must be displayed when a form is submitted.
• Images: Images must have “alt” tags describing their content so that blind users can understand them. These “alt” tags can be left out of images that are purely decorative.
• Links: Links within text should be accessible using Tab key navigation. In addition, there must be a visual indicator if they will be opened in a new window, and this should be announced using hidden text or an HTML title for users of screen readers. Links should also be made more visible on a page and be a contrasting color so that those with low vision can easily recognize them.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. For more information, you can consult with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the leading set of guidelines related to designing accessible websites.
Site maps are essential for disabled individuals using screen readers. Using the easily-accessible Jeep site map, those using screen readers can quickly get an overview of the content on the website, and access the pages they need to use.
What Are the Business Benefits of Creating an ADA-Compliant Website?
• It’s the right thing to do: Everyone deserves a great online experience, so building an accessible website is the right thing to do. As the coronavirus pandemic has underscored, the Internet is an essential part of all of our lives, and that includes disabled individuals.
• Boost your sales: About 61 million adults in the U.S. live with a disability. That’s one in four people. With an accessible website, you can reach even more customers and enhance your overall sales.
• Avoid legal liability: Regardless of the outcome of any specific legal case, it seems likely that accessibility will become a requirement for eCommerce companies at some point in the future, and litigation over ADA compliance for websites is rising dramatically. The rate of web accessibility-related lawsuits and demand letters has risen by 300% since 2018 alone.
• Create a more usable website: Creating an easy-to-read, easy-to-navigate site benefits not only individuals with disabilities, but all users of the web as well. By adhering to the WCAG, you allow everyone — disabled or not — to quickly find the content they’re looking for. Some additional benefits of creating an ADA-complaint include:
• Less fatigue
• Increased speed
• Fewer errors
• A quicker learning curve
• Showcase innovative technology: Recently developed innovative technologies and design strategies have accelerated the techniques of accessibility, making it easier than ever before to create an ADA-compliant website. For example, using cascading style sheets (CSS) allows more flexible use of content and easier implementation of more dynamic models versus older, static HTML designs that often jumble content with formatting.
• Improve your search engine optimization: Following the WCAG not only helps you create an ADA-compliant website, many of the suggestions are also SEO best practices. For example, here are a few examples of WCAG guidelines as well as SEO best practices:
• Video transcripts
• Alt text for images
• Image captioning
• Meta tags
• Header tags (H1, H2, etc.)
• Sitemaps and breadcrumbs
• Link anchor text
By creating a compliant website, you can do the right thing, enhance your sales, and avoid legal costs – not to mention the bad PR that a lawsuit can cause for your company.
So start thinking about accessibility compliance on your eCommerce website now, and take the first steps toward a more accessible design.