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Expert Insight: Navigating the E-Commerce Challenges of ADA Compliance

Millions of Americans have disabilities that affect how they use the Internet. And many American online retailers are confused about how (and sometimes if) they should modify their online stores to accommodate these individuals.

The concept behind Web accessibility is straightforward: Just as the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that people with disabilities must be able to access public buildings and use the same services as able-bodied people, so too should people with disabilities be able to access and navigate the Internet.

Unfortunately, the reality is far more complicated. Consider the diverse challenges presented in these scenarios:

  • Individuals who are deaf need captions to understand Web videos.
  • Individuals with impaired vision need text and background colors to be high contrast, or they need to be able to resize text to read content on websites.
  • Individuals with limited manual dexterity or vision disabilities need to use assistive technology (such as switch devices) or keyboard alternatives for mouse commands.
  • Individuals with intellectual or vision disabilities will encounter difficulty using sites that require timed responses if there is not a way to indicate they need more time to respond.

What the law says (and doesn’t say)

The ADA became law in 1990. This set of civil rights regulations prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The ADA is divided into five titles (i.e., sections) that relate to different areas of public life.

However, it’s important to note that in 1990, when the act was passed into law, the Internet didn’t exist. Even as recently as 2010, the Department of Justice published Title II and Title III updates to the ADA without explicitly providing prescriptive guidelines for Web accessibility. Guidance on Title III, which governs access for Public Accommodations and Commercial Facilities, does state that it covers public websites. Due to this lack of prescriptive guidance, the courts should enforce the ADA on a case-by-case basis, and that future revisions to the Act are planned. 

The guidance further states that public entities must ensure individuals with disabilities have equal access to Web-based programs and activities, unless doing so would result in an undue financial and administrative burden or fundamental alteration.

Why the courts get involved

The challenge for e-commerce companies is that the ADA does not explicitly address the specifics of how to define and confirm online compliance. Instead, it falls to the courts to determine how ADA standards apply to websites — or whether these standards apply at all.

For example, as Siteimprove notes, “Various courts around America have ruled that commercial websites are places of public accommodation and thus subject to ADA rules. Other cases have concluded that websites are bound by ADA regulations if there is a close ‘nexus’ between the site and a physical location … Other courts have decided that the ADA as written simply does not offer any protections for online users.”

Not surprisingly, federal Web accessibility lawsuits have increased in recent years, tripling in 2018 alone.

Best practices for improving Commerce accessibility

The best course of action for US-based e-commerce companies is to adopt the latest version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). 

To ensure your website is accessible, the following best practices should be:

1. Hire an ADA auditor.

Expertise matters. Courts frequently rule against companies simply because the “experts” involved in the court case lack an understanding of Web accessibility best practices.

2. Audit your base platform.

Auditors will find deficiencies with every platform. For multi-site implementations, it’s typically best to remediate issues with your base platform before creating additional sites.

3. Have the auditor review designs before you finalize them for development.

Some designs won’t be compliant due to issues with navigation or content. Fix design issues prior to development.

4. Audit third-party integrations. 

Auditors will identify accessibility deficiencies with many of your third-party vendors for content, social, reviews and more. Give the audit results to your third-party vendors so they can address the accessibility issues with their product.

5. Periodically audit your site.

Keep up with compliance issues by auditing your site regularly, especially after significant changes, such as a redesign.

6. Train your development team on Web accessibility.

ADA auditors typically offer training for content and development. Take advantage of free training options and tutorials from W3C and Google.

7. Standardize on several testing tools.

There are hundreds of tools and they don’t provide identical results. Developer tools offer many choices for browser plugins. Screen readers come in many variations, so test several.

One important element to consider when adapting an e-commerce site to make it ADA or WCAG compliant is that any solution will likely need to be built on top of the existing e-commerce platform — and this platform may have its own compliance issues, separate from the website itself. For this reason, with a typical remediation project, as much as 15% of the code may need to be custom created to address these accessibility and compliance issues that may originate with the e-commerce platform. 

The key is to be aware of the issue, be strategic about the process, and test everything. Ultimately, though, becoming ADA or WCAG compliant is worth the effort. Ensuring every individual — no matter their abilities — has the same access to the internet and is able to navigate websites with relative ease is not only good for business, it’s good for society, too.

Brian Wolfe is VP of commerce at Capgemini DCX.

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