Passed 27 years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates equal rights and opportunities for people with disabilities. Title III of the ADA specifically mandates that all public and private institutions and spaces render themselves accessible to those with sensory, cognitive, and physical limitations–think of Braille on store signs, sound-enabled walk signals, on-ramps carved into sidewalks. But over the past year and a half, a string of lawsuits filed on behalf of people with disabilities against companies indicates that one crucial space has been bypassed in effectively interpreting the purpose of the ADA: the internet.
It makes sense that the ADA’s mandates around internet accessibility would be fuzzy. In 1990, when the law was passed, the web was a fringe pastime. Why concern yourself with e-commerce accessibility when Americans were still doing their shopping in brick-and-mortar stores? Now, however, 79% of people in the U.S. shop online; in that and so many other ways, including access to financial services, the internet has effectively transitioned from a privilege to a necessity. And Mark Lacek, a marketing CEO who was tipped off to the string of web-accessibility related lawsuits by his business attorney, saw an opportunity to help companies build ADA compliance into their online operations.
Last October, Lacek launched Accessible360, which, he tells Fast Company, functions as the internet-accessibility equivalent of a building instructor. With a team composed of variously disabled people, Accessible360 conducts audits of companies’ websites, testing for various accessibility measures spelled out in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, level AA (the global standard against which websites are measured for accessibility). Can the whole site be navigated with the use of keyboard tabs, for those who cannot operate a mouse? Is it set up so that a screen reader can detect every word printed on the page, and read it back to someone who cannot see? Is the contrast set high enough to enable those with impaired vision to make out the words? The auditors then go back to the company with a set of recommendations. Those tweaks, Lacek says, are often addressed by the company’s internal developers, both to preserve security and to cut costs. The Accessible360 team then performs another audit to ensure the recommendations have been addressed, and implements the proprietary software they’ve developed to continually scan the site for updates and new developments that need to be made accessible.
“It’s not that developers can’t program websites in order to be accessible,” Lacek says. “They’ve just never been trained because no one has raised it as an issue. When they write code, they write it for the able-bodied.” Accessible360’s staff of 15, around half of whom have a disability, “acts as a bridge for companies between not understanding what needs to be done, by training their staff in how to make their sites accessible,” Lacek adds. To date, Accessible360 has worked with 45 clients including Dairy Queen, Room & Board, and Dash, the internet stronghold of the Kardashian empire–and they’ll soon be expanding more into mobile formats and apps. “This issue is sector agnostic,” Lacek says. “If you have a presence on the internet, you need to be accessible.”
Though still a relatively new company, Accessible360 has made it to the semi-finalist round in this year’s Minnesota Cup, the largest statewide startup competition in the country. John Stavig, director of the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, tells Fast Company that Accessible360’s strength comes from jumping into an emerging sector, but differentiating itself from its small number of competitors by characterizing web accessibility not as a mandate with which to comply “but as a positive in terms of how to better reach a range of customers.”
Depending on the size and complexity of a company’s website, undergoing an audit and securing constant monitoring from Accessible360 might cost a company anywhere between $25,000 and $100,000. (That fee does not include the cost of actually making the necessary tweaks, which is often done internally.) But it’s a cost that companies should consider not as a buffer against getting sued but as an acquisition strategy. Lacek, who left a marketing agency to found Accessible360, sees companies working to make their sites more accessible as both an ethical move and also smart business. As of the 2010 census, there were nearly 57 million people with disabilities in the United States, who hold around $180 billion in disposable spending power. But upon arriving at a site that they cannot easily navigate, 71% of people with disabilities will leave the site and not return, Lacek says.
For companies, bringing their websites up to accessibility standards not only ensures that they remain open to this significant customer base, but it also protects against losing a swath of the population as it ages. By 2050, the number of people over 65 will double, and with age, many people grow to develop difficulties with mobility, vision, and hearing that render websites difficult to use. “What if I turn 75 and can no longer use the same sites I’ve been using my whole life?” Lacek asks. “Will I have to abandon the brands I’ve been loyal to?”
And it could also be instructive for companies to consider the case of supermarket chain Winn-Dixie, which in June lost a court case after challenging a blind Florida man’s assertion that its inaccessible website violated the ADA. The case was splashed all over local and national news, and ended with Winn-Dixie agreeing to set aside $250,000 to make its site navigable for all. “Ultimately, that’s just bad public relations,” Lacek says. “If your name shows up in the paper as a company that’s not willing to become accessible, what kind of message does that send?”
Those arguments aside, Gene Lewis, who founded the advertising and web design agency Digital Pulp in 1996, has come up against another persistent myth: that making websites accessible compromises design. But good design, he tells Fast Company, is built around principles of “accessibility, simplicity, readability, and clarity.” The concept of universal design, he adds, which manifests physically in the on-ramps installed on sidewalks, intended to help the wheelchair-bound but really beneficial for everyone–parents with strollers, kids on bicycles, tourists with rolling suitcases. “The idea is that if you make a design better for a specific group of people, it ends up being better for everyone.” Accessible website design also boosts a site’s SEO. Much of what makes a site accessible is good implementation of HTML standard coding practices–proper headings, page structures, and clear division of text and images. Adding closed-captioning to videos so that screen readers can describe visual content also makes it easier for search engines like Google to comprehend and index those videos: A study by Discovery Digital Networks found that adding captions to videos increased their views by 7.32%.
Like any issue that contains a shred of moral-ethical justification, clarifying the legal framework to support web accessibility faces an uncertain future under the Trump regime. In 2012, the Department of Justice issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking, soliciting feedback on the implementation of stricter regulations around internet accessibility, and signaling that changes to Title III of the ADA on this issue were forthcoming. In the intervening years, the DOJ continued to issue similar promises, as real progress stalled. But in late July of this year, the DOJ placed those proposed plans on an inactive list, stonewalling any progress on new accessibility regulations at the federal level.
However, the lack of federal clarification is unlikely to stop the tide of lawsuits calling out individual companies for their lack of accessibility (though the House is also considering a bill that would make filing complaints under the ADA vastly more difficult). Since 2015, over 240 businesses have been brought to court, and thousands more have been settled. As part of a 2014 case brought against Lucky Brand jeans, the DOJ created a new standard against which other cases have been litigated: “[T]he Department has long considered websites to be covered by Title III despite the fact that there are no specific technical requirements for websites currently in the regulation or ADA Standards.” Lacek, accordingly, is optimistic that federal waffling won’t stop the efforts to create a more accessible internet, website by website. The strongest companies are those that have a global reach, which necessitates shifting operations online. Failing to bring along a near quarter of the population by leaving their websites inoperable for people with disabilities is both a poor business strategy and a breach of civil rights.